Creating Consistency in Yoga Practice
Yoga offers us the possibility of many kinds of profound transformation. However, the first step is simply creating space for yoga in our lives. Whether you are trying to come to class more regularly or moving deeper into a home practice, one of the biggest challenges is creating consistency. At the heart of this lies is the practice of changing our habits. Habits, or samskaras, are patterns of thinking, feeling and acting, some of which support the life we want to lead, and some of which lead us away from it.
The Yoga Sutras tell us that over time we can consciously change or create new habits that help us evolve. As BKS Iyengar describes it, “Yoga is a powerful tool for liberating ourselves from unwanted, ingrained patterns. Through it, we identify, acknowledge, and progressively change them.” (Light on Life, p. 134)
This article focuses on how you might work with your samskaras to cultivate a new habit for your practice, whether that is developing or deepening a home practice or coming to class more regularly. These same principles can be applied to any area of our lives in which we want to make change.
Examine Your True Feelings and Set an Intention
Any successful change in our lives begins with self-examination. You might reach a point where you are very clear that you want to commit to something new. Some examples include: “I am ready to take regular care of my back,” or, “I want to learn to balance in headstand by the time the snow flies,” or, “I want to practice at home at least five days per week,” or “I am at a point in my life where I am ready to look inward.”
However, you must also be completely truthful with yourself about the full range of your feelings. This is the practice of truth, or satya , which is a fundamental yogic principle. For example, you might truly want to learn headstand, but also have a stronger desire to go hiking. If you don’t recognize this, then you might set an unrealistic goal of attending a yoga class twice a week and then wonder why you haven’t been going. If you have other priorities or some kind of reluctance, then it’s better to see this clearly and set your intentions accordingly. In the hiking example, it might be better to set a goal of attending class once a week, and then revisit the question again in time.
So, after a period of self-reflection, set your intention. “I want to attend class twice a week,” or “I want to practice at home every morning.” Then go on to the next step – setting up your life to support your intention.
Create a Realistic Plan and a Routine
Patricia Walden, a senior teacher in our tradition, says, “If you want to change your life, you have to be willing to change your life.” In our busy lives, if we want to make a new commitment, often something else has to go. We probably can’t attend yoga class every Tuesday night without eliminating something else. The good news is that while creating space for something new might not be easy, it is possible, and often yoga can take the place of something less important, or perhaps even something we wanted to give up anyway! For example, students have reported that in order to attend class they committed to leaving work on time once a week, or not watching TV one evening a week.
Many practitioners have reported that having a routine is very important to support a regular practice. Find classes and teachers that work for you, and stick to them. This is an example of creating a positive habit or samskara – “Every Saturday morning I go to yoga.” You will come to expect yoga in your weekly routine, and anticipate the positive effects of coming to class: feeling more centered, clear, and relaxed.
You must be realistic and comprehensive when setting up a new schedule. If you are sharing childcare with a spouse, you might have to consult your partner before committing to a new routine. Consider your work schedule, travel time, and other basic logistics to establish a routine that is realistic.
To support a new habit, create smaller habits which support the bigger one. Students have reported a variety of ways that they set up their lives to support their intention to practice. Some people remind their partners or roommates the day before – “Remember, I won’t be home for dinner tomorrow night since I’m going to yoga.” It might also be helpful to inform coworkers that you can’t attend meetings after 5 PM on Mondays. Put your yoga clothes in your bag the night before. Set an alert on your phone to remind you to leave work on time. Having an agreement to meet a friend at class can be helpful to get you there on days when you’re less motivated.
If you’re starting a home practice, create a dedicated yoga space. This can be as simple as designating a corner of a room. Keep it clean and have whatever props you use accessible. If you don’t have props, consider investing in the basic ones. If you already have a home practice, think through when you want to practice and set up your life to help you get to your mat and stay there. You might want to go to bed thirty minutes earlier so that it’s realistic for you to get up with your alarm, or set a guideline that you don’t read your e-mail or check Facebook prior to practice to eliminate distractions that could eat up the time you’ve set aside.
Coming to class regularly will help you to build community with other people who share your priority of establishing a yoga practice. Conversation with fellow practitioners about triumphs and struggles in practice can help sustain your commitment to it. For some, just being in a room with others who are focused on practice is inspiring.
Be Unmoved in Success or Failure
“Be not moved in success or in failure.
Yoga is evenness of mind, a peace that is ever the same.”
Bhagavad Gita, II.47
It is here that most of us face our biggest challenge – how to handle it when we fail to meet our goal.
There are many reasons why we might fail in our intention. We might allow the demands at home or at work to overcome us. We might give in to temptations or distractions. Some of us get injuries or illnesses that cause pain and discomfort. Intermediate students often hit a plateau in their practices, where they feel their progress has slowed or stopped altogether. Sometimes difficulty in learning a pose might bring old samskaras to the surface, such as feelings of defeat and self-criticism. The list goes on.
Whatever the obstacle, this is the critical moment – how we respond. In fact, working with setbacks is a crucial part of the practice. We are guaranteed to encounter failure and obstacles. In fact, the Yoga Sutras outline a list of obstacles, or antarayas, and other impediments that can get in the way of practice. (See the sidebar for a partial list of the ones that students mention most frequently.)
Once we can see these challenges (“I know that before class I often feel tired/doubtful/injured/like I just want to go have a beer”), then we can anticipate these thoughts and feelings and know that it is possible to work with them. When you face these impediments, or even when you succumb to them, do not let them stop you. No matter how long it’s been since you last came to class, or how limited your body may be on a given day, return to the practice. No matter how many times your intention to do your home practice doesn’t pan out the way you had hoped, try again.
As practitioners, we must recognize that these kinds of setbacks are intrinsic to the very nature of practice. In fact, you might say that practice is learning how to handle our desires, doubts, or suffering (whether physical or emotional) so that they don’t slow or stop our evolution. Keep in mind that obstacles to a path of inner growth are so common that ancient yoga texts describe them in ways that are still completely relevant today. Let the knowledge that every practitioner must confront difficulties help you to persevere, and keep returning to the path you wish to travel.
Co-Owner, Yoga Shala of Boulder
The obstacles are described in Sutras I.30 and I.31. There are many excellent translations of the Yoga Sutras which provide commentaries and interpretations, including:
Light on the Yoga Sutras by BKS Iyengar
Light on Life by BKS Iyengar
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Edwin Bryant