Have you ever had to train yourself to drink beverages? Or eat food? Or sleep? While most of us have had days where we might forget to eat or we stayed up later than we should have, basic actions like these tend to occur naturally: We drink when we're thirsty, eat when hungry, and (hopefully) sleep when tired. We don't have to consciously set out to conduct these actions, because our bodies are programmed to require that we do to survive. We drink, eat, and sleep because our instincts tell us to.
Most of us are familiar with the idea of practice. Whether we've taken piano lessons or played baseball, we trained in an activity on an ongoing basis without performing a recital for others or playing a game against an opposing team. But though we might recognize the need to practice without getting immediate gratification, doing something over and over again can be a grueling experience. We might instinctually drink in response to thirst, but endeavoring to refine a skill or ability through repeated scales, running drills, or other forms of practice requires us to consciously make that activity important over time.
In my last blog, I addressed the importance of grounding ourselves in our intentions to be able to sustain a practice of spiritual growth. While we may feel confronted by practicing something like the piano or running bases, we see its benefit when we receive applause at the recital or defeat the other team. But seeking spiritual growth through a system like the yogic path is not nearly as concrete in its impact. We might work every day at practicing breathing exercises, committing to acts of selfless service, or chanting mantra, but it is often quite challenging to settle the mind down long enough to regard it with the same ongoing sense of importance that we would when we've learned how to finally play a piano concerto after having struggled with it for so long. We might refuse to come to the yoga mat one day because we don't have the energy for it or forsake a volunteer experience because the organization we're working for is too disorganized. One day, months or years from now, we may be able to discern its impact -- but until then, the intangible nature of a spiritual practice can be the most grueling type of experience there is.
My last blog likened a spiritual practice to a marathon: We stand to gain the most from seeking spiritual growth over a lengthy period of time. But even this analogy has limitations, for the fixed distance and easily measurable results of a marathon are far more tangible than progress along the yogic path. This intangibility makes it necessary to find ways of sustaining a spiritual practice over time. Below are a few simple tips to help you continue along on the path -- even when returning to the mat is the absolute last thing you want to do.
Start small and build incrementally. Do you get overwhelmed by the idea of committing to a lifelong spiritual practice? When we think about this work in relation to our fast-paced lives, it can not only seem daunting to set out on this path but completely absurd.
This is why it can be helpful to start small and build your practice incrementally over time. You may have the goal of sitting and breathing for 15 minutes a day, but even that may be hard to do. Try sitting for one minute each day this week, two minutes each day next week, and by the end of 14 weeks you will be at your goal. You can apply this to the amount of time you practice postures, volunteer, or anything else you aim to do for the sake of growth.
Start again today. You may have set out to practice every day, and then about a month ago it fell off to every other day. Then, only once or twice a week. This is okay -- and to be expected.
If you fall off from your practice, you may find yourself resolving to start again tomorrow, next week, or even next year. Resist this urge. Start today. Sit for five minutes before you go to bed tonight. Or better yet, stop reading this article right now and breathe in silence for a minute. By allowing yourself to wait any amount of time to begin your practice again, you're sending a message that your personal growth isn't that important.
Commit to a simple, tangible act. As I mentioned above, it can be difficult to commit to a spiritual practice because it's far less tangible than something else like music or sports. But some acts can both reflect the yogic path and have an immediate impact.
If you find yourself sluggish in response to your practice, try giving something of value away to someone else. You might have a favorite jacket, a piece of jewelry, or something else of value that you feel attached to. But by giving it away, you will no longer be in fear of losing it. And without that fear, you will feel lighter. The tangibility of this practice may be a simple one to commit to, but the lightness felt as a result may be all you need to resolve that sense of sluggishness.
This six-part series on the yogic path may be coming to a close, but I hope that it's provided you with some tools for shaping the beginning of an impactful, sustainable spiritual practice. When we succeed in developing an ability to weather the grueling days and return to the practice regardless of our resistance to it, we give ourselves an opportunity to not merely survive but thrive.
For it is through the yogic path that we may find our purpose.
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