Sadhana: More than just practice

As a Yogini in this current crisis, I can’t help but think… we have been training for this moment!  We follow a path known as sadhana in Indian creative and spiritual arts.  While it is common to hear the term sadhana in a yoga ashram or meditation center, many artists have never encountered this word unless they study traditional arts in India.  I want to share these concepts which I find so insightful. 

These concepts have opened up worlds of possibility in my outlook on daily dance and yoga practice.

It is one thing to practice dance or yoga when we feel happy, inspired and when are encouraged and recognized by others, like when we attend a public class.  To practice when it is convenient is not sadhana, it is simply practice, yet it does have its rewards – quite simply, we *enjoy our art!  There are degrees of commitment one progresses through in their life journey as artists or yogis.  Let us understand further how Sadhana is different from a regular practice of yoga or dance, and takes one to new levels beyond the ordinary commitment.

The next level of practice is summed up in a common term used by artists in India – riyaz.  Riyaz is an Urdu word meaning unflinching, committed practice, often implying incredible sacrifice and extraordinary length of daily practice hours.  An artist would choose to call their practice riyaz, when it transcends all convenience – when a practitioner does their practice with a great sense of duty, and when the relationship to time is lost while in their practice. 

 Any artist who has disappeared into new dimensions of ‘the world of art’ through uncountable  practice hours knows that a distinct bliss is attained here when we stop counting the hours.  Sometimes we transcend all limits of time and space in riyaz and we receive deep insights through direct experiences, while other times we are stuck repeating some mistake for hours or days and metaphorically bashing ourselves over the head with it until some breakthrough is made.  While regular practice settles for mediocrity and a sense enjoyment, in riyaz we rectify our mistakes through painstaking efforts and we aim for all encompassing mastery, embodiment if you will – even if the only one who would ever know a slight inadequacy in our execution is our teacher (or ourself).

The next level of practice is coined in India as sadhana.  Sadhana is a Sanskrit word commonly found in conversations and ancient texts on spiritual practices that aim for life’s ultimate goal (according to Sanskrit literature and known by various terms) Moskha – liberation of the soul.  

The Indian classical art context is a cultural matrix shared by Yoga, Vedanta, Shaivism, Tantra, Buddhism, and so forth.  The goal of life is defined from the earliest ancient texts and our artistic theories are built upon these assumptions.  For this reason the viewpoint is that life is a path – a journey towards this goal (of liberation) and everything we do in this lifetime either helps us reach the goal, or takes us farther from this goal.  Art and the spiritual journey are entwined at the most intrinsic levels and it is said that the path of art can lead one to Moksha.  It is for this very reason that the last dance choreography in our Odissi dance repertoire is called ‘Mokhsa’. 

Sadhana means unflinching, sacrificial, dedicated practice – with a goal of spiritual transcendence in mind.  This later part of the definition is what differentiates sadhana from riyaz.  While riyaz can be undertaken simply for self glory and to reach fame… Sadhana asserts that the goal must be defined as a spiritual one. 

Those of us training in parampara or lineage based arts practices in India have all heard our Gurus define the way we should approach our art as ‘a life of sadhana’ – a life of incredible sacrifice and focus.  Through this one pointed focus, concentration and commitment to the art of practice (sadhana) we are told that we can even achieve siddhis – miraculous powers one gets by accessing new levels of awareness achieved in meditative-like states of practice!  

Students of classical yoga will recognize this term from studying Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, where sage Patanjali describes the ‘super human powers’ one can attain through the rigors of Yogic sadhana.  Sadhana of any kind aims at complete and total transformation and transcendence of all that is mundane, all that we know to be possible, and all that we previously assumed of ourself. 

One of the important instructions I have been given by my own Gurus (whether it be my Mokhsa Guru who gave me a personal meditation/worship practice, my Kalaripayattu or music teachers, or my Odissi Guru)… Sadhana is done EVERY DAY, no matter what.  No matter how we “feel”.  It is our duty, our life, our very source of power and self-knowledge.

So today I write you from my solitary confinement, on home lock down at my tiny house in Rajasthan.  Since this whole crisis began to unfold, I have found my moods swinging between extremes.  From hopeful and optimistic… to frustration and lack of motivation.  The stress of being separated from my husband while his situation grows more complicated and the fear of the unknown we are all facing… I must admit it has been a challenging time!

But we have been training for this!  The thread that runs through each day of my life, whether a happy day or a day clouded by fear… is sadhana.  Whether I want to or not; whether I feel inspired to, or not… I keep forging on with my daily practices of dance, yoga and meditation.  This gift and self-responsibility given to me by my Gurus has become the foundation of my days and my very outlook on life.  One thing I notice its that always, always – I walk away from my sadhana feeling better.

One thing I reminded our students of in the last theory class at SSD in Session #2  was: “You are not ordinary people.  Stop setting your standards at the mediocrity of the general mass of our societies.  You are Extra-Ordinary!”.  This is the commitment we make when we enter into the world of sadhana, those ‘rules’ of behavior and thought assumed by the mass of society no longer apply us.  When we choose sadhana, we willingly recalibrate our vision of life and set our sights on a higher vision of life and ART.