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Yoga is what is traditionally called a liberation teaching (moksha-shâstra). It seeks to liberate us from our limited notion of who we are. We habitually identify with our particular body, mind, possessions, and relationships (which we often treat like possessions). But this mental-emotional habit, according to Yoga, is really a profound and fateful misidentification. It keeps us stuck in our behavioral grooves, causing us to experience suffering (duhkha) over and over again.
Who we are in truth is something or someone beyond our particular body, mind, possessions, and relationships. From a yogic perspective, we are immortal, superconscious Being. As that Being, we are unlimited and free. All of Yoga’s teachings aim at helping us to realize this fundamental truth.
However simple a particular yogic approach may be, all approaches require a profound commitment to self-transformation. If we fear change and tend to cling to our established ways, we cannot succeed in Yoga. The practice of Yoga calls for considerable personal effort (vyâyama), which involves self-discipline (âtma-nigraha). As we endeavor to replace undesirable habit patterns with positive ones, we inevitably experience a measure of frustration. However, this frustration is creative rather than self-destructive. The Sanskrit word for this process is tapas meaning “glow?or “heat.?The term also stands for “asceticism,?which is based on self-restraint.
Yoga comprises numerous practices—both physical and mental. These can be reduced to two major categories: abhyâsa and vairâgya. Abhyâsa is the repeated performance of exercises or techniques that are intended to produce a positive state of mind in us. Vairâgya is the complementary practice of letting go of old behavior patterns or attachment. Abhyâsa gradually reveals to us the deeper, hidden aspects of the mind, while vairâgya moves us step by step beyond appearances and toward Reality.
The closer we are to Self-realization, the more ordinary we become. Only seekers striving for liberation as if it were a trophy glamorize the yogic process and themselves. They want to be extraordinary, whereas liberated beings are perfectly ordinary. They are as happy washing dishes as they are sitting quietly in meditation or teaching their disciples. For this reason, Yoga has from the beginning celebrated not only the path of the world-renouncing ascetic (samnyâsin) but also that of the world-engaging householder (grihastha) who uses the opportunities of daily life to practice the virtues of a yogic lifestyle.
Yoga is a gradual process of replacing our unconscious patterns of thought and behavior with new, more benign patterns that are expressive of the higher powers and virtues of Self-realization. It takes time to accomplish this far-reaching work of self-transformation, and therefore practitioners of Yoga must first and foremost practice patience. Enlightenment, or liberation, is not realized in a matter of days, weeks, or months. We must be willing to commit to an entire lifetime of yogic practice. There must be a basic impulse to grow, regardless of whether or not we will achieve liberation in this lifetime. It is one of Yoga’s fundamental tenets that no effort is ever wasted; even the slightest attempt at transforming ourselves makes a difference. It is our patient cumulative effort that flowers into Self-realization sooner or later.

© 1999 by Georg Feuerstein