There is no one “right” way to practice. Different styles of yoga may emphasize certain aspects of practice – asana, meditation, chanting, etc – but one is not better than the other. As you hopefully know by now, yoga is not an accomplishment, or something to use to judge yourself or others. Yoga is the act of stabilizing the mind and dissolving our sense of separateness. It gives us the ability to move, think and feel from a place of awareness.

The second book in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras gives suggestions on how to practice. The first concept introduced in it is Kriya Yoga or the yoga of action. It incorporates three of the niyamas (the personal practices and the second limb of yoga). They are tapas, svadyaya, and isvara pranidhana. If you read the sutras, you’ll find these words have a variety of english translations. Now, I’m no sanskrit scholar (although I have a friend who is!) but I find that using the sanskrit word rather than the english can free me from my personal and cultural biases about certain words.

Take tapas for example. It is translated as discipline, heat, intensity, desire, austerity, or fiery passion. Tapas is an inner fire, not the heat that comes from sweating profusely or being in a warm room. My favorite definition for it is discipline that comes from the desire to achieve the fruits of yoga. Discipline is one of those words that can be charged for some people. So that’s why I think it’s important to contemplate the underlying meaning and work with them within your best understanding. It’s also helpful to realize that your comprehension will grow and change with practice and time. Which brings in the second concept – svadyaya.

Svadyaya translates as study, self study, or study of the ancient texts. I include study of (or with) learned teachers. The idea behind svadyaya in yoga is to really observe how you feel, think and respond in your yoga practice. It’s useful to read and learn from others but ultimately you are your best authority on what works or doesn’t work for you. When employing svadyaya a question to ask might be “is this bringing me closer to the state of yoga?”.

Isvara pranidhana is often translated as surrender to God (or a higher power). This was definitely the most challenging niyama definition for me. Over time, I have been able to craft a meaning that fits for me. Dedication from a place of fullness and humility is what I’ve come up with. I like to joke with my students that I don’t care what they believe in (or not) as long as they realize there is something bigger than themselves out there!

These are not rules. Think of them as suggestions, tools, or guideposts to use along the path. My advice is to try one out and see if it fits. Don’t throw it away at first glance. If something doesn’t feel right you can set it aside and try something else. Who knows, with some discipline, self study and dedication, you might notice changes that makes you want to try those things you set aside again.

Most disciplines (music, art, sports) require dedicated practice of skills over time. How we practice influences our mind state and sets the course of our path. Infusing our efforts with enthusiasm, focus, and dedication may be obvious to some. Less obvious is the need for detachment (non attachment) to our efforts and outcomes.

In yoga, we use the word “practice” quite a bit. It’s important to remember that practice is a noun and a verb. Essentially, we practice our practice. Which begs the question, “what are we practicing and how are we practicing it?”.

One potential answer comes from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. In the first three sutras yoga is defined as “the ceasing of the fluctuations of the mind”. Patanjali then tells us in Sutra  1.12 Abhyasa vairagyabhyam tannirodhah (practice and detachment are cultivated to still the fluctuations of the mind).

At first glance, practice and detachment may seem like opposing instructions. However, the brilliance of pairing these concepts is that when we apply the actions (verbs) of practice and detachment in a manner that focuses our yoga practice (noun), we get us closer to the goal of yoga.

We are always practicing something. Often, we practice worrying, getting angry, being busy, obsessing over the past or future, etc. And guess what? We get better at those things as we practice them. Yoga challenges us to observe our mind state. Is it becoming more stable with your efforts? How does your mind state change when you stop trying to achieve in your asana? In other words, are you able to detach from your perceived goal of yoga and move toward the goal that Patanjali presents?

I like to remind my students that we are not practicing in order to perfect anything. We’re already perfect! We are practicing so that we can observe the process of nudging ourselves toward our consciously chosen goals. Detaching from judgement, achievement or whatever other results we are hoping to obtain frees us up to fully embody the present moment. And that is the ultimate goal of yoga.