The Battle with Self-Doubt in Yoga

Written by Heather Morton

There comes a point in the journey of yoga when the questions of 'why' am I practicing and 'if' the postures of yoga are worthwhile surface themselves. Doubt (one of the 9 kleshas) as laid out by Patajalim in the Yoga Sutras is an affliction or mental aversion. As my teacher Yogacharya Venkatesha told me it is best to deal with doubt as soon as it arises. This is not to imply, however, that once dealt with it’s over. In fact, doubt can be masked by other sticky feelings like frustration, pain or recklessness. From the perspectives of the teachings of yoga it is a part of the path; not something to be rejected. It can be used to strengthen practice provided it is properly understood.

In the Yoga Sutras the concept of doubt is a mental fluctuation deeply rooted in the mind. Doubt is also not as solid as it appears but changeable and workable. At a time when you'd love to skip the sequence, jump the track and move onto something else doubt, frustration and impatience keep you stuck. In many ways this is something I learned 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. It’s simple. In my own personal practice and after learning many advanced postures I was not allowed to practice these under my teacher in India. Instead he lead me back to square one; i.e., to the basics. It was a painful method but effective.

The whole idea behind this approach was to remember that yoga is not only about the physical. When a student asks me how long it will take to master a pose and I know they have been practising for a few years and doubt is setting in, I usually tell them for the rest of their life. This is often met with rolling eyes. However, it is more truthful than saying, “Oh, just in a few weeks” (wink, wink).

The funny aspect of doubt is how it can bring to light the two extremes the mind jumps between. That is, feeling as if it is taking too long for any kind of result (usually directed at the physical level) and trying to compensate by over practicing. The Yoga Sutras painstakingly remind us that practice must be consistent and constant. Certainly this is not easy to swallow in a fast thinking and product orientated culture for which we live in. If you learn to hang in there you may just see all of this ‘stuff’ for what exactly what it is: the mind’s game to throw you off.

The basis of the yoga postures lie in training the mind to move with the body in a continuous stream of prana (generated by the breath). Ultimately, it is not about touching your feet to your head or sitting in lotus as it is about understanding the scattered behaviour of the mind. Many years ago my teacher told me to think while practising. He said, “Stay longer and be still”. It is very similar to Shri K. Pattahi Jois’s well known phrase, "Practice and all is coming". By this he did not mean practice mindlessly, but practice with sincerity. Practising like this takes one further than expected and throws out doubt and fear.

Yoga also has this uncanny way of making you see you can go on looking for results or enjoy the process. B.K.S. Iyengar was good at repeating, "Do not practice from memory. Forget yesterday’s practice and focus on today’s practice." He was also adamant that one should strike a balance between practicing what they can and cannot do. The former helps build confidence while the latter reduces arrogance.

I personally believe as doubts surface it is a call for a clearer understanding of oneself and at a very profound level. If we can 'catch' ourselves and remain open rather than closed, the same doubt that created thoughts of inadequacy can be trained as a vital force. Rainer Maria Rilke said it best in these few lines:

“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.”

Becoming a better practitioner or even a master is like being a student all the time. And for those who are they are very clear about the battle of doubt and learning to practice.

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