One of benefits to completing an immersive yoga teacher training is that you learn to form new habits. Through routine, habitual practices and schedules, you form new neural pathways that set your brain up to keep up with your new routine.
While many new teachers, myself included, do not maintain the rigorous schedule that they participate in during a yoga teacher training, they usually maintain some sort of consistent practice. Not only have they formed the new neural pathways to support this, but they have also experienced the benefits of a consistent yoga practice. Even more simply, they have learned the practice of consistency.
In this article, I explore the concept of building a consistent and foundational yoga practice, beginning with the intention and action that is drawn from the first two limbs of ashtanga yoga. Through discipline, routine, patience, and persistence, you can build a foundation for a lasting and consistent practice.
The First and Second Limb Is Where We Begin
By learning to consistently observe the yamas: ahimsa (nonviolence), satya (truth), asteya(non-stealing), brahmacharya (celibacy or moderation), and aparigraha (non-possessiveness) you are learning to behave in the world with integrity and therefore with consistency.
Similarly, by observing the niyamas: saucha (cleanliness), santosha (contentment), tapas (discipline), svadhyaya (self-study), and ishvara pranidhana (connection to the Divine) you learn to consistently maintain a connection to yourself and to your own spiritual growth. (Learn more in Yama and Niyama: The Yogi's Moral Guiding Lights.)
Many people may believe their consistent physical asana practice ultimately fails because of laziness or influences outside of themselves. Understanding that a yoga practice goes beyond physical asana or a meditation practice, and that it actually begins within themselves, is crucial for building any sort of consistent yoga practice. Starting with your own behavior by practicing the yamas and niyamas consistently will naturally flow into any physical yoga practice, and into all areas of your spiritual, professional, and emotional growth.
Tapping into the power of tapas, the third niyama, is the key to creating consistency. This niyama is about strict discipline with the self and learning how to depend only on internal sources of comfort rather than seeking external validation. When a yogi learns to do this, their practices and growth can no longer be easily disrupted by outside factors. (Learn more in Tapas and the Discipline of Yoga.)
This takes practice, which is of course the way to build consistency - through repetition. For many students, this may look like setting realistic goals and sticking to them. It is more effective to start small and build from there than start big and set yourself up for failure. Through small successes you build confidence, which only helps your willpower grow stronger.
Having some sort of daily routine that you adhere to fairly strictly strengthens tapas and creates the habit of consistency. As you add more elements to your daily routines and yoga practice, it progressively becomes easier to do so because you have already practiced the act of consistency with smaller, more easily achievable tasks.
A common error that many people make is creating goals they cannot maintain and that are too drastic of shifts from their existing lifestyle. We see this in the intense 30 day asana challenges that many people end up not being able to keep up with. A common reaction to this is aversion to returning to the practice because they feel a sense of failure.
If a challenge like this ignites you and you are confident in your resolve and willpower to follow through, then absolutely go for it! If it creates any resistance or dread, you may be making too large of a jump too quickly. This is okay! Strive for consistency to build your confidence and willpower before trying to achieve goals that may be mostly serving your ego.
Growing Through Patience and Persistence
As you grow your daily and regular practices, it really does become easier and easier. The only way this is possible is through patience and persistence. In this, you must also have compassion for yourself and others.
Sometimes you may miss a meditation or an asana practice because of your commitments to the outside world. As you learn patience and compassion, you may notice yourself become more creative and less reactive to factors outside yourself. Instead of reacting with frustration towards others or a sense of failure because you cannot find the time for your nightly meditation ritual - because you chose to help a family member by driving them to the airport and found yourself stuck in traffic longer than anticipated, for example - you may choose to be creative and practice mindful driving by staying aware of your breath and sensations, or chanting a mantra while stuck in traffic.
Striving for consistency rather than perfection can help you to maintain a practice, as many people give up, either consciously or unconsciously, after they disrupt their practice because of the ego’s drive towards perfectionism. There is a difference between strict self-discipline and strict, non-compassionate perfectionism. Consistency help you learn to honor your needs and current reality, while building upon yesterday, rather than adhering to rigid standards.
Keep On Keepin’ On
Consistency is the key. It is learned through the foundation of morals and values set out through the yamas and niyamas. It can be confusing to the aspiring yogi how to maintain self compassion and flexibility without become lazy or too lenient in their practice. It is true that it is a fine balance between leniency and discipline, but the answers can only come from within.
Sit with yourself and practice the niyama of svadhyaya, self-study, to understand your own spiritual path. No one can guide you into a consistent practice other than yourself. No one can know your individual needs and stages of growth other than your own highest self. Believe in yourself and give yourself the gift of love and patience as you build the foundation and plant the seeds for maturing trees of growth and consistent practice. Maintain a disciplined practice of watering these seeds and watch how your practice blooms.