The Benefits of Abhyasa
The theme for the last quarter of the year at the The Atma Center, where I study, practice and teach yoga, is abhyasa.
Abhyasa is the transliterated sanskrit word that means "a spiritual practice that is maintain regularly over a long period of time."
As a yoga practitioner I have often struggled with sustaining a long term practice. There have been periods of time where I have practiced six days per week for an hour or more and others where I have done close to nothing.
It seems as if even my best attempts to practice daily are eventually thwarted by too much work, too little sleep, jet lag, etc. Just as I have re-committed to my personal practice and have gotten into a rhythm of practicing daily, there seems to be something that usurps my "yoga time" and I am thrown off once again. However, being a competitive athlete by nature, this "falling off the proverbial wagon" doesn't stop me for long and I am once again "up and at 'em" at 4:30am! Well, until I'm not.
So it has been a few months since I have once again committed to a regular morning practice but I have decided to try something new and it is actually working! Instead of placing the pressure on myself to get up daily at 4:30am, although I have twice this week (self pat on back), I am instead vowing to do something -asana (postures), pranayama (breathing practices), meditation, or some combination every day. Could be 5 minutes or a 1.5 hour yoga practice, but it has to be something. If at the end of the day I find myself in my bed having reflected upon my day, and there isn't some kind of yoga in it, well, then out of my bed I go. There is really no excuse because the benefits are so enumerable that deciding NOT to practice in some way is a strong statement of not caring about me. It is very easy to let life get in the way of anything worthwhile such as relationships, exercise, academic achievement, etc. But the benefits far outweigh the effort and the amount of time it takes to do whatever it is that feeds the soul. So after 14 years of practice and study, having experienced the benefits of yoga and seen the long term positive changes in myself and friends that have practiced yoga along side me, I must and will keep moving forward.
I often relay a story to my students that my teacher Swami Atmarupa Saraswati has told because it is a perfect abhyasa story. She tells of a student that came to her and explained that she really wanted to do yoga but just couldn't find the time in her busy life. Swami Atmarupa, having practiced and taught yoga for a combined 30 years, knew exactly what to tell her yoga student. She told her that instead of trying to fit in 30 minutes, or an hour and 30 minutes of practice everyday that she should just commit to to "toe bending." "Just toe bending?" her student said. "Yes, just toe bending." said Swami Atmarupa. The student walked away in disbelief wondering how toe bending could be considered a yoga practice but trusted her teacher and figured she'd give it a try. A few weeks passed before Swami Atmarupa saw her student again and when she did she was eager to see how her student's practice was going. The student, with a huge smile on her face, ran up to her and told her something very interesting happened since she started practicing "toe bending" on a regular basis. The student said, "Well, I did as you said and found some time every day to just do toe bending. But the funny thing was, just as I was finished with a round of toe bending, I usually kept going to ankle bending, knee bending, shoulder rotations, cat/cow, tree pose, etc. Somedays I would even do a breathing or meditation practice as well! I rarely stopped just at toe bending and I can't believe how great I feel for practicing yoga daily."
The moral of this story is to start small and be consistent. When it comes to yoga, abhyasa is key to long term physical, mental and emotional growth. So don't be discouraged if you have failed to maintain a regular yoga practice. It can really be as easy as bending your toes.