The Yoga of Commitment

January 13, 2014    BY Linda Johnsen

In the yoga tradition, a vrata—or vow—is not a casual undertaking. What distinguishes it from an ordinary resolution is that a vrata cannot be broken. This is because a vrata is a solemn commitment made to your higher self, the living presence of God within you. It is a commitment to free yourself from the bonds of your negative past karma, to generate more positive thoughts and actions in the present, and to create a better, more spiritually enlivened future for yourself and those around you.

It is a commitment to free yourself from the bonds of your negative past karma, to generate more positive thoughts and actions in the present, and to create a better, more spiritually enlivened future for yourself and those around you.

Yogis in India take vratas extremely seriously because breaking a promise to the divine consciousness within themselves is like breaking faith with God. And since failing to keep a vrata creates a lot of bad karma, yogis are careful to begin a vow only if they’re sure they can and will keep it.

The renunciate swamis and sadhus of India are continually working with vratas in order to deepen and strengthen their spiritual lives. But anyone, whatever caste, age, or gender, can practice them. No priest or guru is needed to officiate. A person simply and solemnly makes a commitment to complete a vow, usually a traditional one that other people in the village or in their family have completed before. It may be relatively undemanding, say, promising to fast on new and full moon days. Or it may be as grueling as committing to make a pilgrimage by foot to the most sacred temples throughout India. You’ll see young men rise before dawn to prostrate, stand up and walk three steps forward, then prostrate again, all the way from their homes to the bank of the Ganges River to greet the rising sun. Grandparents recite their mantras thousands of times, the beads of their malas slipping endlessly through their bone-thin fingers. Mothers toss offerings of fruit and fried dough balls into a ritual fire on behalf of family members. And you’ll hear pandits reciting voluminous holy texts over and over again. All this is part of a special resolve they’ve made in order to adjust their karmic balance. Here are the three steps for anyone completing a vrata.

To be effective it should be tapas, which loosely translated means it should make you sweat a bit, yet it should not be unrealistic.

1.  Be very clear about your goal in beginning this sacred practice. When your intention is firmly fixed in your mind, the physical act of performing the vrata will energize this image. If there is no one particular aspiration you’re aiming for, an excellent goal is simply to offer the merit of your spiritual practice for the welfare of all beings. Spiritual masters often spend hours a day in meditation or performing special rites for this very purpose.

2.  Design the vrata itself. To be effective it should be tapas, which loosely translated means it should make you sweat a bit, yet it should not be unrealistic. You may want to begin with easier vratas, such as avoiding solid food from sunrise to sunset one day a week, or adding one more mala to your daily mantra practice. At first it’s better not to launch into an especially difficult vrata without checking in with a spiritual mentor who can help you challenge yourself without harming yourself.

3. Start the vrata and follow through! I have found that appreciating the sacred nature of vratas and incorporating a renewed commitment to them into the prayers I say before my morning meditation has made my vratas such a deep part of my spiritual practice that failing to complete them is no longer a possibility in my mind.

Certainly, it takes a lot of inner determination to persist in a spiritual practice despite the responsibilities and distractions of our day-to-day lives. In fact, the Sanskrit word vrata comes from the root vri, which means “to will.” Yet successfully completing a series of vratas is one of the best possible ways to increase your sankalpa shakti—“the power to makes one’s intentions manifest”—which is one of the most valuable qualities an aspiring yoga student can develop.                                                       

Linda Johnsen
Linda Johnsen, MS, is the author of numerous books including Lost Masters: Sages of Ancient Greece and Meditation Is Boring? Her most recent book is Kirtan! Chanting as a Spiritual Practice. Visit her at ThousandSuns.org.