Sadhana: The Power of Personal Practice, Part 1

sadhanaThe start of a new year is often a time for new goals – whether healthier diet, more frequent trips to the gym, or better financial planning.  And yet, when it comes to our spiritual growth, the idea of a formal personal program may seem unusual. In fact, even for those of us on the spiritual path, we may be unsure where to begin in setting our objectives, let alone building a routine to achieve them.

The Yogis not only realized the value of such a program, but in fact had a term for it: sadhana, or the unique practices we select in building our own spiritual program. In our next two articles here at “The Living Yoga Blog,” we’ll explore this valuable idea, including why a personalized routine is so important, how you can establish your own distinct goals, common elements that a personal program might include, and how to maintain a lasting practice.

Practice Makes Perfect: Why Sadhana Matters

To begin, we all know that repetition is the foundation of both physical and mental growth – that what we repeatedly do and think become who we are. In any area where we are passionate – whether work, relationships, sports, or even hobbies – we realize the importance of committing ourselves to regular practice. And yet, ironically, we seldom apply the same consistent effort to emotional or spiritual improvement.

The Yogis realized the importance of this — if we want to consistently move forward on the spiritual path, we need to approach it with the same dedication and consistency with which we approach the other important task in our lives. Very much like an athlete who sets goals, establishes a program, and periodically evaluates how that program is working, if we are serious about our personal growth, we want to do exactly the same. Sadhana is our own unique approach to working toward our own emotional and spiritual ideals, and as such it is an indispensable part of the spiritual life.

Establishing Your Goals & Challenges

The example of an athlete is especially apt for discussing sadhana, and we can use the template of athletic training for our own inner work. To begin, whatever his or her sport, an athlete’s first step is to establish his or her goals, and we need to do the same. Before we can build a program, we need to identify the areas in which we would most like to grow – what are the aspects of our emotional and spiritual life that could be stronger? What are the issues that consistently challenge us or hold us back?

Just like an athlete, there are several ways we can clarify our objectives. One approach is to evaluate our general performance in life, just as an athlete reviews games or competition. In this approach, we spend a week or two documenting the issues that arise during daily life – at the end of each day, spending a half hour or so reflecting on the issues that arose, whether at work and at home, and recording our recurring challenges.

Perhaps we notice a tendency toward anger or being judgmental. Perhaps we notice a lack of willpower with food or spending, or simply learning to say “no” when we are over-extended. Most of us already have a pretty good idea of what’s on our list, and generally, a week or two is plenty of time to confirm the primary challenges on which we would like to focus. Again, this is a lot like an athlete reviewing the past few games and asking: “Where am I lagging behind? What areas would bring me the greatest benefit if I ‘brought them up to speed?’”

If this approach feels a bit overwhelming, we can also use more of a “checklist” approach. Just as a coach or trainer might suggest a list of basic skills that all athletes need – for example, endurance, strength, power, technical skills, strategy, etc. – we can do the same with our spiritual growth. Conveniently, the primary works of Yoga offer several such lists, which can be especially beneficial in reminding us of areas we might overlook. For example, the ethical principles of Yoga — the ten yamas and niyamas listed in The Yoga Sutras — can be an excellent starting point. Alternatively, the five obstacles to our inner peace (the kleshas) discussed by Patanjali is another great checklist. Or the several descriptions of the various qualities of the Yogic sage offered in The Bhagavad Gita provide another great resource for asking: “How am I doing in each of these areas?”

Clarifying Our Situation & Capacity

Once we’ve identified our major goals, the next important step is to be clear on any restrictions we are currently facing, as well as the general amount of time and energy we feel we can realistically devote to our practice. Again, just like an athlete must ask: “How much training can I consistently commit to, given my other obligations?” we must ask the same of our spiritual work. This is important for a couple reasons: first, there is no point in building an elaborate program if it is only going to leave us feeling overextended, and second, the more honestly and realistically we look at these things in advance, the more likely we are to build a program that we can actually sustain and enjoy.

Beyond looking at over-all energy and time, we also want to look at other areas of our life, including the flow of our day, our physical circumstances, and how our practices may need to mesh with the lives of the people we are close to. For example, certain parts of our sadhana might fit better once our children are up and into their day, or perhaps before they have yet to rise; other practices might be better if we can find a way to share them with our partner or a friend. Again, the more we can anticipate these factors, the more likely we are to develop a program that we can stick with, which means less time “rethinking” and more time improving.

Common Elements of Personal Practice

Once we’re clear on goals and constraints, the next step is to consider some of the practices available to us. We are all familiar with the major aspects of Yoga, such as asana, meditation, and pranayama, but there are many others. Obviously, treating all of them with the detail they deserve would take more space than we have, here, but below is a brief summary of the major practices along with their purpose. If you’d like to know more about any of these practices, please feel free to drop us a line and we’d be happy to go into greater detail in future articles.

  • Asana – Even a brief daily practice of the basic poses can improve health while also calming the mind for meditation. Asana also helps us remember the conditional nature of our bodies, as well as our thoughts and feelings, which are also influenced by our physical state. This awareness can help us avoid falling into attachment, not only to our bodies but also our emotions and beliefs.
  • Meditation – The foundation of all branches of Yoga, regular meditation – even just 10-15 minutes a day – can help us be more mindful, present, compassionate, and peaceful. For this reason, meditation is considered to be a crucial part of all sadhana, enhancing all worldly and spiritual goals….
  • Pranayama – Again, even a short breath work routine can energize the body and calm the mind, making it invaluable for physical and mental health. Studies show just 10 minutes of deep breathing measurably impacts respiration for the next 24 hours.
  • Sayva – Selfless service helps us reduce egoism and to remember the universal nature of such challenges as fear and loneliness. Even brief regular commitments — daily, weekly, or monthly — to helping others can be a powerful tool for greater self-awareness and compassion.
  • Self-Study – A daily practice of reflecting on our patterns and assumptions is crucial for self-growth. Whether with the guidance of a teacher or counselor or on or own, self-study is essential if we are to become both more conscious and caring.
  • SatsangSatsang, or spending time with fellow truth-seekers, is another valuable tool for self-growth, especially if we commit to it on a regular basis. Whether a teacher, spiritual book group, or just a friend with whom we meet regularly in order to check in with our spiritual work, sat sang is a powerful tool for staying on track.
  • StudySvadhyaya or study of spiritual works is another powerful part of sadhana. As little as 10 or 15 minutes a day can center us and remind us of our greater goals. Whether a classic Yogic text, such as The Yoga Sutras or The Gita, or a more contemporary work, daily reinforcement can help us avoid stagnation and also help us keep our deeper values in sight.
  • Prayer – Prayer has often been described as the complement to meditation. In meditation, we are learning to quiet the mind so we can better listen to the wisdom inside and around us. In prayer we are clarifying and reinforcing our focus and goals. Instead of getting caught up in the unconscious thoughts which fill our daily lives, we are mindfully asking ourselves: “What do I really want from my life, and where could I use wisdom and insight in order to move forward?”
  • Spiritual Journal – Again, just like an athlete tracks his or her training and performance in order to evaluate his or her program, if we are serious about our inner growth we’ll want to do the same. For that reason, a spiritual journal can be a great tool for tracking our current program, how well we are following it, and the results we are experiencing.
  • Diet – As discussed in earlier articles, our diet can have a powerful impact on our mental, emotional, and spiritual growth.  For that reason, simplifying our diet or making it a little more moderate can free a significant amount of energy for work on our higher beliefs.
  • Fasting – Related to diet, even brief periods without food can provide considerable time and energy for focusing on our spiritual work.  Even just 24 hours without worrying about food can fuel significant change, especially if observed regularly (hence the original idea of the sabbath).
  • Mouna – The Yogis, like many contemplative traditions, observed a powerful link between speech and thought.  For this reason, they found periods of silence can greatly help quiet a restless mind.  Interestingly, they also noticed a similar connection between thought and stimulation of the palate, which is part of why fasting or dietary simplicity can help calm the mind, and why periods of silence can help us make better dietary choices. 
  • ChantingKirtan, or group chanting, is another common practice.  Like all faiths, Yoga realizes that music is a powerful means of connecting with others us while also deepening our spiritual awareness.  Chanting can focus the mind, elevate mood, foster connection.  Along with kirtan, another staple of Yogic practice is japa, or silent, internal chanting, which allows us to enjoy many of the benefits of kirtan in situations where silence is necessary . 
  • Written Meditation – A less common practice, but one with surprising power, is written meditation.  Exactly as it sounds, written meditation is simply writing an expression, whether a mantra or affirmation, for a set amount of time or number of repetitions.  Whether in Sanskrit or English, this simple practice links mind and muscle coordination, which deepens our awareness much like chanting. 
  • Ritual – Finally, whether formal Hindu ceremonies, such as puja or arathi, or rituals from our own Western heritage, such as communion or advent, ritual can be a powerful tool for using the various senses to reinforce our spiritual values.  If you like, you can even develop your own personal ritual to start or end each day or to “sanctify” a special day of spiritual practice….  

 In Our Next Article… 

Now that we’ve examined the power of daily sadhana, how to establish primary goals, and some of the common elements of a personal routine, in our next article we’ll discuss the most effective ways to combine these practices, as well as some helpful tips on building and maintaining momentum in your own unique program.  Until then, as always, wishing you the very best in “Living Yoga….”

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