- Julie Lifton
Practice Makes Better
Updated: Jun 26, 2020
Practice makes us better.
A translation of Virabhadasana is “grounded and virtuous warrior”. We need to be exactly that to create the lasting, meaningful change that America needs. These days we could think of our practice as training us to be yogic warriors in the world.
The word for practice in Sanskrit is Abhyasa. There is a kind of perseverance implied in the word. Abhyasa is the daily repetition, refinement, and ardent effort of using our practice to create stability in the mind and body. It implies that each time we practice it is exactly that – practice, not perfect. Process over product. A reminder that how we spend our time and how we move our bodies has a lasting, cumulative effect on who we are. We grow in the direction we put our attention and energy. This also goes for the change we want to see in the world.
How can our practice become more fortifying? How can it make us stronger, more resilient, less the bystander and more involved? Is it the movement itself? Or is it where the mind is while doing the movement that makes the difference? If we stay focused, building our endurance and motivation mentally in yoga, we can translate that into better focus and motivation for our justice movement. To quote Susan Rice on NPR today, “as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, yes, ‘the arc of history bends towards justice’, but we have to bend it.”
Yoga is meant to be a union of the body, mind and spirit. Yoga asks us to practice with an undistracted mind. Distraction is destabilizing; we’re looking for steadiness. A distracted mind puts the body at risk of injury and robs us of one of the most satisfying effects of our practice. Abhysa, the practice of yoga, is often paired with Vairagya (non-attachment). While we need endurance and strength, we also need focus and wisdom. It’s the quality of practicing with an attitude more of a non-judgemental witness than of a critic, so the practice can speak for itself. A fettered mind is disruptive. These yogic practices are called upon in our work in the justice movement. We need discernment, surely, and we also need compassion, tenderness, and love.
Another yogic principle that I love so much is balancing activity with rest. We learn to balance expansion, growth, and challenge, with integration and introspection. Yoga invites us to deep inward listening, during movement and during stillness. The strength of the warrior must come from an inner strength as well as core strength. It must be an integral part of us. We must have the capacity for self-examination as well the ability to take action.
Our postures and our breath not only reflect how we feel, but they can inform how we feel. Every posture creates a different internal state to explore that aspect of ourselves. For example, doing warrior pose can reveal and fortify the warrior within us. It can make us stronger, help us be more resilient, and stay the course for the long haul, on and off the mat.
Warrior pose includes a wide, steady foundation, power surging through us from the earth giving inner strength to support a mountain spine, an open chest, energy streaming through our arms and beyond our fingers, a focused gaze looking past the forward hand, and the head light on top of our spine. As we pay close attention to these details of the form, we are grounded, focused, open-hearted, strong and expanded, steady and alert; we are warriors.
This moment in history requires us to become more honest with ourselves. Here, too, yoga can help us to seek truth over ego. If we can learn to be honest with our bodies, perhaps we can be more honest with ourselves. Our bodies keep us honest in the moment if we prioritize precision over image. Thigh bone not parallel to the ground? No problem! Just be sure the front knee is directly over its ankle. Be true to your body; you are fighting for it, and with it. Be truthful to it even if it’s not exactly like a picture in a magazine. These lessons of experiencing power, freedom, truth,and strength in yoga inform who we are in general. Yoga helps us to build courage, sustain hope, seek truth and recognize it when we see it. Yoga can help us dig deeper, work harder, listen more intently and by that, build unity not just with mind/body/spirit, but also with others who are striving to make the world more just.
So, practice in the context of yoga is more purposeful than to reach our toes. We might never reach our toes. In The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali there are only 4 out of 196 Sutras (pearls of wisdom) related to the physical practice of Asana. The rest of the book is about how to be a better person. Abhyasa is not only about physical improvement, it’s designed to instill qualities of nature, like strength, receptivity, openness, introspection, humbleness all of which make us better humans. We grow upright and resilient like the tree (Vrksasana) and gain new perspective from the cobra (Bhujangasana), become grounded and limber like the downward-facing dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana), and we can become the warriors for peace and justice that we foster during our practice. Putting our attention on these qualities within us as we move through our practice allows them to grow. Attention is like sunlight; we grow towards it.