Sadhana: “a means to accomplish something”. In practice it refers to, well, practice. The allusion is to spiritual path, but the application is firmly grounded in time, in food, in daily habits and schedules. Sadhana is discipline, and has various formulations in Hindu, Sikh, and Buddhist traditions. In yoga, the word refers to one’s yoga practice. Generally and loosely, yogis talk about it as one's morning practice. It refers to getting up early, hitting the neti pot, getting through the asana and some prayerful gyrations before the sun is up. Sadhana is what people do on yoga retreats, in teacher trainings, and every day, if they are ‘enthusiasts’ with the time and the money. But the implication of Sadhana drives deeper, out of the studio and off of the mat: Sadhana refers to all of the efforts and attentions of our daily grind, the passing moments of the daily, the ‘hear, now’ of our actual lives. If we think of it as an ideal practice, or something we don’t have time for, now, we lose its currency.
Unfortunately, we typically think of ‘spiritual path’ or anything remotely related to heartwork as a thing we need to retreat to do. Spirituality occurs in churches, we’re taught. Wisdom is a rarefied, highly esoteric, quiet thing people find on retreats and in solitude.
Yoga looks esoteric and incomprehensible to anyone outside. Contortionist postures make normal people think the true benefits will only come to them once they can balance on two fingers and lose thirty pounds. Getting to the mat everyday becomes the priority. We value our practice in terms of what it does for us, how strong we become, how long we can handle a difficult posture.
I’ve been meditating on and thinking about Sadhana for the last few weeks. Whenever the word or idea comes up in yoga magazines or conversations with yogis, I hear ‘I’m not doing enough’. I hear people talk about how they wish they had more time for yoga; they know it helps, they need to get back to a regular practice; they enjoy their hour or two a week, but ‘know’ what they really need is more dedication and commitment. From the hundreds of people who are interested in yoga but don’t know it at all, this comes across most clearly: they don’t know how to start. We tend to think we get the benefits once we get ‘good’ at yoga. But this isn’t true at all. We get the benefits immediately.
When guides, books, or websites talk about a daily practice they usually suggest that you start small, but go on to include a list of postures, suggest that pre-dawn is the best time to practice, and generally indicate that a daily yoga practice is the way to achieve wellness, peace of mind, and personal growth.
They don’t mention that approaching yoga this way quickly turns practice into a chore, just one more thing we have to do everyday. Nor do they take into consideration the fact that yoga begins where we are, not where we ought to be. For those saints or gurus or single people who can afford the time and money and liesure of a daily hour of yoga, I see the point. I fail to see the point for the rest of us.
That idea falls into the distortion of expectations and blame, and forgets where we really are. If we buy into it, we think of ourselves in terms of accomplishments or progress. We resent the days we simply don’t have time to get to class. We blame ‘life’ or our lack of discipline for the un-evolution of our presence and poise. Life happens, ala the bumper sticker.
Slowly, my sadhana has become a practice of living everyday life, not escaping from it.
As the breath is the breath is the breath: it isn’t a thing I do, but a thing that does me; it doesn’t happen in an hour long vinyasa class, but every bleeding moment of my life; there are real days when a yoga practice is all but impossible. A toddler who’s sick, a broken down vehicle, deadlines and obligations and a headache. The art is not to transcend life, but to really know where I am in it, to immerse myself, and to live more fully. It took a long time, said a girlfriend, for me to realize that my kids were not an interruption of my sadhana; they are my sadhana.
Sadhana runs like a fire under the skin of everything, if I am willing to see it there. It’s a charged thing, interested in living an ordinary life extraordinarily well. Transforming life, not transcending it, is what matters. Sadhana is meant for hard-working, busy people whose family lives and bills and civic duties consume them as much as it is for buddhist monks, people who can afford vipassana retreats, and teachers who practice every morning at five a.m. Sadhana is a practice of awareness and acceptance, of being present. Some days, what I have to be present with isn’t anywhere near a yoga studio.
Historian N. Bhattacharyya writes “religious s?dhan? prevents an excess of worldliness and moulds the mind and disposition (bh?va) into a form which develops the knowledge of dispassion and non-attachment. S?dhan? is a means whereby bondage becomes liberation”.
Sadhana has taught me. I know the way yoga feels in my body, and I go to the mat as regularly as I can to re-create that feeling. I know what ritual, practice, and compassion can do to heal my life. I have learned, through pranayama, how the breath moves me, and how I can move it. I know that a regular yoga practice can transform a life.
But I’ve also learned that bondage doesn’t become libration by disappearing. Trying to be different than I am, or expecting the course of some new action in my life – whether that be yoga or a new years resolution or a promise – to magically change me. misses the point The point of sadhana is not to change life, but to change myself in my life. Some days, that has to do with bills and waiting in lines and not getting enough sleep. Other days, it has to do with what happens on the mat. We don’t escape ‘bondage’, we change it. We don’t get new lives; we get our own, differently. We transform fear into love. Our weak spots, our wounds, will become our strengths.
The tools of yoga are tools. They are effective as bricks. We build with them. Each posture has teachings in it. Each time you get to a class, you change a little. Prayer, meditation, mudras and mantras, sadhana (practice) and seva (selfless service) have been used for millenia because they work. But the point is to find how they will work for you.
There comes a point at which you begin to change. You’ve done the poses for a while. You’ve felt different after a practice. You intuit that there is something very important for you in the whole thing, though it may be hard to articulate.
We learn, at that point, to listen. It’s when you begin to practice on your own, or maybe to make the practice your own, that you enter transformation. Listening is the practice of yoga. We begin to go into our own body and let it teach us. We listen to its rythem and begin to trust it. This is where genuine knowledge is born. Going to class, having a community, opening yourself up to such things as pranayama or a neti pot or a change in diet all have benefits. We need teachers and guides. But real insight comes from simple, private listening.
- Practice listening to where you are day by day, and try to find a yoga practice that will honor it. Some days, that may mean not practicing. Other days, we may practice harder. If ‘yoga is life’, than it isn’t locked in studios. Bring your awareness to your breath while you work or before you fall asleep at night. Use five minutes in the shower.
- Honor and respect what you hear when you start listening. I have a tendency to push too hard, be too perfectionist, demand too much. I showed up at my first studio one day, battle weary and over stressed and verging on a cold. My teacher challenged me, suggesting that maybe my daily yoga was supposed to be in a long nap and a real day of rest. She wanted me to spend as much time as I could, that class, in savasana, even while the rest of the class moved. Just being in the room is healing, she said. It is hard for me to let go, and I still did most of the postures. Since then, I’ve learned to respect myself a bit more.
- Jon Kabat-Zinn says the point of mediation is to fall awake, not fall asleep. I say the point of yoga is to wake up, and realize you are in love with your life.
- There is truth and centuries of reason behind the daily morning practice thing. And there just as much truth and reason in the fact that its monumentally difficult for most of us to do. The fact is, it is tremendously difficult for us to commit to even five or ten minutes of meditation everyday, let alone to a longer asana practice. Do one thing at a time, and do it slowly. Buy a kitchen timer, set it for five minutes, and try to work five minutes of savasana or meditation into your daily life. Morning is good, but if it’s lunch hour, it’s lunch hour. When I started this, it usually ended up being the last thing I did everyday. I was committed enough to do it, but only committed enough to do it after everything else had already happened. Start wherever you are. But do start.
- If you do want to work your way into a daily home practice, start small. Easiest if you have a space you can set aside and leave ready. A little corner of a room works. If you can’t practice one day, try to make yourself enter that space and just sit there a minute. It’ll change you.
- Find a few postures that you can do in bed, and do them before you get up in the morning. It feels silly and like cheating. But it subverts all our resistances to getting into yoga gear, getting to the mat, getting away from the kids or the phone or the clock. Do bridge pose. Do a full body stretch. Pull your knees to your chest, do a twist. We most of us know that once we start, going on is easy. Once we begin, we enjoy it. It’s the starting that’s hard.
- One downward dog or tree pose will change your entire day. It will take you two minutes. Instead of going for a cup of coffee, or when you realize you’re just shuffling paper and checking emails at work, take those two minutes and do one pose. Just one. One is enough.
- The most common mistake in yoga is to think we’re supposed to look a certain way in a pose, that it’s about strength and flexibility. Fact is, yoga is about listening to your body and getting it to it’s most balanced place, not getting to a picture perfect contortion. For many people, this means backing off: a lot of people are too flexible and too strong, and do more harm than good by trying to go ‘deep’. Start learning yourself: where are you most flexible, and should you be pushing or easing off? Are you using strength to force yourself, rather than letting it happen? Postures shouldn’t cause pain, and we know that, but we’re so driven we typically go for the pain anyway. Stop this. Stop it slowly.
- Don’t make any resolutions to practice every morning at 4:30. Someday that might be realistic for you. Right now it probably just causes anxiety. But do consider waking up to watch the sunrise once in a while. Few things resonate so powerfully. When I do manage to practice first thing, I feel a sense of ease and control and poise throughout the rest of my day that are impossible to find in any other way. I don’t have that practice daily. But I do know that the sun does it, day after day after day, and will be ready for me whenever I’m able to show up.