[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