Sadhana: One of Yoga's Magic Tricks
Updated: Jan 8
In the first yoga class that I taught this year, I asked if anyone had made new year’s resolutions. ZERO percent of the class, including me, had done so! We had a good laugh about it and they also smiled and laughed as I told them that I had tried a Spanish tradition introduced to me by my son in law: eating 12 grapes at midnight on New Year’s Eve and making 12 wishes for the new year. It was fun and pleasurable and did not carry the weight and sense of guilt that a resolution often does. Rather, my husband and I experienced a sense of light and joy as we wished for positive things to happen to our loved ones and ourselves in the coming 12 months.
Like this delightful Spanish tradition, yoga also offers a more joyful template for change than sheer will power. This approach, as seems to always be the case with yoga, is supported by science. To break destructive habits, or samskaras, one must create friction around that habit. For example, go outside to smoke or do ten minutes of jumping jacks before eating junk food. On the other hand, friction must be eliminated to create a healthy habit. This means making the healthy habit easy and also pleasurable. For example, to start an exercise program, create the right time, a supportive space, and find a friend to do it with or good music to make it fun. Thus, another way to support new, healthy habits is to identify what is already in place: a time of day that is already available, a physical space that is already set up (or will be fun and easy to set up,) and a healthy friend or a fun prop, like music or new sneakers, anything easily accessible that will promote the healthy activity you want to begin.
And just as we often don’t let go of unhealthy behaviors and initiate new, more supportive habits until we are in a mental or physical health crisis, both science and yoga welcome the crisis whether a heart attack or a dark night of soul. Much like the Chinese understanding of crisis being synonymous with opportunity, yoga recognizes both heart break and physical pain as the awakening that will open your eyes and set you seeking for relief from your suffering.
The first and foremost offering of yoga, when you are ready to give up unhealthy habits that lead to suffering and begin healthy practices that lead to happiness, is SADHANA. Sadhana means spiritual practice and, as with all Sanskrit words, references and implies several other yogic concepts. Abhyasa is the heartfelt dedication, devotion, and discipline that empowers and inspires one to practice sadhana regularly, daily if possible. Sadhana activates and maintains vairagya, the remembrance of the self which allows us to remain calm and centered, and therefore non reactive, during stressful times. From a scientific perspective, sadhana is a behavior that will likely be maintained because it is effortless, requires no props, takes little time, and has immediate beneficial effects. In other words, very limited friction and quick, pleasant results.
Upayas include all the “magic tricks” that yoga offers on the journey towards balance and union. The full list of techniques is spelled out in the Vedic texts, especially the Yoga Sutras by Patanjali and the Bhagavad Gita. (Look for a further discussion of upayas in a future blog.) Howevere, sadhana is most primary and foundational of all the practices and includes pranayama, (energy regulation,) meditation, and asana (posture practice).
Sadhana is referenced in the yoga sutra that promises “liberation is near!” How near, depends on whether your dedication (abhyasa) to your practice (upayas, including sadhana and all 8 branches) is mild, moderate, or intense. How reassuring that even when your busy life allows only a mild practice, freedom is still close by. On the other hand, if you long for liberation, this sutra encourages you to go for it! The paraphrase of the sutra, attributed to Patthabi Jois, sums it all up nicely: “Practice, practice, practice and all is coming.” Science and research show that the more we practice any healthy habit, the easier it is to do so and over time becomes an effortless action.
Sadhana brings us into both a deeper inward and and fuller outward experience. We may start by going to a yoga class and from there begin our own personal practice. Soon, we connect more authentically with others because we are more connected with ourselves. As sadhana clears out the internal obstructions, our perceptions of external reality become more accurate. We then spend less time with toxic people and seek out social opportunities with those who are also on a “magic tricks” path towards more meaning and purpose.
Click below for sadhana practice with Regina