Three Preliminary Steps to Yoga
If you let auto-pilot run the show it will.
If you want to wake up and steer your life toward a greater awareness, less suffering and a higher level of sanity, consciousness, compassion and understanding (Yes PLEASE!!!), then turn to yoga. Yoga is a highly evolved practice; honed for thousands of years by millions of yogis in what certainly must be one of the oldest, longest-running open-source programs in existence! (Otherwise it’s just another activity at the gym.)
In my first post, The Freedom of Yoga, I introduced what yoga really is, beyond poses. Then in Learn These Two Simple Requirements, I introduced the two requirements for that to happen: Abhyasa (practice) and Vairagya (equanimity).
Now that we know where we’re going and we have at least an idea of what’s required, we can safely take a few more steps into the teachings. In addition to the two requirements, there are three preliminary steps, sometimes called elements of yogic action: tapas (no, not the food. Intense discipline), svadhyaya (self-study) and Isvara-pranidhana (surrender).
Tapas comes easily and naturally when you’ve suffered enough to have a strong, single-pointed desire for freedom. An example of how suffering brings strength and commitment is how I struggled with Lyme Disease. I think I had almost all of the symptoms you can have. I live a pretty healthy lifestyle and my body did its best at fighting it off but each year it went a bit deeper and carved away a little more brain, heart, eye, and joint tissue, making life more and more difficult. Finally I felt like I was backed into a corner and there was only one way out. I’d already tried all that mainstream medicine could offer so I kept researching till I ran across the work of Stephen Harrod Buhner.
His protocol was not easy. The first difficulty was trying to decipher all the different herbs and which ones pertained to my particulars. Then I had to order them and figure out how to take them (not easy with brain fog). And my body didn’t like it much at first and it took some adjusting to get it right. Anytime I traveled I had to figure out how to package enough capsules and tinctures to get me through the time away. Three times a day, each time a different combination of things, got to be confusing at times and inconvenient. On top of it, I am a person who has difficulty swallowing pills!
All the while, I kept reading and researching. I ended up on a radical diet and used other therapies along with the herbs and supplements which I was taking by the handfuls three times daily. After nine months of intensive treatment, I felt like I’d been redeemed. I felt better than I had in many years. Some days I was so relieved to find my old self again I wanted to cry tears of joy. I know I never would have done this if my symptoms wouldn’t have cornered me the way they did. It took me 8 years to get to this particular treatment, partly because I hadn’t found it sooner and partly because I wasn’t ready any sooner.
So it is with yoga. Readiness is key. Its tricky too, because many of your patterns, your thought patterns and the patterns of ego-reactivity are very much like addictions. They’ve been with you so long, you actually identify with them. Its that identification that keeps you stuck in patterns. It was my intense internal suffering that brought me to, and ultimately kept me passionate about my yoga practice.
Self-study has been such a huge part of my ongoing practice I can tell you unequivocally that my practice would be impossible without this element. You have to observe your mind patterns with an objective mind in order to realize the error of your ways. Otherwise you remain hypnotized by your auto-pilot programming. I’ve used journaling extensively as a way of obtaining objectivity. If I’m angry or confused or tangled up in emotions and thoughts, I write it all out and in the process often find a more objective view of what’s going on. Additionally meditation has been great training in listening, seeing and hearing my patterns of mind and emotion more objectively.
If we are attached to the outcome of our efforts, they are more or less cancelled out because we’re just feeding our sense of being a separate somebody, feeding our storyline. That’s where surrender comes in. Dedicate the fruits of your efforts to something bigger than you. It can be God, however you perceive that to be, or it can be LIFE itself, or love, or to the ideal of pure awareness.
Kerstin Martin, who helped me immeasurably with building this website on Squarespace, recently wrote a piece that spoke to the idea of surrender. She grew up in a non-religious family and never really connected with a sense of a God:
From my vantage point with over 45 years of study and practice in yoga, these five points form the foundation of a real practice. By real practice I mean, if you are seriously looking for freedom from suffering, this is a way that will bring results fairly soon. How soon? The Yoga Sutras say that depends on how bad you want it, how sincere you are, and how willing you are to show up for it.
In my next few posts I will present concrete examples of how all five of these practices weave together to form the fabric of every yoga practice you create from non-harming to poses to meditation and breathing. I’ll look at worry, and other mind traps that keep us stuck. Tell me what you struggle with and I’ll write a post describing how I would use these five practices to loosen the ties that are keeping you stuck in a pattern.