“Without right knowledge, one can mindfully do a wrong practice.” – AG Mohan
Suppose you want to hurt yourself. Note this is not so rare a “symptom” as you think it is. To get a visceral realisation of this, just take a walk through LKF in Hong Kong on a Friday evening.
If you do what you do to hurt yourself with focus and devotion, you will have great success i.e. hurt yourself real bad. Smoking a pack of cigarettes everyday with religious devotion is more harmful than an occasional smoke.
If you don’t know what you are doing, doing it sincerely might actually be more harmful than if you did it without sincerity.
One of the frequently misquoted Yoga Sūtras in the modern Yoga circles is Sūtra 1.12.
(Sūtra 1.12) abhyāsa vairāgyābhyāṁ tannirodhaḥ / Yoga (control of the mental fluctuations) can be achieved through practice and detachment
Abhyāsa means practice. Some teachers of Yoga implore the aspirant to just do the practice (exactly as prescribed by them) and not wonder why. A bit like Marine Corps, where yours is to do and die and not to ask why.
The thing that differentiates from Marine Corps is perhaps the spiritual gloss in the form of detachment. Vairāgyaṁ, which means detachment or renunciation, is interpreted with great latitude as not being attached to the results of practice. So the just do it and don’t ask guideline morphs into a dangerous just do it, don’t ask and don’t expect. It is indeed a great marketing message to keep a loyal customer base. However, this can easily lead the beginner to the vicious kind of sincerity mentioned earlier.
Yoga Sūtras is a philosophical text and not a sermon meant for commoners. Therefore, the terms which could have wider colloquial usage are defined precisely in the text itself to avoid interpretations that are beyond the context. The concepts of Abhyāsa and Vairāgyaṁ are defined precisely (which often gets overlooked to aid the “liberal” interpretation to support whatever is being done).
(Sūtra 1.13) tatra sthitau yatno’bhyāsaḥ / exertion to acquire tranquility of mind devoid of fluctuations is called practice
(Sūtra 1.15) dṛṣtānuśravika viṣaya vitṛṣṇasya vaśīkāra saṁjñā vairāgyam / detachment is the state of utter desirelessness, where the mind loses all desire for objects of the mundane and heavenly worlds
1.13 defines practice as that effort that establishes Yoga (Yoga = type of intense concentration known as samādhi). In other words, practice stabilises or controls the mind into a one pointed state. This is a good benchmark to test whether what you do is practice in the context of Yoga or not.
1.15 says vairāgyam in Yoga is not just detachment from results of actions. It is a larger concept, to quote Vyāsa, where the mind becomes indifferent to things seen (i.e. objects of this world) and does not hanker after things or states promised in the spiritual or religious texts (e.g. going to heaven, attaining a state of bliss, etc). To use detachment in the context of doing a practice to discourage any sort of critical examination is disingenuous and can lead a beginner to the kind of sincerity we talked about earlier.
This post outlines why clarity and conviction arising from correct knowledge is the foundation of practice described in Yoga Sūtras. Practice based on dogma can lead the beginner astray and even hurt her. And such a practice done sincerely can do more damage. Therefore, it is important to ask questions (yourself or your teacher), read texts and contemplate in order to understand what you are doing and why you are doing what you are doing.
You could be wrong even if you are sincere. Just sincerely wrong!