An experiment in yoga #3 – asteya and tapasApril 24, 2016
[I wrote previously that, as part of our YTT course, we’ve been asked to study an area of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and report back to the group. I decided on an experiment in living his yamas and niyamas (abstinences and observances – the building blocks of his yoga) and so here I am, taking on one of each every five days from the end of March to the beginning of May.]
I’m past the mid point now with this third instalment, but I’m sorry to report it’s been a bit of a challenge. There was the trip to London, the funeral, a gazillion class observations to write up (ok I exaggerate – four), the day job, my birthday, the list goes on and on.
Life took over is what I’m saying, and I feel I somewhat lost my way. I’ve had this week’s yama and niyama in the back of my mind throughout but how successful I’ve been at applying them I’m not sure. Let’s discuss…
Asteya – “To one established in non-stealing, all wealth comes.”
Asteya is translated in my edition of the Sutras as non-stealing, which is a pretty easy concept to get your head around. Don’t take what isn’t yours. Thou shalt not steal. Share and share alike… It’s something that we’ve been told time and again, almost since the day we were born.
Not stealing seems like a no-brainer – and let’s be honest, it’s not really my bag – so to an extent it should be a case of box ticked and off we go. But is it really that straightforward? Of course not.
The idea of non-stealing extends way beyond not taking what isn’t yours. As I’m about to explain…
Firstly, Swami Satchidananda talks about this idea of doing ourselves a disservice by ‘imprisoning our possessions’ – locking them away in a desperate effort to hold on to them but, in the process, actually encouraging them to leave. It’s a bit esoteric perhaps but if you take a moment to reflect on the idea you can find some truth, can’t you, in the theory that the more you strive and strain for something, almost the harder it can become to achieve? And how, once you stop striving in this way, things somehow come right? Just think of the people you know who have been desperate for a relationship yet only find someone the very moment they stop looking…
The lesson I suppose is another in non-attachment or vairagya (as I touched upon last time) – letting things (whether money, possessions, friendship, love…) come and go as they please without desperately needing to cling onto them. That’s not to say don’t work hard or try of course, but rather do as such without any necessary expectation of reward.
On a personal level, I’m trying quite hard to make this work for me at the moment but it’s difficult. I’ve decided upon this new path in life and of course I want to make it a success but how do I balance that with not striving for, and clinging onto, success along the way? How do I facilitate making a living from this thing that I love without losing sight of what brought me here in the first place? I suppose I take each day as it comes, with all its ups and downs, and remember that what comes comes and what goes goes but ultimately satisfaction, and success, will be achieved by paying attention to something far more fundamental in life – the very core of my being, my Self.
That understood, we come to the second idea around ‘stealing’ – that it can be equally applied when you refuse to let others use the things that you have but that they have need of. Obvious examples are not sharing wealth with the needy and food with the starving but what about the unnecessary accumulation of clothes in your wardrobe, or that ever-increasing pile of unused electronics in the dumping ground of a drawer we all have at home?
There’s no changing the fact that we live in a consumerist society and that we are surrounded by hundreds of messages every day promoting exciting new stuff that will supposedly make our lives more fulfilling. But be aware that all of this drives you to identify with ‘needs’ that quite simply aren’t needs at all.
And I am no exception – on the contrary I’m as guilty as the next person of buying that new pair of shoes or jeans when I have an already overflowing stash at home! I have however found myself a little more discerning recently, choosing for example not to go out and buy a new dress for my birthday this week, even though I was sorely tempted. Faced with the familiar ‘I’ve got nothing to wear’ scenario, I remembered my yama for the week and took a critical look at my wardrobe realising pretty quickly that a) I had plenty and b) if I wasn’t going to be happy wearing something I already had it really had nothing to do with the clothes and everything to do something going on within myself.
[And as it was I had a superb evening – no new dress needed at all!]
Then, for a final interpretation of asteya, let’s think again about the idea of not taking from those around you, but in a somewhat less explicit way. Here of course I’m referring to the less tangible things in life – love time and patience for example, and of course joy. I think we can all become a bit guilty of this – taking for granted the support that surrounds us, and even putting people down for their successes, particularly when we’re feeling a bit down on our own achievements. It’s time though we became more conscious of this and made a concerted effort to redress the balance, giving back as much as we take.
My conclusions? Asteya is as much about not unnecessarily wanting as it is not taking. To want in this way is simply to breed anxiety and create a state of mind where we’re always chasing the next thing, accumulating stuff that we don’t need and robbing others of pleasure in the process.
And stuff of course doesn’t make us happy. Whereas health, love, compassion, generosity and giving do. Which means, for me, two things – firstly that sometime in the not too distance future a clear out is on the cards; and secondly that I’ll be moving on from this week with a newfound focus on abundance, being grateful for what I have and what I am given (both tangible and intangible), as well as being actively compassionate and generous with others, every chance that I can.
Tapas – “By austerity, impurities of body and senses are destroyed and occult powers gained.”
Literally speaking, tapas means ‘to burn’ or ‘to create heat’. Metaphorically though it refers to the purifying effects of such activity and could thus instead be thought of as discipline. Discipline in ridding oneself of impurities with proper nourishment and exercise, discipline in not reacting to pain inflicted by others, and discipline in having the courage to find the truth in ourselves.
Plus of course discipline in not running from all of this – even if it appears to be difficult or if with it, comes pain.
Ultimately then tapas is about ridding ourselves of that which is getting in the way of our yoga (yoga, of course, meaning the union of mind, body and soul or in Patanjali’s words “the restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff” ) and there are three main types – physical, mental and verbal. Let’s take a look at each…
Physical tapas is straightforward I feel – eat well, don’t abuse your body with excess in any form (overeating, over imbibing, oversleeping, shortage of sleeping…) and make time in your day for physical practice (asana). Also commit to your asana – applying yourself fully in order to reap the most benefit, but at the same time being careful not to take this to the other extreme. After all, as Swami Satchidadanda says in Chapter 2, Verse 1, “Self-discipline is an aid to spiritual progress, whereas self-torture is an obstacle”.
Straightforward though it may be, I have unfortunately largely failed in this this week. It’s due to circumstance as much as anything but my asana has gone out of the window and there have been excesses of all sorts left, right and centre! Which means I enter the coming week with an intention to schedule blocks of time again, to enable my daily daily practice, and try and give myself space for everything else too, whether that be running, homework or chores!
Moving on, mental tapas is about control of the mind and I love Swami Satchidadanda’s analogy here:
“Normally the mind is like a wild horse tied to a chariot. Imagine the body is the chariot; the intelligence is the charioteer; the mind is the reins; and the horses are the senses. The Self, or true you, is the passenger. If the horses are allowed to gallop without reins and charioteer, the journey will not be safe for the passenger.”
Discipline and self-control of course are key here – having the courage NOT to listen to that negative voice in your head and to bear insult or injury WITHOUT absorbing the negativity it foists upon us. Easier said than done of course but worth it for the serenity of mind that ensues.
And how have I done at this? Difficult to say! With the explanation for tapas in my Sutras explaining that, “If flowery words make us happy but insults upset us, we know our minds are not yet strong”, clearly my mind is not yet strong but equally I don’t think discipline or self-control are about overnight results. Instead, just like marathon training, it’s about consistent and continuous training in pursuit of a goal which means that, again, I’m chalking this one up as a work in progress…
Finally then we come to verbal tapas – speaking only that which is true, pleasant and beneficial. But of course these aren’t all necessarily the same thing, as we saw quite clearly when working with satya. Indeed the truth is that it can really be quite challenging to know what to speak and when. Just as it can also be challenging to keep quiet the not so nice thoughts that, let’s be honest, we can all have from time to time.
There are a number of situations where I find this latter part particularly difficult – relating to the actions of some people that I can simply have no respect for – and I’ve probably failed in all this week. Coming back to that idea of discipline being for the long-term however, I’m going to accept this for what it is this week and move on. Perhaps going forward I can write these thoughts out (privately) in an effort to stop them from circulating around and around in my mind or maybe I need to pay heed to this (unfortunately unattributed) quote that I saw some time back on Instagram and work harder on understanding:
“Despite how open, peaceful, and loving you attempt to be, people can only meet you as deeply as they’ve met themselves.”
All in all, this week has been a challenge, and although I’m pretty sure it’s been circumstantial I think I’ll need to revisit these two in the future, just to make sure.
Next up then? Brahmacharya (celibacy?!) and svadhyaya (self-study), though in the meantime the other posts in the series are available here:
#1 – ahimsa and sauca
#2 – satya and samtosa
#4 – brahmacarya and svadhyaya
#5 – aparigraha and isvarapranidhana