Since yoga is, first and foremost, a practice, it is worth taking a look at two words from the yoga lexicon which are regularly translated as “practice”: abhyasa and sadhana.
Before we get into the subtle distinction between these two terms for practice, let’s first review the goal of yoga. The Yoga Sutra, arguably the most important text for practitioners of yoga, opens with the author’s (Patanjali’s) pronouncement of readiness to teach the ways of yoga.
Yoga Sutras 1.2 reads:
Yoga is the stilling of the modifications of the mind.
In an equally popular but less didactic text on yoga, the beloved Bhagavad Gita, yoga is still a discipline, but it is directed primarily toward union with God. What these two texts share in common is an acknowledgment of the mind’s cravings as the primary obstacle to a state of ease and union with the Absolute.
In this simple teaching we are offered so much:
The mind is a fickle thing, something that has been worth studying and dissecting for thousands of years;
There is a means of quieting the disturbances of mind;
This means is specific, and it is called yoga.
Now that we have the goal - stilling the mind, there must be a method; both texts use almost the same prescription: abhyasa and vairagya (practice and non-attachment).
This pair appears in Sutra 1.12 and in Ch. VI. 34-35 of the Gita. As Tigunait describes in his book, Secret of the Yoga Sutra, these two constitute the “backbone of yoga sadhana.”
Abhyasa is often defined as “ardent effort,” which implies repetitive, daily action. This quality of repetition suggests not only commitment and self-awareness, but also, when paired with the attitude of non-attachment, reminds the practitioner that every day is not only different but available to begin again. This can help with the sense of overwhelm or with subconsciously believing that you have to be Sharath Jois to be considered a true yogi.
“Abhyasa builds on itself, just as a ball rolling downhill picks up momentum; the more we practice, the more we want to practice, and the faster we reach our destination,” Richard Rosen describes in an article on Yoga Journal.
For example, the more I commit to waking up at 5:45am for a meditation practice, the more I notice what lifestyle choices and sleeping habits contribute to my willingness and ability to do so. Abhyasa is not the meditation practice itself, but the commitment to doing it in the first place. It is the attitude around doing it, the awareness that I function better in the world when I do it.
It’s a little bit like a kid mowing the lawn. Instead of focusing on the money he’s getting for it, he focuses on how much better the whole house looks when the lawn is tidy. He comes back the next week with all of the enthusiasm as when he mowed the first time, because the lawn is different! It’s full of new grass; it’s a new opportunity. The “enthusiasm,” or yatna, is mentioned over and over again as a crucial component of abhyasa, as well as the capacity to discern which activities will be the most beneficial.
Without enthusiasm, our actions become rote, meaningless, mindless, thereby circumventing the original intention, which was to still the fluctuations and cravings of the mind. In any repetitive or daily task, there will always be reasons not to do it: distractions, headaches and complications, boredom. But the doing, the upholding of the commitment is the thing. On some days, it may be better for your peace of mind to spend more time cleaning the house than practicing asana, but if you have committed to your asana, do it for ten minutes. Don’t postpone it until you have exactly the right mindset (after all, that’s the point: you don’t have the right mindset!) or time frame or meditation cushion or mala or body…. Simply practice. It is that determination to ‘just do it’ that sets progress in motion.
Now let’s turn to the second word that translates as “practice”. Sadhana refers to the specific rituals or actions which comprise the practice. So is it asana? Yes. Is it meditation? Yes. Is it studying the texts? Yes. The individual answer will vary from region to region, person to person and guru to guru, however, sadhana is the specific practices one chooses, or, preferably according to the texts, has been assigned by a Master, or Guru.
Abhyasa, then, is a component of and a prerequisite for sadhana.
The various texts offer variations on sadhana. In Patanjali’s yoga, your sadhana is astanga yoga -- the “eight-limbed” system (yamas, niyamas, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, samadhi). Additionally, the Sutras offers a sadhana called Kriya Yoga (the root, kr, means “to act, to do”), which is made up of three niyamas from the eight-limbed system: tapah svadhyaya ishvara-pranidhana (discipline, self-study, and surrender to the Supreme).
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika further specifies practices for the hatha yogin. Eighty-four specific asanas are prescribed (ones taught by Shiva himself, according to legend), as well as rigorous kriya - or cleansing practices -, mudras, bandhas, dwelling specifications, as well as the yamas and niyamas.
In the Bhagavad Gita, the path of the "householder" is outlined. The householder is a person with a desire to know him or herself deeply, to know the Absolute, without having to renounce the world, move to a cave and leave the world behind. This epic poem tells the story of Arjuna’s internal struggle to make peace with the life he was born into and Krishna’s unwavering insistence on simply acting out the part he has been chosen to play with love and dedication. Krishna’s prescription is karma yoga (also derived from the root, kr). This yoga includes selfless acts in line with one’s duty to man and God, as well as bhakti: making everything a prayer, an act of devotion.
The texts show us how the specifics of the sadhana might change, but abhyasa is inherent to sadhana, otherwise our practice is simply a pastime, something one does for entertainment rather than to realign us with our true self.
Some yogis will use austere purification techniques to still the mind; others will make the act of service to their family business. Some will support a family member who is ill; some will recite the Maha Mantra 108 times every morning as their means of cultivating stillness.
In each case, practice involves some sort of surrender of the ego’s desire for control; there is a sense of acting on behalf of something bigger than oneself.
One of my favorite definitions of sadhana comes from Bri. Maya Tiwari’s book, The Path of Practice:
"Sadhana: wholesome, everyday practices observed in accordance with the cyclical rhythms of nature; spiritual practice that awakens the power of awareness; healthy, joyful response to life."
In her article, “Yoga and the Evolution of Faith,” Annie Carpenter reflects on the evolution of her own practice and sums up the relationship between abhyasa and sadhana beautifully. She writes, “I know if it hadn’t been for the physical practice I would never have gotten here. The physical practice, whether intense or gentle - is the anchor for most of us that brings us to yoga, teaches us to practice and leads us to a kind of faith. [...] It teaches us to work vigorously and consistently over time and to patiently accept what is possible in this moment. [...] We fall in love with the act of practicing. With unwavering faith, we place our bodies, minds and hearts in showing up, day after day, to practice our yoga.”
Let us now turn to a more practical explanation of how to incorporate these practices into our lives.
How do I create my sadhana?
Manorama encourages practitioners to study the meaning of these words and see how the meaning evolves and deepens over the course of a week of contemplation. Create a word map for each (maybe abyhasa and vairagya remain together as one “word”) and surround these core words with their associates. For example, how do you feel when you write the words “discipline,” “commitment,” “effort,” “routine”? Notice any hang-ups, obstacles or resistances you may have to fully understanding these concepts. Perhaps, after some consideration, “routine” is actually a word you find more comforting. Awareness of how these words occur to you will make creating a beneficial sadhana much easier.
Make your sadhana reasonable, accessible (anywhere, anytime, requiring few objects) and personal.
This will naturally bring about abhyasa. Don’t set yourself up for a fight with your practice. If you hate the morning, don’t commit to being a 5am practitioner. Remember, practice builds upon itself. Start where you are. Try making a list of the activities that make you feel whole, balanced, energized and happy. Then make a list of things you do on a daily basis. Compare the lists and adjust your daily routine accordingly.
Include movement , breath, and sound in your sadhana.
These three components address the body-mind in a holistic way. From the gross awareness of exercise-induced endorphins as a natural motivator to the subtler understanding of the vayus and the mind, movement is the spark of change. Breath practices, or pranayama, refine the energy once it’s been stirred up and create focus, generating heat if necessary, or activating the parasympathetic response. Sound - whether through chanting or japa - further supports the creation of a stable mind by acting as a sort of tuning fork. Repetition of om is cited as an ideal practice in the Yoga Sutra, serving as an alambana, a support for inward-flowing concentration. Set a specific time limit for these practices that feels challenging, but not confronting.
Notice the impact.
Track the shifts and changes in yourself as you practice and be prepared to adapt your practice to suit your changing needs. Before you decide that the practice “isn’t working”, take note of any unexpected benefits from your practice: are you sleeping better, digesting your food with greater ease, laughing more?
Sometimes, in yoga, we don’t get what we want; instead, we get what we need. Working with a teacher can be really helpful in discerning whether or not your mind is craving something new and different, or if something different would truly serve you. Be diligent, and be kind to yourself.
The opportunity to study and practice yoga is traditionally considered a great blessing in one’s life - good karma, a gift. Emile Zola is quoted as saying, ”The artist is nothing without the gift, but the gift is nothing without the work.”
If you have been given the gift of yoga, don’t let it go to waste. You are the medium through which you do your work. And since this is a practice of refinement, you must continually sharpen your tool of mind. Cutting through the veil of illusion, polishing the jewel of the mind, and seeing ourselves for what we truly are, sat-chit-ananda (truth-consciousness-bliss), requires effort, consistency and devotion.