What is practicing yoga?

What is practicing yoga? For Sri Aribindo, author of The Integral Yoga, asana (or posture practice) is only one  part of the practice of yoga. For those of us who practice ashtanga yoga, there are seven other aspects (limbs) that constitute the practice. And it takes the whole of your waking hours to do the practice, not just ninety minutes on the yoga mat. Aurobindo says “the first process of yoga is to open the ranges of the inner being and to live from there outward, governing one’s outward life by an inner light and force.” That’s a full-time job.

Still, it’s interesting to see how even as a regular practitioner, I find myself feeling anxious over not being as regular in my asana practice as I would like. I’m not sure what constitutes “regular” for the average yogi. People often ask me, “How many times a week do you do yoga?” And I want to answer “I do yoga all the time,” but I know what they mean. They want to know many times I practice the postures in a yoga class? To be sure, regularity of asana practice varies from person to person, and it even varies from season to season. There are times when it’s really, really hard to carve out the time to get to a class; and then other times when I can go every day.

Currently, I’m in an intensive teacher training, and my teachers, Theresa and Calvin Curameng, have asked for a minimum of four sessions a week. But this has not happened for me. I consider the obstacles: A time consuming job. Fatigue. Bodily pain–neck, low back, hip. A need to keep my household and daily life orderly and beautiful. A large number of people who desire time with me (and me with them). On some level, these obstacles might be worked with in a way that allows me to do more asana. I could let the laundry pile up. I could postpone grading papers. I could not meet with a former student who wants advice on graduate schools. But as I honestly try to examine my life right now, and my practice, which is a huge part of my life, I have to say that I am making some good choices about when to release myself from asana.  I never want asana practice to become a burden, a “should” in my life. It has always been a joyful event and I want that to continue.

So this week has been typical in that it’s been packed with duties. Even so, I was pretty sure I could get three practices in during the week, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. That seemed a doable goal. I can make the Monday and the Wednesday night practice because I just barrel on through those busy days, and rush to the studio as soon as I can get away from work. I’ve just decided that those are going to be long days, and I roll with it. But I’m not sure how well I roll: There’s always a sense of rushing, pushing, striving as I try to hang on til 10:00 p.m. But I’ve lived with those feelings, knowing that devotion to practice requires sacrifices in certain area. Fridays, though, should be easier to get to a class. Friday has a little more space in it than the rest of the week, and I look forward to practicing the primary series at 6:30 p.m. Even if I’m in pain, I know the practice is going to loosen the grip on the pain and bring lightness into my body. It never fails.

But yesterday, I was in a conference from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Good conference, but it’s always hard to sit all day long under florescent lights. It was at Leu Gardens, so I did get a nice walk in the gardens. Did a short Blue Sky meditation after lunch, and moved through the afternoon session with equanimity. Still, by 5:30 I was exhausted; I had been talking and interacting with people all day long, so my little introvert self was depleted. Nevertheless, my plan was to rush home, walk Dash, change clothes and get to practice, accomplishing my goal of three asana practices this week. The extrovert was ready to push, ready to be active. The goal must be achieved!

Once home, I grabbed Dash’s leash, and off we went. She was so happy mom was home. She would race ahead of me, then stop and look back to see how I was doing, come running back for a hug, and then rush off to examine a very important leaf. Such joy. Such attention. Such a good little teacher, this white fluffy being is. I could feel myself changing in her presence: my breath lengthened, my shoulders dropped, my face relaxed. I was dropping into a deeper self. I could feel the extrovert Lezlie letting go of her grip on the day and on the body, saying OK Z-woman, you can take over now. And Z wanted to be quiet. Z wanted to meditate. Z wanted to sit and stare at the yard for a while.

And so I was presented with a classic yogic dilemma: do I keep pushing out into the world, get back in the car, and go to yoga; or do I listen to the small voice within that says slow down, pull in, quit talking, quit moving outward and devote yourself inward. This voice was small because that’s the way she is, but I knew this was the best way I could “practice” yoga on Friday night.

And so I did. I lit the candles in the meditation room. Dash curled up on the chaise close to me, and I committed myself to a long meditation. Later, I ate some veggies and mac cream, too tired even to put a salad together. Then I wandered around the house a bit,  watching my need to be productive. This is such a strong impulse for me, and I’ve learned that part of my practice is to be discerning about when I need to resist that impulse. For me, not being productive is a very productive thing. It is an accomplishment. It is Lezlie working against a deeply conditioned response to do, do, do. We all have certain types of mindsets that work for us, and against us too. And part of the practice is watching my mind well enough and honestly enough that I can see when I am being ruled by a conditioned response.

The drive to accomplish, to get better, to be productive is powerful within me, and it’s a good thing, isn’t it? Until it’s not a good thing. Until it controls me and pushes me and exhausts me and causes me to fail to pay attention to people (or myself) because I’m too busy being productive. There are two sides to every coin.

So last night, I practiced yoga. I did not strengthen my asana. I did not get more flexible. I did not enhance my breath work. But I sat still. I listened to my heart. I let my body rest. And I cuddled with the white, fluffy one. It was a good practice.

LifeArtLezlie Laws