What does yoga ask of you? It’s not enough to enjoy the aesthetic beauty of the human form, or to merely imagine the pure state of samadhi. The yogic path is far more rigorous than it appears. Generally the images we see are the ‘finished’ product, examples of highly adept asana practitioners, or sadhus displaying remarkable (occasionally ridiculous) siddhis, or the wise words of self-realised masters. What is less obvious are the years of practice, the emotional, mental and physical processes of breaking down and rebuilding that transform an ordinary person into their transcendent self. Along the way old versions of the self must be relinquished. Some people struggle more than others to let go. I am one of the fighters, valiantly clinging to old thought patterns, old habits and ways of life that once served me but must be sacrificed in the fire of tapas. When I heard Kino McGregor (ashtanga yoga teacher) repeating Sharath Rangaswamy’s 4 D’s, I was moved to share them, to ponder what they mean to me, and what they ask me to sacrifice, here.
Devotion: Central theme of bhakti yoga, devotion implies an attitude of humility and love before a force greater than oneself. Some people will avoid using the G words like God or Guru because they sound like forces external to the self. I feel waves of devotion wash over me in both vinyasa and seated meditation practices and my devotion is to the loving emanation that fills the empty parts of me. I am so grateful for the sacrifices the teachers who have come before me have made, and the detailed roadmap they have left for future travellers. I offer up the fruits of my practice to the masters who inspire and guide me and their names are important only in the sense that I honour them personally. But they have transcended physical bodies and earthly time to merge into the ocean of consciousness where all wisdom and love is continually dissolving only to be distilled again in diverse forms. My love is sometimes passionate like an infatuated teen (think of the swooning Gopi girls and Krishna), sometimes loyal like a stoic supporter (maybe Krishna and Arjuna) , other times settled like a long marriage of respect and kindness (Shiva and Shakti of course), but the feeling of fond familiarity with the beloved teacher who is God in one particular form, never wavers. A wise yogi once asked a sadhaka ‘who do you sacrifice to?’ The sadhaka realised he must sacrifice his lower self to his higher self. The real devotion is not to any external being but to your own higher self. The true Guru is the Guru within.
Dedication: The well known Vipassana teacher SN Goenka echoes Siddhartha the Buddha when he implores practitioners to ‘dig a deep well’. When I first heard this message I was in the throes of spiritual exploration, happy to tap into others’ wisdom wells and drink from any old cup I could find. I was utterly naive and undiscerning, like the archetypal fool. Fortunately the benevolent forces swept me under some kind of wing and I had only positive experiences of spirituality. Yet as the years have rolled on, I have narrowed my focus in order to sink more deeply a well that will nourish me sustainably. When it comes to asana I am convinced of the benefits of a systematic approach. No longer will I cast around for enjoyable practices or make up my own practices (though there’s wonderful creativity in doing so and I expect I will someday revisit and reinvent certain aspects along the way), so convinced am I that the primary series is working me thoroughly. Dedication to one path which is already well trodden is as scary as devoting oneself to a higher power. Does it mean I will miss out on other opportunities? Will I become rigidly dogmatic, thinking there’s only one way to proceed? I am a work in progress and my feelings might change but for this moment I am dedicated to a single path of my own choosing. I have laid down my preferences before my higher self and been guided to a single asana practice and a single meditation system, the two of which do not contradict each other as both are derived and inspired by ancient tantric insight. I trust my teachers, I trust my Self, I am dedicated.
Discipline: Here’s the corker, the one that causes me most grief. I would love to jump straight from where I am to where I want to be but alas, discipline is required to persist in the practices that moment by moment, day by day, create the future of my envisioning. There is so much fun to be had in the world and so many distractions, enough to keep me entertained for at least this lifetime. But somewhere inside myself I know that I want more than just amusement. So I discipline my appetite when I feel the urge to overeat. It helps that the yoga practices are made more difficult, that’s how I sell it to myself – do I really want that piece of cake? How will that affect my mind? How will that feel when I bend forward in a few hours time? Does that increase or decrease my available energy for practice? I have stumbled many times on this particular D. All last year I made a point of watching Survivor (mock me if you want – I love the whole not-reality TV genre) on Tuesday nights. Since it didn’t finish til 10.30pm or later it made getting up at 5am extra challenging. I missed practice quite a few Wednesdays although I also dragged myself up after less than 6 hours sleep in an attempt to prove I could have it all. I’ve tried to have it all in other ways too. Working too much, taking on a huge study workload in an effort to build a career rapidly (what’s the hurry?), talking too much and then wasting hours in mindless pursuit of ‘rest’. What I’ve learnt is that TV isn’t very rewarding, that food indulging makes practice gassy and uncomfortable, that good friends won’t mind if you go home by 9pm, and all the worldly distractions including facebook, gigs, movies, books and meetings won’t satisfy the cravings of my heart and soul for spiritual connection. In Yoga Mala Sri K. Pattabhi Jois advises (on page 26 after an expansive essay on brahmacharya) yogis to avoid mingling with the crowd. I interpret this to mean that people can be a distraction from the path too. I know my sociable nature would rather stay up at night chatting, and that I have an endless capacity for hearing people’s stories. These are not necessarily bad qualities, in fact being a ‘people person’ is quite helpful in my work as a yoga teacher, lecturer and naturopath. But while the yogic path is not exactly a lonely one, the spiritual life is a little quieter than the mainstream. I’ve neglected some wonderful friendships over the years because I just couldn’t reconcile my lifestyle with theirs. I love them still (and kind of hope they might be reading this) but I’m an all or nothing gal. I never could just have a little glass of wine or a toke on a passing joint. I wanted oblivion or nothing at all. You could say it’s inertia at work. When I start to do something I tend to want to continue. This makes the middle path counterproductive. Having a late night stops the rolling momentum of waking pre-dawn to practice. One alcoholic drink has been known to throw my mind off it’s spiritual base and into gossippy or egoistic soup. Hence the ‘rules’ are not arbitrary – it’s helpful to hear from the yogis who have come before what helped and hindered their paths. Sattvik food means no intoxicants either. So I apologise to my friends and family that my quest sometimes hurts your feelings. I don’t want to exclude or be excluded, I don’t think I’m better than anyone else. Just because I won’t come to your parties (or maybe I will and leave early, depends how established I feel in myself), doesn’t mean I want you to feel unloved or uncomfortable. But I am clear about my need for self discipline and this circumscribed lifestyle is not as rigid from the inside as it appears from other perspectives. In fact it’s liberating. Discipline is not solipsistic but allows intimate, ultimate connection with all.
Determination: The steel within, the conviction that I will continue even when I have doubts. That I won’t quit altogether when something hurts. The will to continue even when I’m so tired I could sleep for a week. I am determined that I can become a more consistent practitioner of yoga in its entirety. I resolve to mindfully observe my own experience and continue regardless of what my mind and body throw up. There will be obstacles of course. There have been many already and sometimes I have been waylaid. However I believe that a householder yogi can adopt a flexibility that allows for the needs of the family, but still keeps a central focus on sadhana. Determination is the flickering flame within that dims but cannot be extinguished. I will hold my inner light aloft to light my way. Without hesitation I will practice. The mental conundrums can wait, the outward goals can be achieved with an inward focused gaze. I know that this is a difficult path but with devotion sweetening my heart, dedication inspiring my practice, discipline removing many obstacles, and a mass of determination, I will prevail.