Posts In: yamasandniyamas

[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.]

So we’re five weeks down the line now, which means it’s time to finish up this exercise and give you the final (and somehow shortest!) post in the series. Thank you for joining me on the journey – it’s been an illuminating and sometimes overwhelming experience but ultimately I’ve enjoyed it immensely, and learnt an awful lot to boot.

With which said, off we go…

Aparigraha – “When non-greed is confirmed, a thorough illumination of the how and why of one’s birth comes.” 

Reading through the various interpretations of this yama, the translation ‘non-greed’ doesn’t really seem to cut it for me, as it’s actually a multi-faceted statement about a) not coveting what you don’t have, b) not being possessive and c) not taking advantage, whether of people or situations.

And yes perhaps you could argue that, if all of these things (coveting ‘stuff’, being possessive and taking advantage of things) are about getting more out of a given situation than one should, then they absolutely are about greed. It’s just I don’t think translating it in this way makes it particularly easy to understand – which is why I’ve moved forward this week with it firmly positioned in my mind as having the three dimensions I describe.

First things first then – not coveting what you don’t have (yet another biblical parallel…).

Of course there’s a direct relation between this and one of the niyamas – that of samtosa (aka contentment). Because, really, not coveting things is contentment isn’t it? Being satisfied with what you have, and not looking outside for happiness?

It’s an idea that I wrote a lot about in the earlier post on the subject, and that I’ve been continuing to practise ever since. This week it’s manifested itself in the quelling of unnecessary insecurity about where I live (and what others might think of it) and resulted in the non-purchase of a variety of different things that I simply don’t need (but in times gone by might have convinced myself I needed!).  Ultimately it remains hugely comforting to me and provides much-needed perspective when the world becomes just a little too much.

And so onto the second strand of this yama – not being possessive. Which, again, directs us back to another of the previous principles, this time that of asteya (aka non-stealing).

Swami Satchidananda himself describes aparigraha as a “form of stealing”, and you can see the link quite clearly – particularly if you reflect on the parts of asteya related to ‘not imprisoning possessions’, and going about the appropriate living of our lives with no expectation of reward.

Interestingly on this point I have been teaching lots of free classes in the past months, both to get some experience under my belt but also to spread the word of yoga. And just last week I was able to put the final pieces together for one additional free class, for various members of CDF Runners – the club that I run with on a weekly basis. Literally all I’ve ever asked for in return has been honest feedback, but then come Saturday morning something magical happened.

I was up getting ready to go to class at mandayoga when I received a message asking if I could sub instead, my teacher having been ill overnight. After a bit of panic, I said yes – but just to help out. I had zero expectation of any return.

It was terrifying to teach a ‘real’ class but ultimately it went really, really well. And you know what? Since doing it I’ve been offered some more cover work in May, a course of my own come September (to run through to the end of the year – hopefully beyond) and perhaps an additional class per week too. Which is CRAZY. And beyond my wildest expectations. So maybe, just maybe, Patanjali was right when he said “to one established in non-stealing, all wealth comes”.

Which brings us to the third strand of aparigraha – not taking advantage. Or in other words, only taking what has been rightly earned, not engaging in bribery and not accepting gifts if they’re given with the expectation of getting something back (or indeed if we ourselves associate receiving such a gift with an obligation to deliver something in return).

All pretty clear cut. Though unfortunately I don’t have any examples of it from this week!

In sum then this yama has been, all in all, a great success – keeping me grounded, (mostly) free of desire and true to my Self (see how it always comes back to this Self…). Which makes it’s time now to turn to the very last niyama on the list, the biggest mouthful to date – Isvarapranidhana.

Isvarapranidhana – “By total surrender to God, samadhi is attained.”

[Samadhi meaning a meditative consciousness or, in Swami Satchidananda’s words, a “tranquility of mind”]

Desikachar explains Isvarapranidhana as “to lay all your actions at the feet of God”, telling us that if we commit to doing only our best in life we can leave the rest to a higher power.

God though is a troublesome concept for many of us and thankfully Swami Satchidananda uses his interpretation of this niyama to tell us that God can also be read as humanity, and explains that “when we dedicate our lives to the benefit of humanity, we have dedicated ourselves to God”. All of which helps…a lot!

Except in this last week I’ve been thinking a bit more about the idea of God and, if I’m honest on some level it’s beginning to feel more accessible. Which is exceptionally confusing to someone who’s never believed. Though perhaps it’s not ‘God’ as such that I’m thinking of, but a greater Consciousness or Connectedness such as we’ve discussed before. Either way there’s something going on with this right now, that I don’t yet understand.

Putting that to one side for now though (it’ll resolve itself when it will), what does total surrender to God/humanity mean for our behaviour?

It seems to me like a putting into action of all of the yamas and niyamas we’ve looked at in this series, all at the same time. In other words, a dedication to living life with one eye on how this impacts the wider world and/or benefits the greater good. Which therefore means, though these posts are now complete, I’ll be continuing to live their principles for some time to come…

This is the final post in the ‘An experiment in yoga’ series – thank you for joining me! Other posts are available as follows, or you can access them all in one go via the related tag #yamasandniyamas:

#1 – ahimsa and sauca
#2 – satya and samtosa
#3 – asteya and tapas
#4 – brahmacarya and svadhyaya

[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.]

So here we are, 80% of the way through! Let’s get to it and dive straight in…

Brahmacarya – “By one established in continence, vigor is gained.”

I mentioned in last week’s instalment that brahmacarya meant celibacy and it’s true that if you Google it that’ll likely be the most popular definition you find. But (you guessed it!) as with all of these yamas, it’s rarely the case that they’re so one-dimensional.

We can’t gloss over the fact that this is the original recommendation though – the rationale behind it being that in remaining celibate you conserve the energy (or life force) for better things. Spirituality yes, but also (by my book’s example) the power to change the world! That said, there is also an acknowledgment that within a healthy relationship, and within healthy bounds, being moderate rather than entirely celibate is perfectly ok.

So, if not celibacy, my goal for this week has been what?

In short – continence of body, speech and mind. Or, in even simpler terms, practising self-restraint in the use of what physical and mental energy I possess.

My Yoga Sutras says that as yoga teachers we “must impart a life force – a little current – into others” and it’s true that you might have experienced this in a great yoga class – leaving at the end feeling that somehow life has become slightly richer or brighter than it was when you arrived. But in truth isn’t this statement reflective of non-yoga teachers too? Indeed of everyone?

Because I think in all of our most valued interactions in life there’s a exchange such as this. A connection that could quite easily be understand as current, or a giving/receiving of life force. It’s there in the ‘day-making’, feelgood chat that you might have buying your coffee in the morning, the long overdue catch up with a distant friend, the cwtch from a pet who just senses your need for them in that moment, and without question, the giving of people all over the world in aid of someone they’ve never even met.

But there can only be this giving if somehow there’s a recharging too. Because after all, if we give too much we’ll simply have nothing left. Which is where continence, self-restraint, becomes key.

Most interestingly, as I was focusing on my yama this week a blogger I follow published this post, with one part in particular standing out: “It took a long time until I understood that you can only give energy if there’s some left for you in the end. I understood this about money (you can only spend what you have) but not about energy and other non-material ‘things’.” 

Not only was it an interesting read but it gave me the focus I needed for this post too. Because, though I like to think that I’ve understood only being able to give if you keep something back for yourself, the reality is that it’s something I continue to struggle with.

As the other half reminded me this morning I am about as much of an all or nothing person as you get – so if I’m in I’m in, 110%. Couple that with the fact that as an INFJ personality type I have this compulsion to take care of others (often to the detriment of myself) and you can see how, even though I know full well all of this is capable of taking me past my breaking point, I so often end up broken.

Which is almost where I’m at this week – as work, homework, teaching, domestic life and my choice to continually look out for others piles up and up on top of me. Except that now I have this growing awareness of what’s going on. And a growing ability to reach out to others for support – to take as well as give…and to rest as well as do.

And I can’t tell you how much of a reach this is for me, as not only am I an INFJ but a particularly perceptive one at that. So I have what can seem like a sixth sense for things – often knowing there’s something going on before others realise it themselves and therefore being able to step in, console and support without ever needing to be asked. I forget though that not everyone has this overdeveloped sense for situations (and believe me, it’s often not that great a thing!) and that I can’t expect people to return the favour and know when I need help without me reaching out to ask for it first. It can be really confusing in truth, and gets me all hurt and upset about being misunderstood – which of course only makes the whole ‘broken’ situation even worse!

So this week, as with most of this month, I’ve overdone it. I thought I hadn’t but I have. And lying in bed this morning, feeling totally incapable of getting up quite clearly told me that!

I might look ok (the adrenaline of subbing for my teacher this morning might account for that – post to come!) but the truth is there is very little vigor here right now. Again. Which means firstly that brahmacarya hits my list of ‘must work ons’, and that secondly this bank holiday weekend, as much as possible, must become a time for rest, recuperation and self-love. So that as next week rolls around I have enough energy to start giving (within reason) again.

Svadhyaya – “By study of spiritual books comes communion with one’s chosen deity.”

Onto svadhyaya then and, as I write this, I have to admit to a somewhat wry smile on my face. Because if “study of spiritual books” isn’t what I’ve been doing every day since enrolling on YTT I don’t know what is.

It’s ramped up of course in recent months, particularly since beginning this exercise in living Patanjali’s yamas and niyamas, but really it’s been there for some time. Though “communion with one’s chosen deity”? Anyone who knows me will tell you I’m not religious, so surely I haven’t suddenly found God? No, not quite. But then ‘God’ isn’t really what’s meant here – rather a spirituality, and understanding of a greater connectedness.

A big Self, as well as the small self, and a big Consciousness, as well as the small consciousness – in essence, a thread of something that connects us all as one, no matter where we’re from or who we are.

Sound a bit confusing? This Yoga International piece presents a nice analogy for it – likening us and the greater connectedness to the waves and the sea:

“…each wave, traveling across the surface of the sea, is likened to an individual being. It is distinguished by its location in space, as well as by other qualities, such as shape and color.

But the substance of every wave is the sea itself. Waves and the substance from which they arise are one and the same…”

It’s an understanding that becomes more and more accessible with the more study that we do, and more and more real with the more understanding that we gain.

But understanding does not come from study alone – not in its traditional form anyway. And Svadhyaya is not just being able to recite verbatim what we’ve read, but rather to put what we learn into practice. In other words, as Swami Satchidananda would say, it’s “studying with the heart”, as well as the mind.

Which let’s be clear, is a type of study that can (and this is something I’ve already found to be true) be deeply unsettling – particularly as we come to the realisation that the small self, (what to date we have known as the real self) is actually very much unreal. That it is unfixed and volatile – swayed by the feelings and happenings of the moment – and somewhat of a distraction in life. A distraction that we must learn to distance ourselves from, in order to find a more peaceful and profitable existence.

And with this distance of course, we’re able to locate and identify the real Self – by contrast steady and stable, fixed and unswayable. This is the truth, if you will, of who we are and what we want. The truth, again if you will, that is shared by us all – making each of us equal to the next.

So yes, I’ve come to recognise in recent times that I am no better, no worse and no different to the next person. Just as I’ve also come to know my truth, hence this journey. But please don’t think for a second it’s been easy – on the contrary, it’s hard work. And it’s led me (is still leading me) to question pretty much everything that I know (or, more accurately, thought I knew!). Plus it’s a job for life – where, every time I come back to study I look at things anew.

Which means, I’m afraid, that it’s really all well and good me telling you all about these principles – Patanjali’s yamas and niyamas – but that you’ll only really come to know them through conducting a similar exercise yourself.

Which brings me to the end, for now, with one more post to go – on the final yama and niyama: aparigraha (non-greed), and isvarapranidhana (worship of/surrender to God).

As ever, the other posts in the series remain available in the meantime via the links below, and I’ll see you all again in a week!

Experiments in yoga:
#1 – ahimsa and sauca
#2 – satya and samtosa
#3 – asteya and tapas
#5 – aparigraha and isvarapranidhana

[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

[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.]

This second phase of the ‘experiment’ sees me taking on satya and samtosa – or, to take their English translations, truthfulness and contentment. I wrote a LOT last week on ahimsa and sauca and so there’s an intention behind this post to streamline a little…let’s see how successful that turns out to be!

Satya – “To one established in truthfulness, actions and their results become subservient.”

Swami Satchidananda translates satya as truthfulness and discusses how, in establishing an honest mind, “the true Self reflects without disfigurement, and we realise the Truth in its own original nature”. He also tells us that “with establishment in honesty, the state of fearlessness comes”.

I have read other explanations of satya too though, not least the below where it’s defined as meaning somewhat more than just truth:

“The word ‘sat’ literally translates as ‘true essence’ or ‘true nature’. Sanskrit is a vibrational language and so each word is so much more than a label – it literally holds the very essence of the word. Because of this, ‘sat’ also holds the meanings; ‘unchangeable’, ‘that which has no distortion’, ‘that which is beyond distinctions of time, space and person’, and ‘reality’. Many Sanskrit words use the prefix ‘sat’ such as ‘satsang’ meaning ‘true company’ and ‘sattva’ meaning ‘pure’, which leads us to understand that ‘sat’ really means more than ‘truth’, it’s something that is unchanged and pure. When looking at the word ‘truth’ from this perspective, it’s easy to then understand how so much of our time is spent not actually seeing the truth or reality in any of our life situations…. Our thoughts, emotions and moods are extremely interchangeable, yet these are the things that create our own truth and our whole life experience. If ‘sat’ means ‘unchangeable’, then this can make us aware that much of our experience of life is brought about by paying more attention to that which changes, rather than the unchanging truth.”
Emma Newlyn, ekhartyoga.com

My take on satya then is that a) being truthful and honest in our actions we enable our own truth to be set free; b) the more truthful a life we lead, the less fear we will face; and c) the more we recognise what is transient in life (emotion, environment, circumstance), the more we are able to focus on what’s real.

In adhering to the principles of satya this week, I have experienced the following:

On Wednesday, while still feeling the effects of the low I touched on in my last article, instead of retreating under a rock as would be usual I reached out to the other half and asked if he’d be willing to forgo running that evening to be with me. Of course he was more than happy to do so and I realised that if I am to expect him to reach out to me in his own times of need, I must do the same.

[As an aside, it’s also been interesting to see how being honest on this blog has encouraged others to be honest with me – old friends, new friends and family alike. It seems that being truthful ourselves really does encourage this same behaviour in others.]

Also on Wednesday, in a classic sales/marketing face-off during a meeting at work, the truth was my friend as I calmly and rationally presented the facts (good and bad) about our performance. It’s a situation I’d normally find hugely intimidating but with the facts at my fingertips truth really did become freedom.

On Thursday I had a tough conversation with my Mum. I needed to voice my disagreement with some of her thinking, even though it was to be painful for her. It was a classic juxtaposition of two opposing yamas (ahimsa and satya) but in this instance the truth won out. It’s often said that you’re better saying nothing when what you’re about to say will cause harm but in this case what was painful was necessary, and only said with the very purest of intentions and love (though admittedly I don’t think I handled it as well as I could have done – the rawness I’m feeling translating into a lack of patience).

Teaching on Friday morning I encouraged my students to be truthful with themselves offering variations of poses for wherever they were at that moment. I also asked them to identify passing feelings as just that – passing – and check in with something deeper instead.

Then finally over the weekend, I had a number of truthful and very liberating conversations. The first was with a good friend of mine (over a VERY good coffee and some pastries!) where, as we talked, I came to realise more and more that the selfishness in my previous relationship had been the ex’s and not mine. Both freeing and enlightening, this is exactly the kind of revelation that talking all of this out is allowing me to see – enabling me to let go of a large number of untruths that I’ve unfortunately been holding on to in recent years.

The second conversation was with my other half, as we made our way up to London for his Mum’s funeral. We had such an honest chat about both of our prior relationships and the events that drove us together – all with the utmost of respect and love.

The truth of life is complicated and, without a conscious awareness of what is/isn’t true, we often simply don’t see it. I feel truly privileged today to be on this journey, learning these lessons and to know that not living my truth was exactly what brought my life crashing down around me those couple of years back – my gut knew exactly where I needed to be but it’s taken my brain all this time to catch up!

Samtosa –  “From contentment, supreme joy is gained.”

Moving on to the niyama for the week we come to samtosa, or contentment. Now a lot of us I think fixate on finding happiness, but after this week I’ve decided I’m settling for contentment. And I purposely use the word ‘settling’, as I think it’s what most of us would assume contentment to be.

However. The version of the Sutras that I have further explains this niyama as “to just be as we are without going to outside things for our happiness”. And there’s nothing in that that seems like settling to me.

I know it’s only week two (and I’m not even half way through!) but this has definitely been my favourite so far as, through its practice, I really have experienced moments of pure joy.

Back to that low Wednesday then and the walk that other half and I took around the park – bypassing all the main roads for a more peaceful and nourishing commute home. We talked through my fears of going back to the bad old days of feeling low all the time and I came to a place where I could accept what I was feeling for just that – a feeling – and become simply content with what was.

On Thursday during my yoga practice I struggled with postures that usually give me no issue at all. Remembering samtosa though I detached from any preconceived idea of what was ‘good’ and instead practised vairagya (or non-attachment), finding a place of acceptance and contentment in my practice that meant I left in a much better place at the end.

Then on Saturday, after getting a haircut, I walked and walked and walked feeling more peaceful than I had in an age! Yes the sun was shining and the clouds in the sky were just beautiful (pics below!) but I think the best thing about the day were my ruminations on contentment as I made my way up the river and around the parks. Happiness I concluded was something that you could experience in passing – perhaps on an evening out with friends was one example – but ultimately it was an ‘up’ in the myriad of ups and downs that life brings. Contentment however (which was absolutely what I felt while ambling back home) was utter peace and could never be replaced – it’s a feeling that you have the power to cultivate for yourself after all.

I continued to think about contentment as we got up to London on the Sunday. Staying with some friends of the other half’s brother, it would have been very easy to look at their beautiful flat and think ‘I wish I could do this/that/the other in my place’ starting a painful cycle of somehow not being good enough again. The reality is though that nothing/no-one is better – just different. And so, again, focusing on samtosa led me to liberation from the negative thoughts, and allowed me to be not only content with where I was, but also content with where I’d be going home to.

I read somewhere that “a different kind of internal spark alights when we practice contentment” and, even after just this short period of time, I really couldn’t agree more – this one’s a keeper!

Next up are asteya (non-stealing) and tapas (austerity) but, in the meantime, you can see  other posts in the series using the links below:
#1 – ahimsa and sauca
#3 – asteya and tapas
#4 – brahmacarya and svadhyaya
#5 – aparigraha and isvarapranidhana

[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.]

Up first are ahimsa and sauca but before we get started let me highlight one thing – the speed with which I’ve discovered five days is nowhere near enough time to get to grips with these new life rules! (Plus the way I have zero idea of how I’ll distil all of this into the required 1,500 word essay at the end…)

But then I think I always knew that would be the case. And although there’s certainly been no mastery these last five days, there have been gains in understanding with regards how to apply them. Which seems to fit well with one particular statement in the book’s preface:

“Let us slowly try to understand more and what little we understand, let us try to practice.”
-Swami Satchidananda (the translator of my edition of the Sutras)

Ahimsa 

Literally speaking, ahimsa can be translated as the absence (“a-“) of causing pain (“-himsa”) although it can also be interpreted as kindness, consideration and thoughtfulness too.

Now, as you may already know if you’re a regular reader, I’m pretty much the queen of being kind and considerate to others but often the very worst at applying this same treatment to myself. It is something that I’ve been consciously working on for some time though, so I’ll admit to thinking that this yama wasn’t a bad place to be starting out…

And in some ways that turned out to be true. I (mostly) successfully navigated the first wedding I’ve been to since my own divorce with very little negative self-talk, and I aced cooking dinner for my Dad and his partner – even when he disappeared off to ‘read the paper’ (aka have a nap) for the first couple of hours that I was in the house! I’ve refused to engage in gossipy conversations, instead actively trying to stop them in their tracks, and even as work has become a little overwhelming I’ve maintained this ‘ahimsic’ mindset…that is until a PR cold caller interrupted a particularly busy day with a very poorly executed pitch! Essentially though I’ve been living life with the minimum of trauma – both for myself and others.

I’ve also integrated the principles of ahimsa into my asana and teaching practices – not punishing myself when my hips simply wouldn’t comply in a particular sequence of triangle pose last Tuesday, and making a point of educating my students in not pushing themselves past their ‘edge’.

In sum then, it’s been largely achievable this week for me to recognise the appearance of any negative, violent or harmful thoughts and send them on their way. But has the result been that “all enmity ceases in [my] presence” as Swami Satchidananda suggests? Not quite, but it has helped defuse a number of tricky situations – at work and at home.

There’s been just one hiccup (isn’t there always?!)…

For a lot of the week I’ve found myself feeling quite sad and withdrawn, and it has been difficult not to beat myself up about it. As for why, I have a couple of theories: number one it’s because this week coincides with my period (although sadness is not normally my MO); number two, it’s fallout from the emotional shift I experienced at the last training weekend; or, number three, bringing my attention firmly back to my regard for both others and myself this week has highlighted quite how awful I (and others!) have been to me in the recent past, churning up lots of old pain.

In reality it’s probably a combination and, as I write this, I come to realise that actually any time someone has shown me compassion this week, it’s almost brought me to tears. It’s like I’ve been stripped of my armour, and am raw like an open wound. Everything I feel, I feel more than usual (and let’s be fair that’s a lot under normal circumstances!).

So really, there have been a LOT of tears just under the surface this last five days, though they haven’t fully manifested themselves. I’ve been trying my hardest to not judge it but it does take me back to that time two years ago when I could barely make it through a day without bawling my eyes out. Back then I would get so angry with myself, and give myself all kinds of grief about how useless and pathetic I was. This time though, with the focus on ahimsa, I’ve largely been able to intercept such painful thoughts and replace them with a favourite mantra of mine:

I have enough. I do enough. I am enough.

Not only has this allowed me to address the knee-jerk cruel and harmful self-talk, but it’s also created a bit of space within which I can remember that the goal of what I’m doing here is to make gradual improvements in the practice of ahimsa, rather than achieving immediate perfection!

Sauca 

From my first ‘not to do’ we come to my first ‘to do’, and the niyama for week one which was sauca. Usually translated as purity and/or cleanliness, it’s pretty easy to make an immediate association between this and the idea of keeping a clean body but it’s not really limited in this way, instead extending to having a clean mind and surroundings too.

Sauca is about being clean both inside and out – removing impurities, and supporting the proper functioning of our bodies and minds, so that we can truly benefit from the rest of our yoga practice and allow our prana (energy) to freely flow. A great analogy that I’m unable to source right now is that of cleaning a window – so that the light (aka the Self) can shine through.

But clean doesn’t always mean cleansed of course and there’s also a thread of sauca that’s about finding clarity of mind. In other words acting from a place of truth rather than fear, and not dwelling on transient feelings but digging beneath them to uncover your more permanent Self.

Coincidentally as I started this experiment I also began reading another of our book list, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. This text (as you may know if you too are on this yogic path) details many different ways of cleansing yourself in the name of yoga, from the fairly mainstream practice of jala neti to the more extreme practice (amongst others) of vastra dhauti, aka swallowing and regurgitating 1-1.5 metres of cotton cloth in order to clean the stomach! Perhaps unsurprisingly, I decided that these weren’t for me at this stage of my journey, particularly when I only had five days to play with, and so instead I went about discovering some less extreme ways of achieving my goal…

First up – my surroundings. I set about cleaning my desk (and shredded a mound of unnecessary papers), my flat (deep cleaning the bathroom while I was at it) and, though it wasn’t really dirty, my yoga mat too.

I did the (enormous!) pile of ironing that’s been haunting me for weeks and I also had a sort through the overflowing box of dried herbs and spices that sits on top of the kitchen cupboard – getting rid of what was no longer fit for use so that the next time I go to use it its various contents won’t come plummeting down on top of my head…

Now none of this, it’s worth pointing out, was about creating any kind of pristine, almost untouchable environment. Particularly given that (for me at least) that level of cleanliness brings a mania that bears no resemblance to sauca at all! Instead the point of it all was enabling me to function in life with ease and efficiency, the by-product of which is quite naturally an increased clarity of mind.

Moving on to the body, I drank more water and backed off the coffee, moving instead to herbal tea. It was a gradual change I’ll admit but over the week I’ve drunk less and less of the black stuff (no milk in my coffee!) and more and more of my teas, reminding myself along the way of how I enjoy them.

Also, off the back of a conversation with a colleague, I began to start my day with a cup of hot water and lemon and, on top of this, put my eating habits back on track too – backing off from the gluten that had been creeping in, and cutting down the late night chocolate binges! Plus, instead of the usual comfort food when I was tired, I turned to more nutritious meals that actually helped nourish me and (thanks to some support from a fellow teacher trainee) I’m starting to build more protein into my diet – a task that is long overdue.

The truth is that although it’s been some effort, I do feel better for it, not just in my body but in my mind too. Which segues quite neatly…

Because in applying the principles of sauca to my mental habits, I furthered this feeling and created space in my mind where previously there was just noise. I prioritised better at work, not over-scheduling my task list for the day and starting to single- (rather than multi-) task; I put down my phone when I got home at night; and I didn’t automatically switch on the radio when I walked in through the front door. In my asana, I really tried hard to step onto the mat and practice just being there, in that moment, with whatever would arise.

Essentially I put myself (my Self?) back in control, and consciously created space to just ‘be’. Which meant that not only did I get a lot more done, but I also became more me.

So what have I learnt?

Let’s sum things up…

wordcloud (1)

I’ve learnt that ahimsa and sauca overlap – both require a certain level of self-acceptance and love, and not just of the capital ‘S’ Self but of the little ‘s’ self as well. Clearly being pure of mind and intention can also mean being considerate and non-violent, just as being considered in what you eat also promotes purity of the body. I suspect that I’ll find this kind of overlap in many of these yamas/niyamas but time of course will tell.

I’ve learnt that with practice you really can find pause to reflect on your thoughts before acting upon them.

I’ve learnt that in delving into all of this I’m baring a little more of my soul to the world. This can be disorientating and even somewhat painful, but it probably explains why that last ‘Seen on Instagram’ post resonated so much with me!

And finally, I’ve learnt that the practice of these rules is going to be a life-long task and, though my focus for the next week will move on, I won’t really be leaving these two behind.

Talking of which…next up are satya (the yama that means truthfulness) and samtosa (the niyama that means contentment). Watch this space…

(PS – this post is now longer than my essay can be…I’m going to need some help!)

Other posts in the series:
#2 – satya and samtosa
#3 – asteya and tapas
#4 –brahmacarya and svadhyaya
#5 – aparigraha and isvarapranidhana

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