Finding Purpose in the Practice

We’re all familiar with the age-old adage of “practice makes perfect.” But what is it that we are trying to ‘perfect’ through yoga? In other words, what is the purpose of our practice? And how can knowledge of our purpose help our practice?

Imagine this: I offer you a choice between accepting a 1-dollar note versus a 100-dollar note. The only catch is that we are separated by a 100-metre distance. If you accept the 1-dollar note, I will walk to you but if you decide to take the 100-dollar note, you’ll have to walk towards me. For most of us, the choice to walk a mere 100 metres for a 100-dollar profit seems fairly straightforward.

If we apply this thinking to our yoga practice too, we see that sometimes the temptation of accepting what’s in front of us without making any extra effort (like getting the 1-dollar note) takes over our practice. We may feel tempted to exchange our future potential to gain more (taking the 100-dollar note) by taking a shortcut and accepting what is offered to us in the present. Notice the different verbs in the two scenarios: getting vs taking. This difference in effort is what constitutes Abhyāsa (practice). While treading the yogi’s path, practice moves beyond the functional meaning of the word to also encompass the emotional and spiritual aspect of ‘striving’ and making an effort.

If we reconsider the original analogy, you may also be tempted to ask: “why should I accept the 1-dollar note when I can have the 100-dollar note?” This is the insight that enables us to crack open the word ‘practice’ from its shell and unite it with the larger sense of ‘purpose’. When we understand the true value of what yoga has to offer us, it allows us to identify our purpose and thus, elevate our practice too.

Sage Patanjali’s yoga sutra (aphorism) 2.26 talks of Abhyāsa (practice) in the context of building one’s discernment and ultimately achieving freedom from ignorance:

विवेकख्यातिरविप्लवा हानोपायः।

(pronounced: vivekakhyātiraviplavā hānopāyaḥ)

English Translation:
Uninterrupted practice and discrimination (between real and unreal phenomena) is the means to liberation and the cessation of ignorance.​

Pitted against mere functional goals like “losing weight” and “getting fit” (that yoga studios so often tend to advertise as ‘the promise of yoga’), then doesn’t the value of having a liberated self seem more purposeful? Doesn’t the answer to “why do I need to contort my body, observe my breath and go beyond my mental chatter?” also take on a loftier purpose? Like life itself, the mystery is the answer.

So, what will it be for you: the 1-dollar note or the 100-dollar note? 🙂

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