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Taking the Next Step: Faith and the Yoga Vitamins

By Patricia Walden & Jarvis Chen :: posted 27 August 2010

Wherever we are with our practice, there is always the next step that we can take to enrich our experience and deepen our understanding of our true nature.  This is the case whether we are just beginning a yoga practice or whether we have been practicing for years (or lifetimes). As we begin a new fall semester of yoga classes, this is a good time to ask ourselves: Am I ready to take the next step? Have I become bored or mechanical with my practice? If I hesitate to take the next step, what is it that is holding me back?

Even in ancient times, yogis recognized that plateaus are inevitable on the path. In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali gives us a number of supports to help us redouble our efforts and recommit to practice when confronted by obstacles. Among these are five qualities that BKS Iyengar has named the “yoga vitamins” (see: BKS Iyengar, Tree of Yoga): faith (sraddha), vigor (virya), memory (smrti), concentration (samadhi), and wisdom (prajna) (Yoga Sutra I.20).

The first of these – faith – is at once the most fundamental and also the most mysterious of the yoga vitamins. It is the most fundamental because it is the foundation for the other four. In his commentary on the Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, Vyasa likens faith to the benevolent mother who guides the child. Faith comes from the heart and provides the energy for sustained and dedicated practice, which in turn builds a storehouse of memory within our cells. As we deepen those memories (smrti) and the positive imprints (samskara-s) of practice, we strengthen our ability to persevere (virya), become absorbed (samadhi), gain insight (prajna), and experience joy in our practice. We let the current of our practice flow through us without resistance and carry us closer and closer to the Self.

At the same time, faith is also mysterious because, of all the yogic supports mentioned, it is the one that cannot be manifested through an act of will. While the energy that we put into our practice determines the outcome, if we approach our practice with the aggressive energy of the ego, something will inevitably burn out. Knees and shoulders get worn out, the body breaks downs, or exhaustion sets in. As Guruji says, the will that comes from the brain eventually runs out because the ego is finite. But “the will that springs from the intelligence of the heart is linked to an infinite resource… it is a well that will never run dry” (BKS Iyengar, Light On Life).

When we see videos and photos of BKS Iyengar’s demonstrations over the years, we understandably marvel at the strength and fluidity of his presentation. We could very well think that these poses always came easily to him, and that we could not aspire to his level of performance. But as Guruji himself has written, practice does not always progress in a straight line. Along the way, there can be setbacks, frustrations, and disappointments. Guruji has written about long years when his practice plateaued and felt dry and lifeless. He has talked about the decades it took for him to master pranayama. Throughout, it was a heartfelt faith (sraddha) that kept him on the path and allowed him to continue to practice uninterruptedly, with devotion, even when he could not predict the outcome.

At its simplest and most essential, faith is that willingness to continue to move forward. It is the courage to step forth into the unknown, and to meet whatever the next moment brings with open eyes and a receptive heart. As Sharon Salzberg writes, “Faith is the animation of the heart that says, ‘I choose life, I align myself with the potential inherent in life, I give myself over to that potential.’ This spark of faith is ignited the moment we think, I’m going to go for it. I’m going to try.

The classical commentators on the Yoga Sutra-s also suggest that sraddha refers to faith in one’s practice. Whether we come to yoga to heal an injured body, soothe a troubled mind, or achieve union with the innermost Self, we have faith that the practice we have undertaken can ultimately transform us. And the marvelous thing is that this faith is not something external to us: all of us have the seed of faith within us already. We may not immediately be able to recognize it or know how to nurture it, but we can learn to do both. The fact that we continue to show up for class or to unroll our mats at home to practice is evidence of this. And even when we have trouble practicing during difficult times, the fact that something within us says “why don’t you practice?” – even if that voice is drowned out by other voices – shows us that deep down, the seed of that faith is there, waiting to be cultivated.

Of the obstacles listed by Patanjali, doubt is the one that most obviously stands in opposition to faith. Doubt is the voice that arises within us and says, “I can’t do that,” or “why should I bother?” or “who are you to think that you could possibly accomplish that?” Doubt feeds our deepest fears – the thoughts that gnaw at our hearts and make us feel incapable, unworthy, and unlovable. When we experience doubt, the mind is divided. Part of the mind may be willing to go forward and to take the next step, but the other parts are holding us back and undermining our efforts.

Often in class or public, BKS Iyengar will ask, “Are there any doubts?” This often gets a laugh out of Western students, because while we know that they are asking if there are any questions or points in need of clarification, we don’t usually think of these questions as “doubts.” But if we stop and think about it, confusion or lack of clarity about the most basic things in our practice is what gives rise to doubt. If we are unclear, say, about whether the thighs should turn in or out in urdhva dhanurasana (upward facing bow pose), the mind becomes divided. Part of the mind says, “Let me turn the thighs in,” part says, “Let me turn the thighs out,” and we lack the discrimination to know which will help us progress in our practice. Of course, if we have the chance to ask our teachers, we might be able to get some guidance to dispel this doubt, but if not, then we what do we do? Rather than let the confusion paralyze us, we can say, let me practice urdhva dhanurasana both ways, turning the thighs in and then turning the thighs out. I may not know right now which is the better action, but I have faith that if I practice with compassionate attention and awareness, if I reflect sensitively on the sensations that come as a result, if I compare my experience now to my previous experiences this and other asanas, then I can discern which action gives me a sense of inner space, evenness of effort, one-pointedness of mind, and benevolence of consciousness.

We invite you this fall to put faith and the yoga vitamins into practice in your own life. For example:

•Choose a pose that evokes fear in you or that you just don’t like to do. For example, ardha chandrasana (half moon pose), sirsasana (headstand), adho mukha vrksasana (full arm balance), pinca mayurasana (forearm balance), or urdhva dhanurasana (upward facing bow pose). See if you can trace the more basic poses that will prepare you to attempt the more difficult one. Commit to practicing these preparatory poses three times a week for a month, and cultivate the faith that this work will prepare you to tackle the more challenging asana.

•The times you don’t want to practice but you do anyway can, in the end, be the most beneficial and satisfying practices. Even when you can’t imagine how or why it will help you, have faith that somewhere, deep below the surface, the actions you are taking are planting a seed. If you have trouble practicing even when you set yourself the intention (sankalpa) to do so, try this: the next time you find yourself wavering between practicing and not practicing, tell yourself: Let me at least do adho mukha svanasana (downward facing dog pose) and uttanasana (standing forward bend), and then let me see how I feel. Have faith that taking the first step will lead to a second and third step, and so on.

•Do you find pranayama difficult or boring? Commit to doing 5 minutes of conscious breathing in savasana a day, even if the mind wanders. If this starts to come easily, add five minutes of conscious breathing while sitting in svastikasana. Like a farmer tills the field, plants the seeds, and waters them daily, have faith that this practice will bear fruit.

While faith is the antidote to doubt, yogic faith is not blind faith. It is not adherence to a rigid belief system or an unquestioning trust in a figure of authority. Each and every day, our practice gives us the opportunity to test what we have been taught, to verify its core principles, to discover the truth of our deepest nature, and to experience anew the joy that can come from connecting with our innermost Being. As long as we keep fresh the intention (sankalpa) to be open, to step courageously into the unknown, and to meet each day with an abiding faith, we can trust that our practice and the inner light of the Soul will continue to sustain us.

"Do not wait for strength before setting out, for immobility will weaken you further. Do not wait to see clearly before starting; one has to walk toward the light. When you take the first step and accomplish that tiny little act, the necessity of which may be apparent only to you, you will be astonished to feel that the effort, rather than exhausting your strength, has doubled it—and that you already see more clearly what you have to do next."

- Philippe Vernier