Recently, in an online seminar, a yoga teacher suggested that we ought not use the word ‘practise’ when referring to yoga, as the term suggests we are not actually doing yoga. This saddened me; I am going to try to capture why.
The word yoga comes from the root yuj (to yoke), suggesting we form a relationship. This is in part a relationship with the practice, instigated in order to experience change. Hence, yoga is the practice through which we seek transformation. However, many of us also turn inward and form a relationship with our deeper self (whatever that means to us) through yoga practice. When established, this is the fruit of practice according to Patanjali. Thus, yoga is both the method and the end.
We have a yoga practice (noun); the title we give to the practices we do. We also practise yoga (verb) when we go about those practices. If yoga is the stilling of the churnings of the mind, as Patanjali states in sutra 1.2, then personally I know I am only ever practising, with brief, rare moments of true absorption. Similarly, when we practise seated meditation, often (especially in the beginning) we are sitting, eyes closed, silent, ‘practising’ meditation, with our shifting minds still on the go meaning we only have momentary glimpses of true meditative experiences. This does not undermine the practices, it suggests we bring some humility to them and that ‘success’ does not define the value of practising.
There are two different words for practice in The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali. The word abhyāsa in sutra 1.12 suggests how we achieve the stilling of the mind. Alongside ‘practice’, abhyāsa is variously translated as discipline, zeal, enthusiasm and commitment. It means ‘to travel toward a goal’. It suggests a resoluteness, commitment and continuity of practice toward a state of yoga. The potency of our practice is not defined here by what we achieve, but the enthusiasm we bring. Of course, untempered, this could become overzealous and rigid. When tempered by non-attachment it establishes us in a profound openness to deeper experiences of inner quiet and self awareness through practising.
The other word for practice in The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali is sādhana (spiritual practice), which is the name of book two. The word spiritual can be off-putting for atheist students, however Patanjali uses the word puruṣa (usually translated as soul), which literally means person or personhood to coin the self within. We might think of becoming one with our own nature, which is defined as the fruit of yoga practice in sutra 1.3, as coming fully into ourselves or deep self knowledge. Whether we refer to this deeper self as a soul or our personhood is not important, what is significant is that it takes a lifetime of practising to know ourselves deeply and intimately and even then on our deathbeds, I am sure many of us will still feel we were good at pulling the wool over our own eyes.
So what is it that we practise when we practise yoga? We practise the postures themselves and use them to cultivate steadiness and ease in our physical being, we practise meditative states of absorption to clear our minds and know ourselves on a deeper level. In addition, we might practise the eight limbs of yoga and through the first two, yama (moral abstentions) and niyama (moral observances), we are practising being a better person in the world. Again this sort of project is never perfected for many of us, but still we work at it.
Similarly, in book three of The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, on the fruits of practice, in Sutra 3.36 Patanjali writes that, ‘From that (conducting sanyama (deep meditative absorption) on the puruṣa (our soul or deepest self)), deep intuition, suprasensory or higher hearing, feeling, seeing, tasting/smelling and intelligence are born.’ From these, discriminative discernment is established. Whilst my practises are still incredibly humbling, I do feel I have become more intuitive and better at listening to my body, my teachers and my loved ones through the practice. It has gradually led me to be more sensitive to that which we can so easily miss when we are bound up in material success, desire and aversion.
So I suppose, to the teacher who dislikes the words ‘practice’ and ‘practise’ used in conjunction with yoga, I can only say how sad I think it is that in doing so she suggests that those of us practising yoga are falling short of yoga. Practising yoga is a humbling experience we can mine for great joy, insight and sometimes even moments of a truly quiet mind.