Abhyasa (Practice)

By Jessica Bellofatto, September, 2008

With sustained effort and sincerity, Discipline and self-control, The wise become like islands, Which no flood can overwhelm.”

—From the Dhammapada (sayings of the Buddha)

As Labor Day comes and goes, and I (finally) stop procrastinating and sit down to write the September focus, a lot comes to mind. These past few weeks have been extremely difficult ones. We have experienced tragedy very close to home in this Yoga community, and it becomes for so many of us a kind of “wake-up” call. We have these practices of Yoga; these practices of asana, pranayama, meditation; these practices of cultivating mindfulness, cultivating attention. It seems that many of us take these practices for granted. Or perhaps not so much that we take them for granted, but that we don’t necessarily acknowledge how potentially useful they can be in challenging times. How vital these practices become when we are going through very difficult times in our lives. This word ‘asana.’ A seat- a connection to or relationship to earth- to Mother Earth. What does that mean?? From the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, we have the sutra “Stirah Sukham Asanam.” (Our seat should be steady and easy or joyful). What does this mean for us not just in a Yoga class, not just in a “pose” but in life??? Equanimity. What a beautiful word. Is equanimity possible? Is equanimity desirable?? For some, equanimity is confused as complacence, as a passionless existence in which one has no preferences, no likes or dislikes. A state of being in which one never gets upset, never gets affected simply because one does not care enough, or is able to shut down emotionally so as not to feel. On the contrary, one who is established in equanimity feels and feels deeply; cares and cares deeply, but has the wisdom to go beyond that which makes up this “saha” world …this fleeting world; the world of appearances, of names and forms. When something tragic happens in your life or in the life of someone close to you, how do you react?? Do you use the practices you have learned; the tools you have been taught to cope with what has happened? Are you able to maintain your seat? Are you able to maintain your hard-earned equanimity even in very turbulent times?

In my own experience, the Yoga practice has proven time and again to be a gift which sustains and nurtures me on many levels. I feel this most acutely during times in my life which are momentous in some way. The sudden death of my father nine years ago was such a time. Two pregnancies, one easy, one not so easy are two more examples. I have a vivid memory of coming home from the hospital with my first child after a difficult pregnancy and an even more difficult labor in which I was sore, swollen, and an emotional mess, and I unrolled my Yoga mat and did my first non-pregnant downward facing dog in 10 months (I was 42 weeks at the time of birth!!!) and just burst into tears. Tears of gratitude. The knowledge that this practice was still with me and although I had made this huge irevocable leap from being a woman who was not a mother to being a woman who was a mother, and the HUGE load that that felt like at the time, but that the practice was still with me… that that had not changed, was tremendously helpful.

So we practice. We practice when things are going well. We practice when times are difficult. We practice when we are healthy, as well as when we are sick. We practice with an injury, and come to learn so much more about that part of the body that is injured. And the more we allow ourselves to surrender to this path of Yoga, the more we reap the rewards. The more we acknowledge the healing capabilities of this practice, the more we are healed; physically, emotionally, spiritually. And yet, without attachment to any outcome, we practice. I think perhaps one of the mistakes we make is that when we need it the most, we neglect to practice. When we are ill, when we are grieving, the practice somehow gets left behind. Again, this idea that we are not acknowledging all that it can do for us. We call these practices tools. But if we were a builder and we showed up at a job site without a hammer and nails, what good would we be? We call ourselves yogis, but if we don’t use the tools we have learned over our years of practice, what use is the practice?? I saw firsthand over these past few weeks how one of my dearest friends utilized the tools of Yoga to help her in her process of grieving and overcoming the tragedy she was involved in. Being herself an outstanding Yoga teacher, it was the first thing she turned to and is her daily sanctuary and refuge.

The Sanskrit word for “practice” is ABHYASA. B.K.S. Iyengar, in his book Light on Life, says that the energies created by practice (abhyasa) need to be matched and balanced by the prudence of detachment (vairagya). He says that “practice creates a centrifugal force, a spinning and expanding energy. Trouble comes when this compelling energy spins out of control. Military training works in the same way, which is why soldiers on leave and sailors on shore so often get in to trouble. Military discipline and honor are their safeguards. Detachment is the disciplinary safeguard of the yoga practitioner. It is a centripetal force that reinvests, with unswerving purpose, the strengths and abilities we have gained toward the search for the core of being. This voluntary self-discipline is the role of pratyahara.” So we continually draw ourselves deeper and deeper inside, towards the source of our being. We move from the outer practices to the inner practices, from the body to the breath to the mind, to the intellect, to the soul. We utilize wisely different practices at different times. We employ different methods according to what is appropriate in the moment. This appropriate or “right” action is yet another “boon” of practice. To know what to do when. To know how to act and what action to take. Our observation, moment-to-moment, teaches us this “right” action. Our deep connection to source insures that our intention is pure- selfless rather than selfish. Very simply stated, practice practice practice. Astanga Yoga Master Sri K. Patabhi Jois says, “Practice and all is coming.” May we strive to do the best we can with what we have available to us in the moment. May we maintain our seat, as we act accordingly. May we learn from tragedy. May our suffering nurture the seeds of great compassion.


Jessica Bellofatto

Jessica's interest in yoga was piqued at the age of 18, while she was majoring in Dance at New York University. She completed the intensive year-long Teacher Training Program at the Jivamukti Yoga Center with beloved teachers Sharon Gannon and David Life in 1996 and has been teaching ever since. She is the founder and director of KamaDeva Yoga, in East Hampton, New York.

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