Because of the way asana classes are described today, we tend to think of ourselves as beginning, intermediate or advanced students. But our physical abilities (like being able to sit in Padmasana or comfortably hold an arm balance) don’t necessarily equate to an advanced practice. According to the Yoga Sutras, how we practice is the key.
Instead of thinking about where your practice falls on a scale of beginner to advanced, think of your practice as belonging to another range: Mild, moderate or intense. These are the descriptors Patanjali used to point out student differences in sutras 1.19-22. Modern commentaries on the sutras have gone even further, dividing students into nine types based on the effort and intensity of their practice. Do you practice moderately but with intense conviction? Or do you have an intense practice with only mild conviction?
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It’s logical to assume that those who combine an intense practice with intense convictions advance the quickest. But over the weeks and years, most of us experience times when conviction wavers or a demanding schedule impacts practice. And sometimes it’s the tortoise that wins the race.
Recognizing that students advance at different rates, Patanjali identified four inner qualities that help practitioners of every level and stage of life stay on course and move ahead. These are:
Faith (sraddha). This is not the blind leap of belief that religion asks of us, but rather an inner sense of direction based on the experience and evidence we gain as our yoga practice develops and builds. When we practice with sraddha, we feel pulled deeper and deeper toward something greater, even though each of us may describe that “something greater” in different ways—as truth, peace, bliss, oneness, self-realization or, as Patanjali described it, Samadhi.
Strength (virya). The Sanskrit word for strength comes from vira—the root of Supta Virasana (Supine Hero’s Pose) and Virabhadrasana (the Warrior poses). Vira is also the root of our English words virile and virtuous. In yoga, a spiritual “warrior’s” strength is based on commitment and whole-hearted effort. Her power arises from a sense of rightness and purpose.
Mindfulness (smriti). Though smriti is often translated as memory, Swami Prabhavananda aptly described it as recollection. When we re-collect or gather our scattered thoughts and half-forgotten experiences, directing them with a singular focus, we can develop a continual state of awareness known as mindfulness.
Insight (prajna). The higher wisdom of prajna arises not from thought, but from intuition or understanding. All of our yoga practices, from asana to meditation, help us build, refine and embody knowledge until it permeates every level of our awareness and becomes part of our nature.
Patanjali believed students needed these four traits or virtues to reach yoga’s ultimate goal, Samadhi. Two thousand years later, we can see how faith, strength, mindfulness and insight work together to help us intensify and advance any yoga practice, from a single asana to meditative absorption. What’s more, we can see that this four-pronged approach is also the key to living life more fully.
Which of these qualities has been easiest for you to nurture throughout your practice? Would you describe your practice as mild, moderate or intense?