Practice, Study or Devotion: Which Path to Take?

By Beth Hinnen

In an another article, (Inside the Yoga Sutras: What Do You Believe) we explored the five different types of thought whirlwinds, vritti, that were categorized as either painful or painless. This examination of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (sutras 5-11) in the first Pada (section) gave us a detailed picture of those whirlwinds so we can recognize which are helpful and which are not. The end of the article suggested dropping any story, or thought whirlwind, that was painful and instead, to focus on painless ones—those that bring capital “K” Knowledge, i.e., direct experience, clear inference, and authoritative testimony. Easier said than done, huh?

Just how do we let go of painful story whirlwinds? Well, if it doesn’t work to drop them like a hot potato, then the option exists to build that ability. And how do we do that? While any single sutra could be used for guidance, it appears there are groups of sutras, or paths, we could follow to help us. Indeed, it may be that Patanjali intended that when he put the sutras into Padas: 1 – On Contemplation, for the naturally thoughtful; 2 – On Practice, for the particularly active; 3 – On Accomplishments for an advanced student grounded in contemplation and practice; and 4 – On Liberation for the gifted student who needs just a quick reminder.

And what if one of those types doesn’t speak to you? For me, certain sutras from each Pada have been immensely instructional and as I linked several together, three paths (there may be others) emerged which I loosely label as Practice (not original and yet, highly versatile), Study, and Devotion. Once again, each of these paths can be appealing to certain students. For someone drawn to concrete action, following guidelines with an eye on specific landmarks of moving in the correct direction, the path of Practice might be attractive. For a student with an affinity for researching, reading what has helped others before, experimenting, watching and observing, the path of Study may be intriguing. And for a seeker with a deep sense of connection, heart-felt wonder at the workings of the world, who accepts that life is a magical mystery, painful stories may be dropped more easily on a path of Devotion. Of course, one path does not stand out above any other. Indeed, each Pada includes practice, study and devotion. In fact, all three are addressed in a single sutra! For now though, let’s explore each path separately.

While the second Pada is entitled “On Practice,” Patanjali actually introduces and defines practice in the first Pada with sutras 12 and 13, which immediately follow the types of mental modifications and state: “These mental modifications (right knowledge, misperception, conceptualization, memory and sleep) are restrained by practice and non-attachment,” and “Of these two, effort toward steadiness of mind is practice.” Patanjali wastes no time in offering the methodology of how to restrain the whirlwinds, and hence experience Yoga. He suggests practice—we will address non-attachment in a separate article—which is defined as the effort toward steadiness of mind.

What comes to mind with the word “effort?” Consciously doing something? Perhaps moving, taking a step in one direction, any direction? In the dictionary, effort is defined as the “exertion of physical or mental power” and derives from the French word for force. Effort then, implies action, taking action, making a movement, not trying to, or thinking about, taking action. Effort, for me then, means a change in position, movement from one place to another, whether it is physical OR mental. Think of Yoda from the original Star Wars trilogy, “No! Try not! Do or do not! There is no try!” And consider the infamous “puzzle” of asking someone to try and close their eyes. There is a moment of confusion when the person doesn’t quite understand the question. They close their eyes, and we say, “no, you closed your eyes! Just try instead.” We quickly see that indeed, as Yoda professes, there is no try. Either the eyes stay open or they close. So effort produces a movement, from one place to another, or from one experience to another.

Next, we encounter the word steadiness in the definition of practice. Steadiness implies free from change, firmly placed, stable, centered, equanimous. So steadiness of mind starts to sound a lot like restraining the modifications of the mind-stuff! Practice then, is the effort, the movement, the exertion toward experiencing Yoga. Which brings us back around to the word practice itself. Patanjali aside, what does the word practice imply? Repetition? Training? Learning through doing? Making mistakes and starting again? Perhaps having beginner’s mind? Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes! Practice encompasses repeated performance, with the idea that there is no specific endpoint, for even if we do experience Yoga in one moment—it will be gone in the next if we don’t continue steadying the mind.

Which brings us to sutra 14 where Patanjali states: “Practice becomes firmly grounded when well-attended to for a long-time, without break, and in all earnestness.” Here are some clear signposts of a well established practice. First, a long-time. Is that a month, a year, a decade? How long does it take to play an instrument? Learn a sport? Become a doctor? While it can differ from person to person, practice is not established after an hour, a day or even a week. It will take time, a long time. And, according to the second signpost, without break. So practice requires regularity, some each day, according to a committed schedule. Taking breaks can diminish momentum and lead to lapses. A mantra here might be, to borrow from the old Nike commercial, “Just do it.” Yet Patanjali is not without compassion. He adds a third signpost, in all earnestness. This last is a loop that can initiate and support practice. In the beginning, we are excited about the prospect of what will happen. Then, we unexpectedly experience Yoga and the joy and delight in that keeps us practicing to have that experience again. Practice becomes both the action and the goal, the effort and the reward. We practice Yoga to experience Yoga, and in experiencing Yoga we are practicing it.

Now let’s turn to the path of Study. Perhaps the mere thought brings flashbacks of school tests and stomach aches. And yet, I project there are at least one or two things everyone has learned in a lifetime, either through classes or alone, that became fun and enjoyable from studying—even if it was learning to play an instrument, to paint, build or craft something, or to do any sport at all. Most likely, we began with a kind of instruction manual, whether verbal, from teachers or friends, or written. For the spiritual study path then, a quintessential student, might typically begin by exploring written scripture (aka authoritative testimony), like Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the Bhagavad Gita, the Bible, or the Koran. Or perhaps even mystical poets like Rumi, Hafiz, the Christian saints, or the myriad of Zen stories of masters and students. Reading about what to focus on, or researching, discovering and familiarizing oneself with the findings of those who have come before, can be inspirational, and help prepare a student for possible encounters or pitfalls. Indeed, even studying the biographies of spiritual heroes can be inspiring, and lend support for a student to continue on the path when it feels boring, confusing, or like treading water.

Nature is another area of study, indeed, where many Yoga asanas come from. Animals, plants, trees, lakes, rivers, and oceans, the sky, the sun, the moon—they all convey information to us about how to live life. A tree can teach us to breath, dance with the wind, shed “dead” matter in the fall, and push in new directions in the spring. Waves show us how effortless it is to emerge from the ocean, be lifted up, crashed into the sand and be accepted, without hesitation, back into the ocean with nary a comment. From animals, we can learn how to live in harmony, each playing a role of hunter or prey, without (we can only guess) a sense of regret and dismay, wishing it could be the other way around. We observe and can learn to imitate the discipline of the stars and planets, the dedication of the Earth’s rotation around the Sun, the continual beginning and end of each season, each according to its time, showing up with enthusiasm and peacefully giving way to the next one.

And perhaps the largest, most rewarding area of study is ourselves. We study our patterns of behavior, our thought processes, our successes and our failures. And we learn what behaviors lead us toward experiencing Yoga, and which lead away. We learn to listen to our bodies, and to the quiet inner voice—intuition or Divine inspiration—and we learn to trust it (some might call this clear, unclouded, inference). We learn, as all scriptures point out in one way or another that we are not the ego, small “s” self nor its main characteristics of fear, hate and delusion. Rather, we learn and begin to experience that we are Divine, a beautiful swirl of joy, gratitude, kindness and unconditional love.

It is on this studious path we may experience digging many wells. At first we are introduced to, or maybe read about, several different spiritual philosophies. We attend presentations and dharma talks until we find one that resonates with us. For some, they will stay with the intellectual, studying path, called Jnana Yoga, where the mind is trained to use discrimination, a methodology to determine what is real (authentic, Divine, capital “S” Self) and what is not (everything else!). On this path, the student becomes a scientist, constantly observing, staying in a watchful state with no judgments or conclusions. A mantra here may be, “Is this so, true?” or “How do I know that?”

Which leads us to the last path, that of Devotion, perhaps the complete opposite of study. Here is the way of faith, unquestioned giving over of all actions, thoughts, feelings, intentions and reactions to a notion bigger than little “s” self, to the Universe, Divine Consciousness, That Which Animates, or God. Devotion is defined as “to promise solemnly, to vow, having a profound dedication or attachment to.” Profound dedication to, or faith in, any one of the above, is what underpins this path for me. A dedication to the Universe or God that overcomes all obstacles, all distractions. No matter what happens, it is either done in the name of what is good and holy, or done by what is good and holy and we are simply there to witness it. In Christianity, the mantra would be “Thy will, not my will,” or “Let go and let God” and another, one of my favorites, might be “Let go or be dragged.”

In Section 1, Patanjali offers sutras 27, 28, and 29 to experience devotion: “The expression of Ishvara is the mystic sound OM,” “To repeat it in a meditative way reveals its meaning,” and “From this practice the awareness turns inward and the distracting obstacles vanish.” We chant OM, doing japa or repetition, to focus attention on Ishvara, the Supreme Being, and the vritti drop away. The concept of devotion is also in the story of Sri Ramakrishna dunking in the water the devotee who wants to experience God. As the devotee comes up gasping for air, Sri Ramakrishna asks what he was thinking of while under water and the devotee looks at his teacher with wild eyes and shouts, “Breathing again!” Sri Ramakrishna replies, “when you want God with that same single-minded devotion, you will find God.”

And so it is, from the Bhagavad Gita to the New Testament, that the way of faith, a wholehearted devotion is reputedly the quickest, most direct road to enlightenment or God. No action or study is required, only a constant focus on devotion. Perhaps the most accessible experience for us to relate to is that of falling in love. Our whole life is subsumed in that love, and nothing deters us from being with that love. We trust and believe in it whole-heartedly, we have faith that it will “all work out.” That kind of super-focus is what devotion asks of us. Quickest yes, but not easiest. The vritti are constantly swirling to distract us, to pull us off this path, as with all paths.

Which brings us full circle, that is, to the first sutra in the second Pada that pulls all three paths together: “Accepting pain as help for purification, study, and surrender to the Supreme Being constitute Yoga in practice.” Patanjali offers that Yoga in practice includes study, surrender or what I also term devotion, and something we haven’t explored yet, accepting pain as help for purification. As it turns out, the more we study, the more we practice, the more devoted to our spiritual path we are, the more we find out how we stumble, act inelegantly, are distracted or lost in a myriad of whirlwind stories of misperception, conceptualization, or memory. Pain is that sharp realization of those stumbles, where we get to see a shortcoming we are ready to see. It acts as a wake up call that gives us a spiritual conundrum to examine and explore, to confront a limitation that with study and devotion can turn into an opportunity on the spiritual path. It is not suffering, or resignation, a place where we are stuck in the stories that keep a painful vritti alive. Rather, pain can help us build courage, strength, resilience and faith. We stumble, we hurt, we learn, and we keep practicing.

Patanjali continues in the second Pada with the Eight Limbs of Yoga, the jewel of the Yoga Sutras, which go into great details of different practices and areas of study, including the Yamas and Niyamas, the first two limbs (often referred to as the Yogic “ten commandments”), followed by the next six: Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi. Indeed, I would be hard pressed to sort out which limb is more about practice, study or devotion, especially since the last three are the first sutras of the third Pada—On Accomplishments, indicating, that perhaps there is grace involved, a bestowal of experience from all the study and practice that has come before, where meditation deepens, not because we intellectually understand it, but because we do it, day after day, year after year, no matter what our experience.

In the end, Practice, Study and Devotion interact and support each other: we can practice devotion, devote to studying, and study practice. Again, no one path is better than another, in fact, no one path exists without the other. So are there three paths? Or just one with three aspects? Perhaps we simply see, and work with, the aspect that is most relevant to us at that moment when, in truth, we are always practicing, studying, and surrendering in loving devotion to any path we are on.


Beth Hinnen began her Yoga teaching path with the Integral Yoga Teacher Training Program in 2001. Afterward, she took the Intermediate, Advanced, Raja, and Prenatal trainings. With over 1,000 hours in Yoga certifications (including Structural Yoga Therapy), Beth taught in the New York City area for over 10 years, both privately and in classes. In 2013 she moved back to her native state, Colorado, to open a common-denominational spiritual center named Samaya (“right timing” in Sanskrit) following Sri Swami Satchidananda’s teaching, “Truth is one, paths are many.” She currently also studies Buddhism.


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