Your Yoga Practice: Gradual Change

A recent homework assignment of mine was to select one of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali* and write a paper reflecting on the message.

I had already selected the sutra I was going to write about because it was a topic I’ve addressed a few times in class and, therefore, it seemed somewhat easier to discuss. But, while I was thinking about how to tackle the paper, I reread those sutras as designated reading homework, and Sutra 2.31 jumped out at me.

Sutra 2.31: “The five restraints are not limited by rank, place, time or circumstance and constitute the Great Vow.”

The restraints refer to the five disciplines–Yamas**–that are guidelines in how one should interact with one’s external world (also applying to oneself).

  1. Not Harming – consideration for all living things
  2. Truthfulness – right communications
  3. Not Stealing – not coveting
  4. Moderation in Our Actions – impeccable behavior
  5. No Greediness – ability to accept only what is appropriate

Sutra 2.31 – The Process of Gradual Change

I’m drawn to this sutra not for the text, but for TKV Desikachar’s commentary in his book The Heart of Yoga: “We cannot begin with such attitudes. If we adopt them abruptly we cannot sustain them. We can always find excuses for not maintaining them. But if we seek to identify the reasons why we hold contrary views, isolate the obstacles that permit such views and our attitudes will gradually change. The obstacles will give way and our behavior toward others and our environment will change for the better”.

I believe Mr. Desikachar is saying this is a gradual process. Change will happen, not immediately but over time.

How many times in my life have I started something and for whatever reasons have failed to complete it? “I’m going to lose weight, I’m going to eat better, I’m going to be nicer to those I come in contact with, I’m going to be more tolerant and a better listener, I’m not going to overreact, I’m not going to be triggered, I’m going to say I’m sorry.”

Too many.

The goals are usually good for me and are certainly attainable, but my tendency is to lose focus over time and slip back to where I began. I know my intentions are good, because I want to be a better person. I start out like there’s no tomorrow and then, one day, I realize I’m no longer doing what I intended to do and have not achieved the goal.

Those times where I’ve had success, I took each day one at a time. If something went wrong or caused a hindrance, I reflected on what was happening, thought it through, and adjusted. Then started over again the next day.

Positive change occurred because I was thoughtful and tried as best I could each day. I didn’t get discouraged if things didn’t go as well as hoped. I just kept on going. And then I noticed there was a gradual change, and that I was now living that change.

This is what Mr. Desikachar is saying.

The Yamas – Guidance to Gradual Change

The Yamas are guidelines, but it takes time to understand them, adjust, and let gradual change set in.

You can say this is how I’m going to act moving forward, but if you expect every interaction to flow smoothly, you’ll be disappointed more often than not. Eventually, it becomes discouraging, and you forget. Then, one day, you realize you’ve lost focus, and you’re not doing anymore.

Chances are you’ll not even know how or when this occurred. It just happened.

If you want to reach higher levels of consciousness, you need self-restraint. In fact, we all need self-discipline in our lives to be better people. To better relate to the external world and our own internal self.

Of course, that’s not something you can just jump into and expect to “master” overnight. Very few of us are able to state, live, and maintain the Vows of Yama with one hundred percent conviction from the onset.

Therefore, you should start from where you are at this moment. Living the yamas as best as possible. It’s something that is practiced day after day after day, until it becomes part of your everyday thoughts and actions.

Gradual Change – A Pattern of Conscious Thought

Changing ourselves—our attitudes and actions—is a gradual process that occurs over time. It takes conscious thought each day.

Some days will be easier than others. Some harder than most. It takes waking each morning and asking, committing to being a better person than the day before. Allowing the day to progress, interacting, reflecting, and adjusting as time goes on.

When you are challenged with the yamas, take time, reflect on what is preventing you, and see what you can do to remove the obstacle. You can never really stop “navigating through life”—but the ride doesn’t have to be so bumpy. Use your attitude towards yourself to stabilize your ride and to do so with less effort.

Yama is a practice of living an engaged life. It’s about navigating truthfully, honestly, moderately, considerably, and appropriately when it seems least possible.

It’s like driving your car over a washboard dirt road. You can drive as fast as you want, but the beating from the bouncing takes its toll on both you and the car. The alternative is to slow down, take your time, and minimize the impact of the bumpy road. You’ll still arrive.

Change is gradual.

Sutra 2.31 is straightforward. It doesn’t matter who, where or when you are. Practicing self-restraint at all times is an ongoing process. It flows through your deeds and actions.  Self-restraint is a tall order, but remember that it's the never-ending process that leads to gradual change.

All I can do, all any of us can do, is try a little each day.



* (Note: The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali were written between 200-400 CE. They are considered to be the description and definition of yoga. There are four chapters and 196 verses. They were written to be memorized, chanted and studied verse by verse.)

** (Note: We will talk more about the Yamas in the future.)

YogaDavid Ashby