What We Practice: Yoga

In a Sunday morning yoga class a while back, I opened our discussion with a layered question: What does it mean to practice: what is it that we’re practicing, and why does that matter?

The question was inspired by a dharma talk by Diana Clark called “How to Support Our Practice.” The talk reminded me that life itself is the practice—the practice isn’t limited to the meditation cushion (or yoga mat); the practice is a way of life, a way of understanding ourselves and being in the world.

In our class that Sunday, we defined the purpose of our coming together: to build a solid foundation of peace, compassion, and happiness. Imagine building a house; a house without a reliable foundation is dysfunctional and unsafe to live in. With our asana and meditation practices, we said, we’re creating a functional and safe environment within ourselves so that we can live more wholly and share our peace with others.

We came up with these five foundational cornerstones (note the word “practice” before each. We wanted to emphasize the necessity of action):

1. Practice Self-Compassion

We swapped stories about times in our lives when a lack of compassion for ourselves resulted in lacking compassion for others. Compassion opens the door to greater peace within ourselves and in our lived experiences with others. As Pema Chödrön puts it:

Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.

2. Practice Mindfulness

When we devote attention to whatever or whomever is before us, our levels of concentration, wisdom, and love grow. Paying attention asks us to slow down and live each moment more fully. What Sylvia Boorstein says about meditation can also be applied to yoga:

Mindfulness meditation doesn’t change life. Life remains as fragile and unpredictable as ever. Meditation changes the heart’s capacity to accept life as it is. It teaches the heart to be more accommodating, not by beating it into submission, but by making it clear that accommodation is a gratifying choice.

3. Practice Human Connections

We determined that connection is about meeting one another where we are—holding space for the other to be who they are in any particular moment; striving to keep our hearts and minds open. In these regards, we relate to Brené Brown’s idea:

I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.

4. Practice Hope

If we lose hope, we slide into mental paralysis and feelings of powerlessness. Hope is the energy of willpower—the will and the power to believe in our capacity for love and peace. Here’s Emily Dickinson’s poetic tribute to hope:

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all.

5. Practice Interbeing

We are not separate from one another or the rest of life. “Interbeing” (and “inter-are,” “inter-be”) was coined by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, who illustrates it as such:

If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. So we can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are. ‘Interbeing’ is a word that is not in the dictionary yet, but if we combine the prefix ‘inter-’ with the verb ‘to be,’ we have a new verb, inter-be.

Share your thoughts.