The Three Elements of Successful Practice
In Yoga Sutra 1.14, Patanjali reminds us that there are three critical elements for effective yoga practice:
It must be done for a long time. Yoga is about the long game. It is not a quick-fix by any means. The holistic practice of yoga is not designed to be a casual hobby or a seasonal sport. It is a conscious lifestyle choice that has the potential to enrich our lives and relationships outside the four corners of the mat.
It must be done without a break. This sutra offers one of the most direct instructions to practice yoga every day. Lasting tranquility cannot be maintained with a strenuous 30-day yoga challenge or a strict 7-day cleanse every now and then. Instead, it is cultivated with the repeated choice of right actions on a daily basis. By practicing yoga every day, we nourish our reserves of peace more quickly than we would with sporadic visits to the mat.
It must be done with sincere devotion. You may have heard the old adage that yoga without intention is just exercise. There’s nothing wrong with “just exercise”, but without devotion, it isn’t yoga, at least not according to Patanjali. Similarly, B.K.S. Iyengar speaks to this devotion in “Light on Yoga” as he describes prerequisites for any postural practice, “…asanas without the backing of yama and niyama is mere acrobatics.” Intention and devotion are what give yoga staying power, if you limit your practice to exercise alone, chances are it won’t sustain you for long.
Why Practice Yoga Every Day?
The Science of Sadhana: Bigger Brains
In a recent study aptly titled, Neuroprotective Effects of Yoga Practice, the brains of experienced yoga practitioners were compared to those of non-practitioners with similar health profiles. Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), researchers at The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health were able to identify regions of activity and growth. As a result, this study found that:
- A regular practice combining breath awareness, physical postures and meditation can increase the volume of gray matter (brain tissue) in different parts of the brain, effectively reducing the naturally occurring, age-related decline of brain cells. With most of the observed gray matter volume changes having occurred in the left-side of the brain, the implication is that yoga shifts the automatic response of the practitioner from fight-or-flight (right-brain, sympathetic nervous system activation resulting in acute physical stress) to rest-and-digest (left-brain, parasympathetic nervous system activation promoting calm and relaxation)
- The areas of the brain indicating the greatest change in gray matter were those directly related to sense of self, attention, spatial/sensory awareness as well as stress reduction. These findings provide a potential neural basis for the benefits of practicing yoga. The observed benefits were greater in those who practiced more often over a longer period of time supporting the notion that a consistent practice of yoga every day is more effective than an intermittent one
The Science of Sadhana: Positive Gene Expression
Yogic texts have long since shared the promise of changes that can occur on the subtlest levels of being with practice. In B.K.S. Iyengar’s “Light on Yoga”, for example, we’re offered a myriad of physiological benefits with each individual pose. In 2013, studies at the University of Oslo offered a unique look inside the cellular structures of the human body to provide real, measurable data on what actually happens to cells when we practice yoga.
The Norwegian research team discovered that various yoga practices immediately impacted the expression of 111 genes, increasing the function of some while decreasing the function of others.
A similar study conducted at Harvard Medical School concluded that, “practitioners upregulate genes associated with energy metabolism, mitochondrial function, insulin secretion and telomere maintenance while downregulating genes linked to inflammatory response and stress-related pathways.”
In effect, yoga changes the way our genes express themselves in order to achieve optimal health.
The Science of Sadhana: Increased Interoceptive Awareness
As yoga practitioners, we intuitively know that some good can come from intentionally focusing attention inward. We regularly “watch” the breath from the inside out and concentrate on specific areas like the spine or the hips. After enough time, we come to trust the benefit of this type of attention based on experiential proof and as we revisit this behavior again and again, we call it practice.
This shift of attention inward helps us maintain composure under stress by instinctively deepening the breath and it allows us to identify ailments before they become serious with heightened body awareness. Many of you, myself included, may have long ago stopped asking why yoga works, but in case you are still wondering, Norman Farb from the University of Toronto has one possible answer.
In his 2012 study on interoceptive and exteroceptive attention, Farb discovered key differences in the location of brain activity resulting from directed attention, either inward or outward. To understand why this is important, it helps to know that as babies, humans focus most of their attention internally; everything about the information received from their bodies is new and they have no qualms about devoting large amounts of concentration there.
As humans mature however, we are conditioned to favor external information and stimuli. We are taught in school to pay attention to the teacher, the board, the book. Aside from the utilitarian tasks associated with personal hygiene, we are seldom encouraged to pay much attention to our bodies from the inside. We develop a sense of self that is largely defined by external information and we generally identify with our internal experience only when something is wrong.
What Farb encountered in his study was that when participants focused on an external screen (exteroceptive attention), the primary brain activity occurred in the neocortex, the most recent evolution in the human brain which differentiates us from other species and processes sensory information predominantly from external input. On the other hand, when participants were instructed to observe their breath (interoceptive attention), brain activity was heightened in the areas of the brain that bridge the cortex and the limbic system which is much older in terms of evolution, governing basic instincts and primal emotions.
According research scientist, Emma Seppala, whose expertise is social connectedness and meditation-based interventions, this shift from exteroceptive to interoceptive attention may be “directly tapping into bodily awareness that is free from social judgment or conceptual self-evaluation.” Now this starts to sound like yoga! We can’t change our internal experience with external attention. It follows that when practiced over time, yogic practices such as asana, pranayama and meditation strengthen our capacity for interoceptive attention, meaning that we live in a more deeply connected way with the Self.
Choice Outranks Habit
According to Wendy Wood, psychology professor at the University of Southern California, habits are formed when a repeated, goal-driven behavior becomes a contextual reaction to a specific trigger and yields an automatic response. Before a habit is formed, the area of the brain required to perform a particular action activates working memory and allows for the ability to make decisions. After a number of repetitions, the action no longer uses the same area of the brain.
Instead, the goal-related information is released and we enter a sensory-motor cycle that leaves the conscious mind out of the picture. Basically, when we deny ourselves the freedom of choice in our actions, what we’re left with is habit. Mindless, unconscious, pattern-laden habit. In the context of yoga every day, we must exercise our conscious choice show up for whatever the practice looks like on a particular day. Whether we believe it or not, the power of choice is always stronger than the force of habit.
Even good habits can be troublesome because they remove us from the present and disconnect us from consciousness by soliciting an automated response. However, in developing a consistent practice, Wendy Wood’s approach to building new habits does have some merit. At The American Psychological Association’s 122nd Annual Convention, she presented the following three principles for habit formation, offered here with a yogic trimurti twist.
This is the power of Shiva to destroy and transform any pattern or behavior that is no longer serving our highest spiritual aims. Take a moment to reflect on what has kept you from practicing yoga every day in the past. For example, do you run out of hours in the day? If so, make the change to morning practice by waking up early or shorten the time expectation.
This is the power of Vishnu, the sustainer of order and truth. Establishing continuity can make yoga more enjoyable because each practice builds on the one before. You will inevitably develop greater strength and mobility while experiencing deeper levels of clarity and relaxation. Plus, when you know you will have another opportunity tomorrow, there’s less pressure imposed on each instance of practice.
This is the power of Brahma, creator of all things. By harnessing the freedom of choice and awakening creative power, we can establish new neural pathways through practice that free us from conditioned patterns of behavior. Wood advises the implementation of new triggers or cues that elicit the desired behavior. For example, a simple ritual that initiates the sequence of practice can be all you need to get started, you might apply essential oils or light a candle. You may even just unroll your mat or sit on your meditation cushion and see what unfolds.
How to Practice Yoga Every Day
The Structure of Sadhana: Living Yoga
One common misconception about yoga is that practice begins and ends with asana. Yes, the postural practice serves a very important purpose, as B.K.S. Iyengar confirms in “Light On Life”, there is no substitute for sweat. But as he also teaches, “penetration of mind is our goal.” In other words, asana is not the point, it is the path.
If we can remain open to the broader offering of yoga as a lifestyle, we begin to see that it shows up everywhere and looks different from one day to the next.
Sometimes yoga is sweaty and long and intense. Other times, it is subtle, like the generosity to let someone cut in traffic or being patient with our loved ones. It is this mode of living yoga, finding union in our thoughts, words, and actions that provides consistency in practice, which Judith Lasater says, “is the highest form of discipline”. Whereas, if we were to adhere to a strict regimen of asana 90 minutes a day, 7 days a week, but found that we were no kinder, gentler or more peaceful, then we wouldn’t be in the practice of yoga. Instead, it is better to practice your yoga, your way, every day.
The Structure of Sadhana: A Little Yoga is Better Than No Yoga
When the prescriptive practices outlined in the Yoga Sutras were written, they were intended for renunciants who devoted their lives to spiritual practice by abandoning all worldly interactions. Today’s yoga however, particularly in the west, is practiced by householders whose spiritual practice is woven into a much more complex daily life, loaded with responsibilities and relationships. What this means for a devoted daily practice is, sometimes a little yoga every day is better than none at all.
The Structure of Sadhana: Choose Your Level of Practice
Patanjali indirectly addresses yoga practice for householders in the Yoga Sutras by describing various levels of practice and emphasizing conviction over intensity. In Yoga Sutra 1.20, Patanjali describes how those practicing with great vigor and firm conviction achieve the fruits of their labor more quickly than those with lesser conviction. In Swami Jnaneshvara’s discussion of this sutra he explains that a person with a busy schedule, lacking ample time for practice can still engage in moderate effort (in length or intensity) while maintaining strong conviction. This approach prevails over an irregular, less devoted practice having greater intensity or length of time.
The Structure of Sadhana: Being and Becoming
Daily practice is an ever-evolving cycle of being and becoming. In Yoga Sutra 2.31, Patanjali illustrates the ultimate progression along the spiritual path as the point at which daily sadhana becomes a great vow. He adds that this great vow can only be observed by one who practices universally in relation to all beings of all forms, equally in all places or spaces, continuously in all times, and uniformly among all circumstances or situations.
Again, referring to Swami Jnaneshvara’s translation, he extracts from this sutra that we must all must start where we are and commit to what is possible in our practice right now. Let the practice ebb and flow with the tide of your daily life, but stay true in the unwavering commitment of yoga every day. This is what is meant by a “great vow”. With consistency and devotion, as we awaken deeper levels of awareness, the above conditions are met and what we cultivate in sadhana becomes our natural state of being.
Say Yes to Yoga Every Day
From neuroscience to somatics, we are in the midst of a burgeoning curiosity about human experience and consciousness that has inspired the application of modern methods of observation, measurement, and analysis to substantiate the positive effects of daily yoga practice. As research catches up with the sages, this systematic scientific inquiry has, in many cases, confirmed the poetry of ancient wisdom and sacred texts. Common to both the science and the spirit of sadhana, we find the benefits of yoga every day are undeniable.