Yoga in Action

I thought we might spend some time looking at ways in which to take our yoga practice into daily life. Asana, or posture, is only the third limb of Patañjali’s eight-limbed Ashtanga Yoga. Before we even get to what we think of as our formal practice—which, back in Patañjali’s time most likely consisted of seated meditation—we are told to see to the way we interact with the world around us and the way in which be behave towards ourselves.

The eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga are: the observances towards others, which Patañjali calls the Great Vow of Yoga, the self-imposed disciplines, posture, control of life-force, withdrawal of the senses, concentration, meditative absorption and enstasy (when consciousness is so turned in on itself it achieves a state of transformative bliss). The first four—the observances (yama), the disciplines (niyama), the postures (asana) and the control of life-force (pranayama) through the breath—are referred to as bahiranga sadhana, or the outward, external practice of Yoga.

If the long term goal of a yoga practice is to deepen our awareness, to expand our consciousness and to radically change our philosophical perspective, we often practice for less lofty short term benefits. Many of us come to yoga looking for better health, for the release of stress, for an easing of the challenges of daily life. A yoga practice that is not grounded in constructive behavior in one’s daily life, however, will often only reinforce destructive patterns. Competitiveness, body image issues, muscular tension and potentially injurious holding patterns will not miraculously dissolve simply because you do sun salutations and a few standing poses every day. The intention behind your efforts and the manner in which you execute your practice will make all the difference. Even if your asana and pranayama practice is flawless, if you hit the street and fall back into negative behaviors, then your hour or two of good work will be completely undone.

The Nature of Practice

Let us look at what Patañjali means by practice. Near the beginning of the Yoga Sutra, he gives us some solid, practical advice. Initially, the goal of yoga is to steady the mind, to clear it of chatter and random impulses. He defines practice (abhyasa) as the effort of will required to achieve stability in that calm and clear state, though not without a significant caveat:

But this practice becomes firmly grounded only after it has been properly cultivated without interruption for a long time.

You may well start to feel the benefits of your practice immediately, but you are only going to become well-grounded in the practice—able to summon up that calm and clear state with a minimum of effort, or even find yourself living permanently in a state of mental ease—after much dedicated effort. Patañjali has something to say about just this point:

The goal is near for those who practice with extreme intensity.

Thus, there will be a difference if the effort put into practice is mild, moderate or great.

There is now an entire field of scientific study devoted to training, practice and expertise. It has been shown that when a person gets a new job, he or she will change their behavior and the way they work in order to get better at the job, but only up to a certain point. Once a reasonable standard has been met, the person’s development then tails off. (1) In an earlier study (2), psychologists discovered that the most proficient solo concert pianists had trained for some 10,000 in their formative years, compared to 5,000 hours for the poorest performers and 2,000 hours for serious amateurs. (3) That’s about 5 years at 40 hours of practice a week, or 10 years at 20 hours, and so on.

It would be a daunting prospect to apply those numbers to a yoga practice. 8 hours a day, five days a week for five years is a lot of asana and out of reach of most human beings in the 21st Century. But, of course, the physical practice is only a small part of the equation. The simple techniques we learn and refine in the context of the physical practice we can take out into our daily life, driving to work, waiting in the checkout line at the grocery store, interacting with our coworkers, our family and loved ones. The entirety of your life can become a yoga practice, the hours of training the mind requires to achieve expertise and mastery of the state of yogic equanimity ticking away, moment by moment.

A Moment To Think

Practice is not, however, the only thing needed to achieve this desirably peaceful state of being. We also require an attitude of dispassion (vairagya).

Dispassion is mastered when all things outside oneself, be they directly perceived with the senses or conceptually understood, no longer evoke cravings or attachments.

The highest form of this dispassion comes when even the underlying qualities of the material universe cease to evoke craving or attachment and one becomes aware of one’s true self as separate from the material universe.

In order to have some conscious control over our responses to the world around us, we need to find a way to become aware of the thoughts and impulses that emerge from the deep recesses of our minds as they become manifest. Without that, our attention will forever become distracted and our actions will always be another link a chain of cause and consequence. We will always be the servant of events rather than the master of them. An attitude of dispassion gives us the time, even if that time is only a fraction of a second, to be objective in any given situation and to act consciously and with discernment.

In order to calm the mind and return it to what Patañjali considers its natural state we must practice being centered and mentally poised. We might be able to achieve that poise through sheer will-power, but such self-control is merely a holding, a containment of deeper forces. It may create external change, but the deep causes of our suffering, our distraction, our dissipation will not be eradicated. They may even be reinforced. We cannot effectively achieve the radical reorientation of our awareness that will free us from the suffering of everyday existence without an attitude of dispassion.

Practice is effortful, an adding of energy. Dispassion is effortless, a withdrawal of energy from those things that might unhinge us and effect the world around us in ways that are detrimental to ourselves and others. Practice without dispassion can lead to rigidity and inflexibility, whereas dispassion without practice can lead to ennui and melancholy. The practitioner must be at once purposeful and detached. You can see how this might take 10,000 hours to master.

Exercise: Abhyasa/Practice

The goal of this exercise is to give you the experience of working with the mind over an extended period. Decide for yourself before you begin the length of time you will practice this exercise. It could be half an hour or an hour. It could be an entire day. As you go about your regular activities, pause what you are doing as many times as you can remember and count ten of your breaths. At the end of the period of time, ask yourself these questions: How many times did you remember to count your breaths? If you did remember, how much did you resist and/or decide not to bother?

Exercise: Vairagya/Dispassion

This exercise is about becoming aware of your impulses. As with the previous exercise, decide in advance the length of time you will practice this. This exercise works better over a longer period of time, perhaps several hours or an entire day. You will need to choose one impulse on which to focus. Perhaps you have a habit, such as biting your nails or constantly checking your email. Perhaps you know you have a particular craving at a particular time of day, such as coffee in the mornings or some kind of snack in the afternoon. Choose an impulse that comes to you several times a day.

When you have the impulse, or feel the desire, you do not have to stop yourself. Do your best not to make this about self-denial. The purpose of the exercise is to develop self-awareness. Instead, simply acknowledge to yourself that the impulse has surfaced. Look back over your thoughts and recall the sequence of events. Say you bite your fingernails, for example. Recall the moment you realized you were biting them. Recall the moment when you brought your finger to your mouth. Recall the feeling that made you bring your finger to your mouth. Recall the moment before you had that feeling.

If you do this every time you have and/or succumb to the impulse, after a while see if you can observe the sequence of events as it happens. Once you are able to do this, see if you can allow yourself to pause between the feeling of the impulse and the resulting act. Again, you are not denying yourself anything here. Take that pressure off yourself. Simply allow yourself a moment of time, no matter how small, before giving energy to the impulsive act. Observe what happens to the impulses as you repeat the practice over time.

In the next installment of this series we will take a look at the first of Patañjali’s eight limbs of yoga: yama, or the observances towards others.


(1) Ericsson, K. A., and A. C. Lehmann, 1996,  ‘Expert and exceptional performance: Evidence on maximal adaptations on task constraints.’  *Annual Review of Psychology*, 47: 273-305.

(2) Ericsson, K. A., R. Th. Krampe, and C. Tesch-Römer, 1993,  ‘The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance.’ *Psychological Review*, 100: 363-406.

(3)Ericsson, K. A.,