08/10/2013 11:03 am ET Updated Oct 10, 2013

Yoga: Preparing for a Different Kind of Marathon

What would happen if you decided to run a marathon without doing any sort of preparation? By not spending hour after hour running, never regulating your diet, and not even trimming your long toenails the night before the race, you wouldn't perform at an optimum level. There's a really good chance that you wouldn't even be able to finish the race at all. Given how challenging it can be to run a marathon, it's easy for most of us to relate to the importance of preparing properly.

In contrast, are we usually so inclined to do the necessary preparations when we set out to explore a new lifestyle or a path of personal growth? If the success of all of the quick fix, change-your-life-in-30-days type of programs are any indication, then no. Usually, when we set out to follow a new way of living, we set out to make all sorts of quick changes that lead to the greatest impact in the least amount of time. Marathon runners may train for months before the big race, but those of us interested in self-improvement only seem interested in a sprint.

In my last blog, I described six basic paths we might take when pursuing a yogic way of life. We may practice bodily purification through Hatha Yoga, commit ourselves to selfless service through Karma Yoga, or choose another path. But, like with so many modern self-improvement models, when we seek to practice a lot of yoga postures, commit ourselves to a life of service, or pursue any of the other Yogic practices, we start out strong and then our interest wanes. We get winded by the intensity of the sprint. Fortunately, however, yogic tradition has also provided us with the ancient equivalent of training for the big race.

In his influential text known as The Yoga Sutras, the ancient sage Patanjali outlined what is known as the Eightfold Path. This is a system that mirrors our modern multi-step programs of personal growth. The Eightfold Path outlines eight basic practices that will ultimately lead us to a state of supreme joy and enlightenment. And though this system instructs us to pursue the physical postures, breathing exercises, and higher practices like meditation in a specific order, the whole program is begun through the pursuit of the first two steps: the yamas and the niyamas.

These two practices are a series of ways that we may modify our behaviors. While higher practices like meditation are typically pursued as a contained experience for a certain amount of time each day (e.g. "I meditated for two hours today"), the yamas and the niyamas are ways we affect our moment-to-moment lives. The yamas are a series of ways to abstain from harmful behaviors like violence and stealing. The niyamas are a series of ways that we may positively affect our lifestyle, like purification and seeking contentment. In pursuing these behaviors, we hold ourselves accountable for the many choices we make throughout any given day of our lives. We previously might have stolen somebody's parking space from them because it would shave five minutes off of our shopping experience, but now that we practice non-stealing we accept that extra time driving around the parking lot as a necessary step in our day. By consciously making choices about how to behave, we contend with the results of those choices: Why am I still driving when I could have stolen that space out from under that other person? Oh yes, I seek a better, lighter way of living. And through this process we come to understand our ultimate purpose for seeking the Yogic path in the first place.

It is in defining our purpose -- our reason for seeking this different path -- that we set an intention for the changes that will take place. Were we to simply start practicing yoga postures right away, we might be attached to whether or not we're losing enough weight or becoming flexible enough. But by first coming to understand our purpose -- oh yes, I don't seek flexibility but rather a better way to live my whole life -- we become less attached to attaining fast results. Without these attachments, we can sustain our commitment to the path over time.

If a marathon runner didn't consume a lot of carbohydrates the day before their race, then they may very well still make it to the finish line. But just like the long-distance runner benefits from a plate of pasta, the yogic seeker benefits from their own preparations. In my next and final blog in this series, I'll provide a few specific ideas to help you sustain your practice over time.

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Yogi Cameron

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