When should we take a break from asana practice is a question I am often asked. Yoga is wider than the physical only. So, practice ought to be consistent, yet it doesn’t always have to be physical. Yoga’s aims are much broader than the body alone. To this ends, practice is said in The Yoga Sutras, not to be about achieving a certain posture, or physical ability, rather;
‘tatra sthitau yatnah abhyasa”
(practice is the continuous effort to become firmly established in the self).
To this ends, even if the physical aspect needs a break from, true practice can continue. No specific advise is given as to how much asana practice to do exactly. It is only one technique related to Yogas’ higher-aim of mind-control.
It is maintained that success in that aim is result of time , consistency and effort. “Sat tu dirge kala nairantrya sat kara asevitah drdh bhumih”. (that practice is firmly grounded that continues, unbroken, over a long period, with an appropriate attitude).
Effort and hard work are imperative on our journey. This also has to be conceived within a framework of balance. Indeed, the only thing said about asana in The Yoga Sutras, is “sthiram Sukham Asanam”. (yoga-posture is a steady and comfortable position). Evidently, this does not entail pushing oneself against injuries and fatigue.
Effort Must Be Balanced
Effort must be balanced with a sense of ease gentleness. There is no benefit breaking oneself for the sake of yoga. This is not the sacrifice yoga intends. And this asceticism is constantly warned against in many yoga texts. In The Yoga Sutras, this is done so through the consistent emphasis on renunciation as well as effort.
Abhyasa Vairagya tan nirodhah” (yoga is achieved by effort and letting-go).
Indeed, skillful action is one definition of Yoga found in the other main yoga-text, The bhagavad Gita. Specifically, this means knowing when to act and knowing when the best action is non-action, restraining our tendency to push. This is the meaning behind the idea of a Yoga-adept given in the text as;
“One who see non action in action,/And action in non action”.
The journey of Yoga, is in the end, only the journey of knowing better ourselves, and for this reason, understanding when a tendency is to do with laziness or desire, influencing us inappropriately to circumstances. In its conclusion, Yoga is to recognize the pull of the Three-Gunas (three types of material energy in Indian thought) and realize ones essential independence in Satva, a sense of balance within the True-Self, not swayed or biased towards inauthenticity by the obsfugating quality of emotions.
Sometimes it’s unbalanced
Practically speaking then, there are certain times when it is unbalanced, Un-yogic, to do a physical-practice. When, it is forcing circumstances that aren’t conducive; such as when travelling, or in times of particular life-changes, injury or illness. Then it is simply through desire and compulsion, in no-way a skillful approach to the situation, using the tools of inquiry that Yoga is attempting to build within us. At other times when resistance or laziness is there, instead of restraint, the fire of Tapas or discipline that characterizes Yoga-Practise needs to be fully made use of.
All this involves a pragmatism, inherent in the intelligent and open-thinking which Yoga leads on to. With injury, take a few days, then do the asanas that feel comfortable. Then, slowly, try again those that don’t; if any trace of the pain exists there still, immediately cease effort, have patience, and try gently again a week later. But, one injury doesn’t mean all practice can’t be done. Make the sequence work for you, not the other way around. There is always some aspect of moving and breathing which can be done, which is to make full use of the fundamental aspect of asana which is is vinyasa; nothing less than mind-control Yoga aims at through the method of linking mind to body through the medium of breath.
Keeping it going
What is important is keeping the thread of Practice going, for it stands for nothing other than “continuity”, therefore, this may be found in some way or another. It doesn’t matter whether it is through sitting and visualizing practice instead of moving, or even writing, or involving oneself fully with the task at hand which has made practice impossible for that day. In this way, gradually, Yoga spreads over all of life, and asana doesn’t involve so much worry and agonizing over, as all things done well and in positive spirit stand for the same.
For, at the very root of Yoga-Method is only the realization and desire of the aim in ‘peace of mind’, what in the Yoga Sutras is termed as; ‘yoga citta vrriti nirodhah’ (Yoga is to stop the turning mind). So, with this in the forefront of ones mind, appropriate action can always be done, and this is not always physical asana. If over a period of physical practice, the only perceptible result is less tranquility of The Self, perhaps taking a week off, or going back to Primary Series for a period, may provide a sense of the wider context of Yoga, and asana can then be resumed with a more beneficial attitude and approach.
Indeed, challenge is inspiring, but constant hardship and asceticism isn’t so.
Hatha Yoga demands a careful balancing act and an awareness that, in its refinement, takes time to build. Just like any powerful tool, it cane be used to do a great deal of good, but it can be used to do an equal amount of harm. To that ends, it must be used with respect, care and due diligence, if it is not to end in burnout through the kind of stimulation of The Self that it engenders.
Equal measures then must also be taken to mitigate the over-affects of Yoga; calming and nurturing activities maintained, as well as care with diet and keeping up with Life outside Yoga. For, Yoga, is a lifestyle and not a tick-box for a sense of personal-value or self-esteem. Although it does as a by-product give out onto this, it’s manifesto is much higher-aiming. It is working towards a gentler, more peaceful and less-fraught life; not only as it feels to the individual, but also as to how harmoniously this Self interacts with others.
This sheds further light on another definition of Yoga in The Bhagavad Gita, “yoga is ahimsa” (non-harming). If physical-practice is considered with this in mind, the result will always be fitting and in the direction of Yoga.