How long is a ball of string (and other questions)

Here are some questions I get asked a lot

 How long should my practice take me?

How long does it take to perfect a posture?

How long does it take to learn a series ?

How long will it take me to become a yogi? 

 If I was feeling mischievous I might simply reply by saying…

How long is a ball of string?

 This well known counter – question is often used to avoid giving an accurate answer. In a world that is increasingly prescriptive about everything from journey times to calories consumed, a lot of people are very uncomfortable with non –specific answers! When it comes to the practice, however, avoiding specifics is a lot more helpful than you might think.

 Let’s get back to our ball of string. How long is it?!

Patanjali says that Yoga should be practiced for a long, uninterrupted  time with awareness and dedicatIon (1:14). These qualities are described as the foundations of a lifelong practice. The word Patanjali uses for foundation is ‘drudabhumi’ which literally means firmly rooted, like a tree. Perhaps the reference to trees, which grow veeeeery slowly  is a clue to what Patanjali had in mind when he talked about ‘a long time’. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence. Either way, it doesn’t really answer the question. 

Or does it? 

You don’t need to be practicing Astanga Yoga for long before you start hearing (or reading) about Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. This text is often presented as the first and last word in our practice. It seems fair enough when we consider that the name “Astanga Yoga” is a direct reference to Patanjali’s  “eight limbed” approach. 

Before you rush off to buy a copy, I should warn you that The Yoga Sutras is not going to help you with your headstand. In fact it says very little about postures, or Asana, except that they embody the third of the eight limbs. I sometimes think life would be much simpler if ‘Asana’ had caught on as the word used to describe what we do on the mat. In Patanjali’s day, Asana was a static, meditation practice (the Sanskrit word literally means ‘seat’). How it evolved into the diverse range of physical excercises we see today is a long story. An extremely short and simplified version of the story is that over time, as life has became more sedentary, meditation has evolved to incorporate more and more  movement. You can see this in many,  modern day spiritual disciplines: from martial arts to hatha yoga classes and even cold water swimming or forest bathing. 

The Yoga Sutras is is a great text for placing our practice of Asana (and to a certain extent the fourth limb of Pranayama or breath control) into a wider context. 

Patanjali’s ethical restraints and observances are as relevant today as ever.

You could  Have a look at this article on how we can use TheYoga Sutras and The Bagavad Gita to cultivate compassionate relationships with all beings and overcome our biases, even the subconscious ones. 

Or read this piece about discovering what a yoga practice comes to mean when Asana is literally impossible. 

Both the examples I’ve used above are modern experiences of this ancient practice. The original text is less accessible. Most people choose to read it with a modern commentary. And despite the text being concise, the subject matter does seem to meander! 

Meandering is okay when you consider that Sutra is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘thread’ (the medical term suture comes from this root). In the singular, the word sutra refers to individual verses or aphorisms. Used in the plural, it describes an entire work or topic. We often use the word thread today to describe an ongoing discussion. The Yoga Sutras are a good example of this. There are 196 individual sutras but none of them stands alone.

The famous teacher BKS Iyengar, author of my favourite translaton and commentary on the Yoga Sutras, illustrates this beautifully:

 “As individual drops of rain contribute towards the formation of a lake, so each word contained in the sutras conveys a wealth of thought and experience, and is indispensable to the whole.”

 Another illustration used to describe each sutra’s relation to the others is like the jewels on a necklace. This is helpful because a clasped necklace has no end or beginning.  Patanjali describes yoga as a state of mind and the means by which one might experience it. There is no division between the journey and the goal. With no fixed point at which you arrive one might even suggest that there is no goal. 

 If that seems maddeningly vague, it’s nothing compared to some of the brain – scrambling places a text like the Yoga Sutras can take you. One of the things that first drew me to Iyengar’s translation is a charming and humble disclaimer he makes in his introduction.

 “Though I have practiced and worked in the field of Yoga for more than fifty years I may have to practice for several more lifetimes to reach perfection in the subject. Therefore the explanation of the most abstruse sutras lies yet beyond my power.”

In this way, the author presents his experience of yoga  without claiming to be too much of an authority on the subject. This is the way my teachers present the practice to me. They are fellow travellers. They may have been on the journey longer than I, but they’ve never seemed keen to race too far ahead. Otherwise how would they show me the way? 

Goal – less travel is not an easy concept to get your head around. But it is the key to a successful (for which you can read sustainable) practice. 

With all that in mind…If we return to some of those questions at the opening of this article perhaps we can provide some answers that go a little further than “how long is a ball of string”…

Q How long should my practice take me?

A How long have you got? 

I’m not being deliberately vague here. Before every practice it is genuinely helpful to take note of how much time you have available. It doesn’t have to be the same amount of time every day. It’s never worth trying to squeeze a long practice into a short time. This can leave you feeling frazzled. My teacher says when it comes to postures, you should put  quality over quantity. There’s always tomorrow! Last but not least…Don’t forget that the time you have available for practice must include finishing poses and a rest! 

Q How long does it take to perfect a posture?

A No one is expected to ‘perfect’ an asana. 

There’s an unfortunate myth that Astanga Yoga is taught pose by pose, with success in one pose leading to the ‘gift’ of another. In fact, the practice is taught breath by breath. Because, like a collection of sutras,  every breath is crucial to the practice. Some parts of the practice are complicated and take time to understand. I’m not just talking about held postures but also the transitions in and out of them. The biggest challenge the practice presents is finding a balance between effort and acceptance. The key to finding this elusive sweet – spot is to focus on the breath. There is a very handy sutra to illustrate this. Patanjali says that asana (posture) should be calm and steady (stiram sukham asnanam 2:46). 

Q How long does it take to learn a series ?

A The truthful answer to this is that you never stop learning a series. 

It doesn’t matter how much of it you are practicing. If you keep an open mind your own practice will provide you with daily revelations about every single second. Those postures you thought would elude you forever suddenly become easier to understand (see above). Those you once dreaded can become something to look forward to. On the other hand, there are always new mishaps to discover, too. These serve to remind us that a sense of humour is a vital part of a healthy practice. 

Q  How long does it take to become a Yogi? 

A  I’ll let you know if I ever find out. Don’t hold your breath! 

Yogi is a much misused word, sadly. Its true meaning is “one who has experienced Yoga” or, as Patanjali described it, Samadhi. This is the truly elusive stillness of mind described in the Yoga Sutras. Those who seek it are Yoga Students. That’s what I am…and if you’re reading this…so are you! 

And on that note here is some recommended further reading…

BKS Iyengar’s Light on the Yoga Sutras can be bought here 

Daniel Simpson’s The Truth of Yoga is a vey consise and readable history of Yoga, and very helpful if you want to understand the place of classic texts in the modern – day practice.