Personal Practice in Yoga [The What, How and Why of Consistent Practice]
The question of whether to have a personal practice in yoga revolves around what yoga is to you. Is yoga a means to an end for you or is it a part of you, a deep part of you that touches your very being? Is the practice of yoga for you an integration of all that you feel and believe?
The development of a consistent practice, whether it incorporates yoga or meditation or pranayama, or any combination of the three—or indeed anything else— is the key to the acceptance of a peaceful approach to life, one of being at one with everything. The act of surrender needed for this is at the heart of you touching your inner being, your core.
Why a Yoga Practice
Developing a personal yoga practice is the difference between practicing yoga as an exercise and adopting it as a lifestyle.
But what does it mean for yoga to be a lifestyle? This surely goes further than yoga being a superficial add-on?
All of us have experienced times when it felt as though everything was coming apart, disintegrating around us into so many pieces, and we were without a way of holding them together. Yet what is most fragmented and chaotic about the situation is not the events themselves, but the state of our own minds. On the other hand, we have also had occasions—albeit temporary—when we have experienced a state of integration. This is a state in which our minds perceive things clearly, when an underlying sense of order seems to prevail, and we feel a full sense of love for everything around us. In short, we feel free.
Reintegration is the process of bringing us back to that state again. It is the process of changing a wandering mind into a centred one, a wanting mind into a contented one, a self indulging mind into a self-fulfilling one. It is a process called yoga.
Integration and Non-Duality
In my mind yoga is about the concept of integration, integration of body, mind and soul.
There is a tension in yoga philosophy between a dual and a non-dual point of view. From another perspective it is a contrast between a transcendent and an integrative approach.
From a transcendent perspective it is about trying to achieve something, improve what you are. It is based on seeking to get beyond the feeling that you are not enough. From an integration perspective it is about being already perfect and integrating your whole being with who you are. This is a simplistic explanation but, hopefully, a helpful one.
The world of yoga is confused about this situation resulting in competing attitudes to what yoga is for or about.
Duality and Non-Duality
Patanjali’s Key Dualism: The Seer & The Seen, by Yogijulian, provides a simple key:
Consciousness (Purusha) and Matter (Prakriti) are two distinct things, there is no God.
Patanjali’s Classical Yoga (dual)
Consciousness and Matter are two distinct things, there is a God. By becoming identified with Purusha (consciousness) and disentangling oneself from Prakriti (the material world)—including the body and mind—one can come to know God.
Advaita Vedanta (provisional non-dual)
God is the all-pervading, ever-present nature of all things, Purusha and Prakriti are one; but we live in a world of illusion or Maya, in which we are unable to see this until we awaken.
Tantra – (non-dual)
Everything that exists is a manifestation of the one Reality that is pure consciousness and bliss. Prakriti evolves through all the forms of the material world without ever losing it’s nature as pure consciousness (Purusha).
Personally I favour the tantric (non-dual) approach. My practice of yoga is about touching the pure consciousness of my being, about connecting with my bliss, and touching what I call Universal Consciousness.
The Difference Between a Class and Personal Practice
Personal practice is about touching the state of integration that A G Mohan talked about above. This can involve any approach that does this for you, remember that yoga is broad enough to encompass what feels right for you. For that you can include hatha yoga of various forms, pranayama and sitting meditation. The key to linking all these together is the attitude of mind that they are approached with.
A G Mohan went on to say,
We can also use the word samadhi—or unity—to describe this state of integration. It is a state in which we are entirely absorbed or joined with the object of perception. No separation exists. In short, the state of integration is yoga.
This state of integration, or unity, is not something we create from scratch by diligent study or practice. At our centre we are already integrated. We are all inherently capable of clear perception. The deepest state within us is always one of integration. Our minds are what mask that clarity, causing distortion and errors in action and judgement that lead to distress.
Personal practice is about you and yourself, attending a class is partly connecting with other like-minded people and partly learning from a teacher. These a both valid things to do but on their own theydo not enable the integration I am talking about.
Krishnamacharya advocated for one on one teaching to enable a student to really learn the full spread of yoga.
A well-known ancient saying in India holds that the attitude of the student determines the quality of the teacher. Reflecting on the quality of my teacher, I wonder: was my sincere interest in personal transformation and spirituality responsible for my good fortune? Perhaps it was destiny or the grace of the Divine. Whatever the reason, I recognised my guru, the yogi Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, when I attended a lecture in 1971.
In hindsight we recognise important forks in our life-path—events or opportunities that change us. I now see that meeting Krishnamacharya was the most important event in my life. Krishnamacharya's presence and speech attracted me deeply, and I was certain that I had met a master of extraordinary knowledge and accomplishment. In a brief hour, the seed of a fundamental change was sown in me, a seed that would grow and direct my life in the years to come.
Think about that when you choose which class to attend.
How to Create a Personal Practice
Having chosen to deepen your approach there is the question of how to go about creating a personal practice. Not knowing how to do this scares off many people, and keeps them locked into just attending classes, thereby missing out on what yoga really has to offer.
I attended a workshop a few years back with Swami Divyananda, an independent swami who used to be part of the Integral Yoga organisation. The focus was on developing a meditation practice. Most of the time was spent exploring various meditation techniques. However at the end she addressed the question of meditating on a daily basis. In answer to the question of how you set up such a regular practice she responded with, "You just get up in the morning, put on your whites and sit down to meditate." I took that advice and proceeded to meditate every morning for over three years. Over that time I played around with how to do it, but I never wavered from actually doing it.
It is important to choose a regular time and place for your practice. A corner of a room, or a room of its own. It doesn't matter which, just make the space. On a recent city break to Granada my wife and I stayed in a small apartment. She chose a corner of the bedroom and I chose a corner of the sitting room. This worked because I tend to get up early, and we tend to practice first thing in the morning. At home we each have our own rooms. We practice separately because we have each built our own routines.
Collect books and objects that will support you. I have a small altar that helps me to focus my thoughts on what is important to me. In pride of place is a small wooden buddha that I found in Bali. It represents me sitting in silent meditation. It reminds me of what I am there to do. Creating an environment in this way can make an enormous difference to your frame of mind.
It may take some time to develop a regular physical yoga practice. Its nature and content will depend on who is, or has been, a teacher for you. It can be a combination of different types in a flow that works for you. My practice is a combination of Yin Yoga, Hatha Yoga and Vinyasa Flow. I mix the styles I have learned to bring variety and interest to what I do.
As well as relying on the yoga I have been taught, I have a number of books that I use on a regular basis. Among them are:
- The Heart of Yoga by T K V Desikachar
- Yoga for Body, Breath and Mind by A G Mohan
- Yoga, The Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness by Erich Schiffman
- The Complete Guide to Yin Yoga by Bernie Clark
These cover all the bases for me and have a wealth of advice and guidance that backs up the physical classes I do. I practice Breathing and Movement with J Brown and Hatha Yoga with Brahmani (an advanced Integral Yoga teacher).
Meditation and Pranayama
For me meditation is not just an essential part of my practice, it is the reason I do the rest of it. For me meditation is about sitting silently in a cross-legged position and listening to what is beyond my mind.
The Practice of meditation is about consciously establishing a line of communication between your mind and Infinite Mind—a line of communion. The result is on-going non-verbal communion/communication with the Infinite in the form of spontaneous, intuitive revelation, specific and appropriate to the moment, wherever you find yourself. Through the regular practice of meditation you can learn to communicate with the ocean part of you, the as yet unclaimed part of you, the greater aspect of you that has always been in doubt, that you have not yet recognised as yourself.
There are many types of meditation that you might take up, such as guided meditations with apps such as Insight Timer, meditating to music, chanting mantras or doing japa meditation (using japa beads to guide you). There are many opinions on what meditation really is, take some time to find out for yourself what works for you. I favour silent sitting.
Pranayama is great aid to focusing you mind and body in readiness for meditation. You need to learn its practices from a teacher who can properly show you the techniques involved. It is one of the eight limbs of yoga laid out by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras, and is generally thought to be an essential part of any practice.
How to Maintain a Practice
A personal practice cannot be an add-on to your life, it has to be an essential part of how you live. It also needs to be consistent. I practice six days a week, giving my body a rest from Friday lunchtime to Sunday afternoon. Such a recovery time is the equivalent of practicing savasana after a physical yoga session.
Consistency over time is critical in deepening your practice. Your body and mind need to become accustomed to the process so that you cease to question whether you do it or not. That is the essential key, doing it whether you feel like it or not. What you do may shift and change. It may just be a short meditation one day and a longer yin yoga session the next. That flow will follow how you feel and what you mind and body needs on any particular day. But doing it should never be in question.
I have a schedule I work to that enables me to fit my day around it. I am what the Indians call a householder, that is distinct from being an ascetic, or swami, who dedicates their life completely to spiritual practice.
There are two aspects to spirituality. One is our action, and the other is our attitude toward that action. Actions can vary from person to person but the attitude, the spiritual attitude, can be practised by all people, at all places, at all times and in all relationships. This is where the practice of spirituality in family life comes in.
Since developing a personal practice my life has shifted to be more peaceful, more centred and more relaxed. I have improved my physical, mental and spiritual being. It continues to shift and change but I surrender to where it leads me.
Develop your own unique practice and see your life transform.
Yoga teaches us that everything changes. Both the positive but also the painful things in life come and go. Knowing this and understanding this on a deeper level makes it easier to accept and stay present and positive, also through the hard times.