One of my favorite yoga sutras is number 12 from Chapter One: “Abhyasa vairagyabhyam tannirodhah”—the fluctuations of the mind are stilled through practice and non-attachment. The single most important thing about yoga practice (abhyasa) is doing it. This past weekend I taught a workshop in that great spiritual vortex known as Las Vegas. Sunday’s asana class was an introduction to the second series and some of the students were a bit over their heads. At the end of the class I congratulated every one for their heroic effort and reminded them that they would not be graded on their performance. The class was pass/fail and the only way to fail was not to show up. Of course, human nature being what it is, when we do something we want to do it well, and when we don’t do things well we tend to berate ourselves for our imperfections. Typically when we practice something our goal is to get better at it, and, inevitably, if we persist we will. By devoting thousands and thousands of hours to our piano practice, perhaps one day we’ll play Carnegie Hall. In the aforementioned sutra, however, Patanjali suggests that in regards to our yoga practice, we need to cultivate the quality of non-attachment. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t put forth our best effort and be as mindful as possible in our practice, but rather, that in spite of our best intentions we don’t have absolute control over the result. Perhaps the greatest challenge of yoga practice is in not being attached to any particular result, or even any firm notion of who we think we are and where we think we are going—to simply do our best, trust the process, and let it go. Otherwise we just end up feeding the acquisitive, ego-based self that always wants more and is never satisfied with what it has and what it is.
The way I see it, becoming proficient at yoga is not about adding to our already considerable list of achievements and abilities. Rather, it is more of a process of subtraction, of simplifying our lives and gradually removing those things that inhibit our perception of a higher self that is already complete. Years ago--back in the old hood on La Veta Ave.--I had an old peach tree in my backyard. In all the time I’d lived in that house, the peach tree had produced only leaves and suckers, and not a single peach. One winter’s day I had the bright idea to prune the peach tree. I snipped off all of the suckers growing out of the trunk and trimmed the tree back to its eight strongest branches—for the eight limbs of yoga, of course! When spring arrived lots of beautiful pink blossoms emerged from these limbs. By the beginning of summer, the tree was loaded with peaches! The peach tree became a symbol for my life, and the pruning process for my yoga practice. Gradually I was learning to divest myself from dysfunctional and energy draining habits (suckers) and pruning away many of the meandering branches of my life that were blocking the light of the shining self (atman). For the first time in my life I was producing some sweet fruit, and over the years there have been many peaches. Not that this process is finished by any means. The suckers are always trying to grow back and the branches are continually in need of pruning. This coming Saturday, December 10th, is the date of the annual conjunction of the Sun and Saturn, an influence we will feel for the next couple of weeks. It’s a great time to do some pruning.