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The Practice of Doubt

There comes a point in most practitioner’s journey when the questions of ‘why’ am I practicing and ‘if’ the postures of yoga are worthwhile begin to surface themselves. Doubt (one of the 9 kleshas) as laid out by Patajalim in the Yoga Sutras is an affliction or mental aversion.


In the Yoga Sutras the concept of doubt is a mental fluctuation arising from past karmas and deeply rooted in the mind. Doubt, however, is not looked upon as being as solid as it appears but changeable and the stuff of real practice. At a time when you’d love to skip the sequence, jump the track and move onto something else doubt, frustration and impatience surface. In many ways, this is something to be grateful for because the practice will not let you bullshit yourself. Either you have practiced the basics and are ready to move forward or you have not.


In my own practice and after learning some of the advanced postures, my teachers did not allow me to practice them when I came to study in India. I was taken back to the basics. And I have to admit it was a painful place to be. Painful not physically but for my ego who wanted to do what I knew.


The whole idea behind it was not to forget that yoga is more than physical mastery alone. Practice (sadhana) should include chanting and meditation and be a life-time commitment. When a student asks me how long it will take to master a certain pose I usually say for the rest of your life. Because even after reaching whatever goal you had in mind, the very nature of the mind is to be off in another direction and looking for the next best thing to achieve.


The funny aspect of doubt is how it can allow you to see the two extremes the mind jumps between. That is, feeling as if it’s taking too long for any results and trying to compensate for the lack thereof by over-practicing. The sutras painstakingly remind us that practice needs to be consistent and constant.


There are no short-cuts. No quickies.


One of my teachers told me to stay longer and be still. It is very similar to Shri K. Pattabhi Jois’s well-known phrase, “Practice and all is coming”. By this he did not mean practice mindlessly, but practice with sincerity and devotion.


I personally believe when doubts and questions surface, it’s a call in understanding yourself on a more profound level. If we can ‘catch’ ourselves at those moments and remain open rather than shutting down, the same doubt that produced thoughts of inadequacy can become a vital force.

Rainer Marie Rilke said it best when he wrote,

And your doubt can become a good quality if you train it. It must become knowing, it must become criticism. Ask it, whenever it wants to spoil something for you, why something is ugly, demand proofs from it, test it, and you will find it perhaps bewildered and embarrassed, perhaps also protesting. But don’t give in, insist on arguments, and act in this way, attentive and persistent, every single time, and the day will come when, instead of being a destroyer, it will become one of your best workers–perhaps the most intelligent of all the ones that are building your life.

~ Letters to a Young Poet


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