When the mind is disturbed by thoughts contrary to yama & niyama, one should ponder on the opposite, that is, on constructive thoughts, and driving forces. II.33
In the yamas and niyamas, Patanjali outlines 10 qualities and modes of being in and seeing the world. Tools and techniques to mutually benefit our journeys, and those of the people, beings, and world we move through.
He follows that up with: but you’re still human.
You will have moments where the habits cultivated over the majority of your life will come in and all you can think to do is lie, or say the mean thing, or be so mad or hurt that you just want to be tight and closed around your heart.
And he says –pause in that moment (which we’ve been training to do with the yamas and niyamas). And see it, acknowledge the dark thing, and hold it – which in and of itself is hard work. And hold it lightly, unjudgingly and uncelebratingly, in your hand, and then hold up your other hand and counter it with the opposite.
It’s a contemplation exercise. It’s a brain plasticity exercise – choosing a new way-of-being mental groove. It’s training a vine to go up a different path. At each cross-road of the lattice work, you hold the space to see your options, and decide which direction to grow in.
Implicit in this is the “do not beat yourself up” idea. Neither celebrating, nor ignoring, nor judging, nor fixing, nor feeling like you are wrong in some way. It’s neither trying to be holy (and ignore these things) or just going as always (and ignoring the possibility), it’s accepting and choosing. It’s as Ram Dass says “to risk being human”, or as Michael Stone says, “yoga is the process of becoming more human.”
Sometimes it could be with a “what would ahimsa do?” What would satya, etc. do? What would my isvara do? Invariably it would be to let go, which might not always be the antidote you’re ready for. But sometimes just imagining maharaji in my situation, makes letting go seem more likely.
Bird Wings by Rumi
Your grief for what you’ve lost lifts a mirror
up to where you’re bravely working.
Expecting the worst, you look, and instead,
here’s the joyful face you’ve been wanting to see.
Your hand opens and closes and opens and closes.
if it were always a fist or always stretched open,
you would be paralyzed.
Your deepest presence is in every small contracting
The two as beautifully balanced and coordinated
Although it is the most mystical of the yamas and niyamas, isvara pranidhani can be simply thought of as cultivation of a connection, through devotion, through the heart – not through the mind like svadhyaya – to Oneness/Realization/True Self/etc as represented by isvara.
Connecting to Oneness is vague at best, and nearly impossible at worst. By using the placeholder of isvara, one is much better able to cultivate a relationship or intimacy with the Divine.
Isvara is generally conceived of as a personal idea of god – Christ, Krishna, Mary, Buddha, etc. But can often be, for those rare beings, a guru.
By linking up, connecting to them – you cultivate it within you. Like when you become good friends with someone, you start to take on some of their habits, or personality traits, or vernacular. But this relationship is with THAT. Tat twam asi. So ham. That kind of THAT. And you can imagine what kind of habits and traits that would cultivate.
Don’t get caught up in finding a person, or a thing, or having one, or not. It will come. Mine is a particular small forest of trees in upstate New York. I was hung up for a very long time, because I didn’t have an isvara, and I wanted one. The ironic thing is that trees always were, since I was a kid, I just had never thought of trees as isvara. Until suddenly, one day I did. When the student is ready, the teacher arrives.
How to connect without an isvara?
So what to do if you’ve yet to realize your isvara? There are several practices orientated around service that help us cultivate the openness to find our isvara and be in that type of relationship by starting with those we already are in relationship with. It must be made clear that humans are human, and when we surrender to them, it is to develop this internal state – not to follow them. Even using a “guru” is tricky, and it is highly advised you feel you can make the distinction between a sat-guru and an upa-guru.
1) Service & Surrender
The story as I’ve heard it: Allen Ginsberg was told by his doctors that he had one month to live. He went directly home, and called his friends, and asked each one; “What can I do for you?”
Ram Dass has described the process he goes through before he does one-on-one work with people. He does his mantra until can say “How may I serve you?” and be addressing that to the depth of the other person, the light of them, the Namaste of them. He is NOT asking, “How in the melodrama can I serve you?” It’s not about lending a car, or rehashing the terribleness of an ex-lover. He’s really asking, “How may I serve you in the journey we’re on to the light?”
What journey are you on with another? That’s an excellent place to play with as well.
Try it out before your next asana class:
Close your eyes. Imagine the person closest to you. Say to them “How may I serve you?” – Notice all the tightness, panic, backpedaling, exit strategies, and worst case scenarios that arise. Pause, breathe. Then trust that this person wouldn’t ask anything of you that would be harmful. And ask them again. Open-ended, heartfelt, totally committed. It might feel a bit like going bungee jumping – a whole giant dangerous mess of space where anything could happen. Practice in that space.
2) Surrender & Serve
Hanuman has a ton of great stories that always seem to be a bit more relevant to our lives than some of the other gods. One of my favorites is the story about his powers. He was born with incredible strengths, but as a small monkey wasn’t quite in control of them. Some of his exploits angered powerful humans and gods alike. As a precaution, the king of the gods put a curse on Hanuman. He would forget all his strengths and powers until the time he was called upon to be of service to another. So he spent the rest of his teen and adult years as a normal monkey/man. Then he met Ram. Ram had a stolen kingdom, stolen wife, and arch nemesis. He needed a lot of help. Hanuman’s powers were reawakened, and he served and aided Ram in retrieving his kingdom and wife, and defeating his arch nemesis.
We are a bit like Hanuman – so many of our powers and strengths are latent until called into service by another.
We get so tight around developing our breath, our yoga practice, our concentration. But the power they give us pales in comparison with what those strengths could do in the service of others.
3) Surrender the need to be the one who knows, the one who figured it all out, the one with the correct answer.
“Mount Analogue, by Rene Daumal, is a lovely metaphor about climbing the mountain of consciousness. First, the travelers have to deduce the existence of the mountain, and then they have to figure out how to get there. Finally, they start to climb the mountain, and the narrator says, “By our calculations, thinking of nothing else, by our desires, abandoning every other hope, by our efforts, renouncing all bodily comfort, we gained entry into this new world. Or so it seemed to us. But we learned later that if we were able to approach Mount Analogue, it was because the invisible doors of that invisible country had been opened to us by those who guard them… Those who see us even though we cannot see them opened the door for us, answering our puerile calculations, our unsteady desires, and our awkward efforts, with a generous welcome.” [“Pathways to God” Ram Dass p.172]
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras tell us that “OM” is the sound expressive of Isvara. Chanting OM is one way to tap into relationship with Isvara, and cultivate the qualities of the Divine. Repeating any mantra shifts our internal state – just think about some of the negative self-talk mantras you’ve played in your life and how they have created your worldview, and how your world has shifted when those mantras become positive self-talk. The resonance of OM works the same way.
When you chant, make sure you are chanting OM the fullest and most accurate way possible. It would be best to work with a teacher in person, but a few tips that I find most students could benefit from:
* Complete the chant with the “mmmm”
* Try chanting it normally once, quietly once, and the silently once
* Try chanting it only silently, with the breath, throughout class
* Begin the OM on the final lift of the diaphragm at the end of the exhale, and keep the diaphragm engaged
* Draw in as much prana as you expel during the chant
* Emphasize the vibration and resonance over a singing quality
5) Listen & Take things to heart
A teacher who wanted to show his students the transformational value of deep listening took them to a cremation ground. There, he picked out three skulls. Taking the first skull, he put a stick through the hole where the ear once was, and it came out through the other side of the skull. The teacher said, “This is a person who heard the Truth with one ear, but was too lazy to contemplate what he had heard. Instead, he let it go out the other ear.”
The teacher picked up the next skull and put a stick into the ear hole. The stick got stuck in the middle of the skull and moved upward. “This person,” the teacher said, “not only heard the Truth, but contemplated it.”
When the teacher put the stick into the third skull, it entered the ear, moved upward toward the brain, and then came down toward the heart. “This is the skull of a person who not only heard the Truth and contemplated it, but also let it permeate the heart. This person cultivated the type of deep listening that leads to realization.”
Niyamas – the practices following the Yamas in the Ashtanga yoga system are often considered the internal practices. In many ways, the yamas and niyamas interwine and augment each other, both encouraging work within and beyond the body mind of the practitioner.
The first Niyama is Saucha, which usually translates to Cleanliness.
Unlike what generally springs to mind when we think of clean – spring clean, showers, laundry, dishes, etc – saucha in yoga practice refers to a cleansing approach targeted to various levels of the human experience. Yogis back in the day created a whole series of bodily cleansing practicing collectively known as shatkarma kriyas (6 cleansing practices). Some of which are reasonable additions to a modern day yogi’s home practice, some are not. Adopting any of these kriyas should be done under the guidance of a seasoned teacher who themselves practices said kriya.
On a more everyday level, saucha does include personal hygiene. Most of us have the showering and housecleaning thing down. But the act of cleaning itself is performed by all humans. Maybe we don’t specifically do the laundry, or the dishes, or the floors, but everyone cleans. Even if it’s just picking up after ourselves and bathing. Practicing saucha on one level, would mean bringing more awareness into these acts – how do you clean your yoga mat? Your body? How do you approach spills or cleaning lettuce? How often would you be described as unconscious, ambivalent, or entirely somewhere else when performing these actions? There’s a Buddhist expression that to be fully present, you should do something with two hands. Not that you need to physically adopt that, but to be aware of where both your hands are, and what they’re doing, is one way to bring more awareness into cleaning. Another is to cultivate a thankful mindset while cleaning your yoga mat, or a loving one when cleaning the dishes of someone who just cooked you dinner, or chant a mantra while folding the laundry.
On another level, the idea of dirt and cleaning carries with it the idea of impermanence. The analogy that I enjoy most is that of gardening and weeding. No matter how thorough a gardener you may be, both in terms of your weeding skills and in what you choose to water and give sun, and what you do not, weeds will grow. They will grow in creative and unexpected ways. They will literally shift the ground beneath you, and challenge the way you react to them time and time again.
A large part of us does not like impermanence, it prefers to believe things are or can be stable, secure, and unchanging. To the extent we identify with that we have frustration, anxiety, sadness, anger, and confusion when change occurs –or in this analogy, when another weed sprouts up.
Shifting our perspective to seeing things as they actually are (vidya), is a very high level function of saucha. To the extent we choose to identify with the understanding of impermanence, we have clarity, focus, and lightness in the face of change.
A pitfall, particular to the yogi, of identifying with the preference for stability is the idea that it is possible to achieve a final, lasting meditative state. This has happened, to a handful of individuals in the history of humanity. For most of us, we garden. Regular yoga (in all its forms) practice is required.
But don’t make it a chore, get the snazziest gardening gloves around, get cushy knee pads, make it a gardening party once in awhile and invite friends over. Embrace the entirety of the garden, even the weeds, even as you discard them.
Rejoice that you’ve found gardening after all this time! Something you enjoy doing, brings you peace of mind, and cultivates a clearer perspective!
My favorite impermanence exercise, when I feel like I’m getting a bit too attached to identifying with the permanent side, is to go outside and try to point to something that never changes. You quickly realize you can’t, but instead of letting that get you down, start to play with it. Imagine all the ways it will change, switch perspectives. And there is a beauty and lightness that arrives. And it’s good to practice that, so that when change comes to you that initially doesn’t look so beautiful or light, you can trust that, in time, it will.
For further investigation review Yoga Sutras I.30-I.39 – which list obstacles to yoga, and practices to overcome them. Traditional commentators believe that these obstacles are the main weeds saucha should address.
Aparigraha is traditionally translated as “greedlessness”, a word traditionally always spell-checked in word processing programs. It is the yama that has the greatest variety of alternative translations, with the greatest amount of nuanced differences between them. Ahimsa, for example, is traditionally “nonharming”, and sometimes “causing the least harm”, but very rarely is it contemplated to err that much from the “harm” vocabulary. While I do not know for certain the reason why aparigraha has such variety, I think those spell-checkers are on to something when they question leaving it as “greedlessness”. Here, for consideration, are five different definitions:
While television has brought the idea of hoarding into our reality TV vernacular, it is not a predicament that many yogis find themselves in. However, just as with Asteya, broadening the scope of what is included in nonhoarding can really open up the practice. It’s possible to hoard someone’s attention, their affection, someone’s time or skills, you could hoard space on public transportation, or ideas. You could hoard habitually, when the situation arises, or only once in awhile. To take a moment, with closed eyes, to ask yourself “What do I hoard?”, can be a surprising and enlightening practice. I know it was for me. Follow up questions could be “When do I hold back?” “What do I hold back?” – these are other subtle forms of hoarding.
Nonhoarding opens up aparigraha to something more than greed and money – to a practice of investigation, of letting go, but most importantly of opening up. Yoga is not meant to make us into someone different than we are – it’s meant to bring us into honest investigation into who we already are, and to help us in living it as fully as possible.
In your next asana class, consider having as your intention the commitment not to hold back. Not to approach triangle like just one more in a long succession of triangles, or hold back from your first chaturanga because many more will follow. This intention is not one of those “do this as if it were your LAST TRIANGLE EVER!” dramatic ideas, but because every moment, every triangle, matters as much as every other, so why would you hold back for this one?
This one comes from Michael Stone.
Think about the last time that you planned what you would do on a free day – what activity or relaxation you would pursue, the ease of flow throughout the day, the fullness of it – and then had something come up at the last minute where you couldn’t do it. Maybe it was a family obligation, maybe work, or maybe a storm. If you’ve ever gotten frustrated because someone ruined YOUR day – there is where we can work on aparigraha.
I recently took a trip to New Orleans – where I used to live. Within hours of my first day, I noticed something from speaking with different people there. I had a tremendous amount of walls built up when talking with someone, especially a stranger, from living in NYC. The walls went something like this | What do they want? | How can I make sure not to inadvertently give it to them before I decide if I want to or not? | I most likely don’t want to give it to them, how do I ensure that? |. Upon reflection, I realized that this was unnecessary in New Orleans, and I could relax. I also realized that the reason those walls exist is because, at least in my experience, people in NYC want something from you, all the time. Money, a smile, your attention, money, sex, time, religious conversion, money, etc. As a result of this, I had become very tight around anything that was mine – everything from the above list, and more. Even in the face of people I loved, and truly wanted to give everything to, I had these barriers going on the whole time, without knowing it. The only way I could realize it was in the complete absence of it from the other side. Without strangers in New Orleans wanting anything from me, my walls had no ground to stand on, and were so superfluous I laughed at myself in the moment of realization.
In the Bhagavad Gita (XIV.12) an imbalanced person is one where “greed, constant activity, excessive projects, cravings, and restlessness” are ruling or predominant.
Perhaps in looking at how we’re choosing to live our lives, where we’re allowing “our” time to be dispersed, we wouldn’t be so tight around them?
This one is pretty simple: time, money, talent, skills, love, etc: be generous, give often
In asana class, we’re always talking about being present. Could you contemplate giving this to someone? Michael Stone often speaks of “giving your face”. In this age, it’s so easy to barely look in anyone’s eyes, or to shy away from sharing yourself with others. You could bring more awareness to how you quite literally share your face with others?
In what ways might you be unintentionally stingy? Again, contemplate broadening the scope to not only include money, but much more.
4) Not giving or receiving gifts
This one is from Ram Dass.
Initially upon hearing this translation, I was a little surprised. Especially having previously considered giving as a way to embody aparigraha, now Ram Dass was saying the opposite!
Then I thought about it a bit more deeply, and I thought about Japanese custom (at least in Hawaii, where I also used to live). If person A gives a gift to person B, then B MUST give a gift back to A. But now A has received a gift, and MUST give one back to B, creating an endless -cycle of enforced giving.
And while such strict rules on giving may or may not exist in the culture you were raised in, we all have some kind of motive behind giving. It could be to get a gift of some kind in return or something as simple as a smile, appreciation, or thank you.
I’m not saying to boycott the upcoming holidays and birthdays of your loved ones. But perhaps consider your intention when you go shopping and purchase a gift. Could it be equally wonderful to give a gift whether or not the recipient even smiles?
In the Bhagavad Gita, giving is one of the best practices recommended. It specifically says it doesn’t matter what you give (even a leaf would be a wonderful gift!), as long as the intention is to give without thought of getting something in return.
Could we perhaps practicing giving more often, throughout the year, so that it doesn’t become such a huge deal at other times? Could it even lead to our own well-being? How to Buy Happiness
Andrea Gibson has a line in her spoken word poetry: The hardest part of having nothing, is having nothing to give. I used to feel that so acutely when I first moved to NYC, and had so very very little. Now, I’m not so sure I agree. Now, I think that we need to reimagine giving.
And still, after all this time, the Sun has never said to the Earth,
“You owe me.”
Look what happens with love like that.
It lights up the sky.”
5) Not taking more than you need
This is perhaps the most timely of the definitions, considering the recent encounter NY had with Hurricane/Tropical Storm Sandy. How many people might have taken a few extra candles, gallons of gas, loaves of bread, or containers of oat milk than they needed? And in doing so, left less or none for others, or for restocking after the storm passed?
At a recent Jivamukti Yoga Tribe Gathering in NYC, the makers of China Gel were giving away free travel-sized samples. As a Jivamukti Yoga teacher, I use quite a lot of China Gel, and the large tub often weighs down my already heavy yoga teacher backpack I take out for the day. How wonderful to have travel sized ones! So on the way to the bathroom I took one. On the way back from the bathroom I took another. On some trek or another, I wound up with 5 or so free samples, because I needed them as a teacher, and I needed them to help lighten my load. This, of course, was not a very aparigraha moment for me.
This definition asks us to work on that part of us that “needs”, when we actually mean “really really wants”. China Gel was not a need.
Needs are unbidden, basic, elemental – like affection, housing, food and water. But when we put coffee, new yoga pants, China Gel, or that fifth loaf of bread in the same category, we’re in trouble. This is because we can’t control needs, and therefore we have this unconscious Green Light from within to get whatever falls in that category whenever we can. Wants get the Caution Light, and give us the opportunity to bring our decisions into a more conscious place.
Whether it’s in yoga class, the grocery store, or a family gathering see if you can set as your intention to be aware of what you’re setting up as a “need”, and if it might not actually be “really really want”.
The Plutocrat – Kahlil Gibran
In my wanderings I once saw upon an island a man-headed, iron-hoofed monster who ate of the earth and drank of the sea incessantly. And for a long while I watched him.
Then I approached him and said, “Have you never enough; is your hunger never satisfied and your thirst never quenched?”
And he answered saying, “Yes, I am satisfied, nay, I am weary of eating and drinking, but I am afraid that tomorrow there will be no more earth to eat and no more sea to drink.”
Not really something we speak about much in daily life, and especially not in yoga, and yet compared to how much it’s passing through us, or we’re thinking about it, it’s a bit disproportionate. Which is perhaps why it’s included in the yoga sutras as one of the 5 yamas.
For monks, it’s a fairly no-brainer yama – celibacy. For the householder, however, the ancient and modern experts agree, it’s a bit more complex. Recently I’ve looked at the two parts of this particular definition for some clarity in real practice.
1) Sexual Energy
Vita raga visayam va chittam PYS I.37
Or (the yogi can still the fluctuations of the mind) by focusing on things that do not inspire attachment (likes or dislikes)
Or by contemplating on enlightened sages who are free* from desires and attachments.
(*not free as is don’t have, free as in not ruled by)
Raga – attachment, I like, I want more, awesome, bring it on Dvesa – aversion, I don’t like, I never want that again, I wish it didn’t happen, yuck
Often compared to ends of a pendulum swing, raga and dvesa are the two reactions we’re constantly running through. Sometimes they’re “big” swings, and we’re really aware of them, and sometimes they’re smaller, almost subconscious, but going on all the time nonetheless.
We’re like goalies, in one hand we hold a tennis racket, in the other one of those circular Velcro mitts. We stand in front of a large soccer net, and use our dvesa tennis racket to hit away all those tennis balls we don’t like, and use the raga Velcro mitt to snag and throw into the net to keep all those tennis balls we do. Basically doing what we’ve been taught by various forces all our lives – to be happy get more of what you like, and get rid of what you don’t.
The problem is the analogy is wrong, and therefore so is the teaching we’ve been given. There is no net in the soccer goal, and we’re not really standing in front of it as gatekeeper, we’re more like sitting on top of the post. The way to true happiness is to see this, and allow all the tennis balls, the ones we like, and don’t, to pass through us. Without attaching to which ones we like and don’t, without trying to define ourselves as goalies that are great at velcroing in delicious soy lattes, live jazz music and yoga books or racketing away manipulative people, bad soy lattes, and housework. The more we’re able to allow energies, all kinds, to be things we fully experience, but ultimately allow to pass right through – like breath – the more at peace with ourselves and this life we’ll be.
As Rumi says:
“This being human is a guest house. Every morning is a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor…Welcome and entertain them all. Treat each guest honorably. The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in. Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.”
Or Michael Stone:
“Welcome anger, my old friend! It hasn’t been awhile…”
So, too, with sexual energy. Instead of getting caught up in our sexual likes and dislikes, our likes of our dislikes, or dislikes of our likes, our too much or not enough or not right sexual tennis balls – can we let that energy flow through us as well? Can we embrace being sexual beings without it causing us to suit up in our goalie uniform? Can we swing from the top of the goal post, delighting in it all and not regretting its passing?
“allowing sexual energy to unfold without repression(dvesa) or entanglement (raga) is the task of the yogi” Michael Stone
2) Wise use
This is the aspect most covered, if it’s covered. Generally wise use is translated, or considered to mean conserving energy. This is linked to the idea above – that everything moving through us is different energies. When we choose to connect to one of those energies with our own thinking, the creation of the stories and ideas takes energy.
It’s like suddenly emerging into Times Square. Your eyes go everywhere, you have to process a ton of information mentally, it’s like one of the tennis ball shooting machines went haywire, and has shot all its balls at you within 5 seconds. And you’ve got to racket away or Velcro all those balls in that time. It’s tiring. Try leaving Times Square and not feel more exhausted then when you entered, even without “doing” anything.
Imagine if you didn’t try to racket away or Velcro in all those balls. Imagine that from your perch you used that energy, instead to focus on your breath, or practice asana, or prepare a meal for a loved one, or create, or play with your child, or choose just one ball to notice passing by in its elegant journey. Imagine how much focus, clarity, and energy you would have. This is the idea behind brahmacarya as conserving energy. Think about all the times during the day you think about your cravings or lack of cravings or respond to others’ cravings or talk about cravings or try not to talk about them. It’s exhausting!
“Imagine a stream flowing from a spring and dividing itself off into a number of accidental channels. As long as it proceeds so, it will be useless for any purpose…., the dissipation of its waters making each particular current small and feeble, and therefore slow. But if one were to mass these wandering and widely dispersed rivulets again into one single channel, he would have a full and collected stream for the supplies which life demands. Just so the human mind…, as logn as its current spreads itself in all directions over the pleasures of the sense, has no power tha is worth the naming of making its way towards the Real Good…” –Gregory of Nyssa (via “Yoga for a World Out of Balance” by Michael Stone)
So how do we work with this in yoga?
The amazing Iyengar shares how asana is the perfect ground to practice this:
“The citta is like a vehicle propelled by two powerful forces, prana & vasana (Desire). It moves in the direction of the more powerful force. As a ball rebounds when struck to the ground, so is the sadhaka tossed according to the movement of prana & citta. If breath (prana) prevails, then the desires are controlled, the senses are held in check and the mind is stilled. If the force of desire prevails, the breathing becomes uneven and the mind gets agitated”
Thich Nhat Hanh has provided many helpful guidelines on how to wisely use sexual energy, such as not having a sexual relationship with someone that “if we needed to, we would be willing to spend the rest of our life with, let’s say if the person got pregnant, and so on. And we would be happy to do so and not just do so out of a sense of duty. It doesn’t mean that we do have to spend the rest of our life with this person.” – website. As well as “I’m determined not to engage in sexual relations without mutual understanding, love, and a long-term commitment.”, and many others. It would be a worthwhile practice to compile your own list.
And a last shout-out to another website considering different angles of brahmacarya.
Asteya, non-stealing. Perhaps one of the easiest to abide by yamas, and yet Patanjali felt it worth a place in the cannon of ethical ways to work with others.
1) Broaden the definition
The full definition of asteya is not taking things belonging to others (Edwin Bryant). Still, when taken at face-value, it seems obvious – don’t take another student’s awesome yoga mat home with you while they’re in the bathroom.
But what if we broaden our definition of “things”, and start to include “time”, “talent”, “love”, “space”, “energy”, etc? Then asteya becomes a practice very much alive in each moment – choosing to take up an extra seat on the subway for your bag, or not – choosing not to ask that extra favor of a friend when they are already so busy – choosing not to take your frustration out on a loved one because they will always be there – choosing not to plan your grocery shopping during savasana or meditation – it can become a really interesting lens for viewing our choices and actions.
How about if we broaden our definition of “others”, and start to include “the Earth”, “animals”, “our ancestors”, “future generations”, etc? Then asteya becomes a practice that peers into every nook of our lives – choosing to use an animal’s fur to keep yourself warm, or not – choosing not to add additional pollution or usage strain to the water supply of your grandchildren – choosing to watch a documentary on the condition of the Earth (11th Hour, Flow, Earthlings, I am …) to become more knowledgeable of ways we may inadvertently be stealing from the Earth – choosing not to take the credit due to someone who came before you – asteya starts to become something a lot more complex and fascinating to work with than simple theft.
2) Letting go
At the root of asteya – is letting go of desire. If you don’t desire that awesome yoga mat belonging to the yogi next to you, you won’t be inclined to steal it. Letting go of desire is cutting asteya off before it can even become an issue, and it’s also the foundation of the Budhha’s Four Noble Truths, some of the earlier practices in the Yoga Sutras such as Vairagya, and the heart of the Bhagavad Gita’s karma yoga.
Letting go of desire though, is a “biggie” in terms of our practice. As Ram Dass says – surrender is only surrender when there is no surrender. In other words – letting go doesn’t really work if you stop drinking coffee, but think of it as much as you used to drink it.
The next time you practice asana, try this intention: start by focusing on the breath. Notice the inhales and exhales, gradually lengthening them to a comfortable asana practice duration. Then let go of noticing the breath, and don’t replace it with anything.
Too often in our practices, we’re busy thinking something yogic, we’re busy thinking anatomy, we’re multitasking in our asana. One of the hardest practices can be to let go of trying to change your awareness to be directed in a specific way – without letting it go wherever it wants. It’s one of the things I most enjoy when I take class. So often in my home practice I multitask thinking about students, and teaching points, wording, dharma talks, actions of energy, etc. When I take class it’s incredibly mentally freeing to just let go, even of focusing on the breath. It’s also a great trust exercise that your breath will continue to serve your asana without your strict attention. Although the breath is a great starting point – so when the mind does get distracted and you notice, start again with noticing intently the inhales and exhales, and then let go again. And again. And again.
“I want to sing like the birds sing, not worrying about who hears or what they think.”
Unlike other vessels, human vessels are changed by WHAT flows through them, and HOW it flows. For example, whether you choose to drink water or coffee will affect you. Whether you sip, chug, gulp; whether you do this once a day, or consistently and steadily all day; all of this will affect the human vessel. This is just a micro-example, but this is true of any WHAT and HOW we have flow through us- fluids, food, thoughts, feelings, actions, etc.
Yoga asks us to cultivate several different kinds of WHAT (yamas, niyamas, vairagya, isvara, karma yoga etc.), and it is generally best to focus on one or two at a time. Abhyasa (practice), as defined in Patanjali’s yoga sutras, advises that the HOW be steady, consistent over a long time, in all earnestness, and joyful.
In yoga practice, on and off the mat, check in and see WHAT and HOW you are being a vessel. You might be surprised, as I was, how often the answer is boredom, inertia, criticalness, ambivalence, or of course the “bigger” ones of anger, regret, guilt, joy, love, etc. Once you spend enough time noticing this, take it even a step further, and set an intention for the WHAT and HOW you want to be a vessel for, in actions, thought, and speech.
This is not a program for changing us into better people, because there is nothing missing in us. We are already holy beings, are already whole, already light, already divine – whatever term you use. The key is to cultivate that as the WHAT that flows through us and the HOW as all the time.
Beings that have achieved that are the ones we call gurus – they are just vessels for the divine. It is that light that draws us towards them, and encourages us on our path. Teachers are beings who are vessels for the teachings. They are just a bit further down our path, and flow to us what they have seen and experienced. Students are vessels for experience – for the real-life application of what has been passed down by gurus and teachers – whether in writing or spoken transmission.
That being said, it’s not realistic to say “I’m going to have ahimsa flow through me all the time.” One because inevitably we will fail in some small way, and two because external circumstances change. What is ahimsic one day, may not necessarily be the same the next. The air in NYC flows differently than the air in Hawaii, and will inevitably affect WHAT and HOW flows through you, and your ability to be a vessel.
While we need intention, we also need to keep that intention fully open to the present moment. This is not to say we become inconstant in our WHAT, but that we don’t become rigid in it either. There must be a balance, a flow, to our practice as a vessel.
Vinyasa is generally thought of as meaning “flow” – but really it means: well-sequenced indivisible moments of time. How well are your moments sequenced, how well are they chosen? The better sequenced and chosen, the more you “flow” in practice – on and off the mat.
In A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by three ghosts – from his past, present, and future. Each brings a glimpse into the truth of that time, as well as a warning to change his behavior. From a yogic perspective, there are overtones of the three kinds of karma, the kleshas (avidya – not seeing things as they are, raga & dvesa – attachment & aversion, asmita – ego, abhinivesa – fear of death), and even the 8-limbs (yamas & niyamas). Not that I believe it was Charles Dickens’ intention to speak to these yogic concepts, or that everything must resonate with yogic teachings. However, it did provide the impetus for an addendum to the end of the year meditation I usually do.
Once you have taken your meditation seat for the session, and focused the mind through the technique you are currently working with, move through the following concepts. Notice urges to shift or move, especially in uncomfortable thought moments, and allow them to subside before continuing. Avoid getting caught in any stories, and reliving them for the whole meditation.
1) Ghost of Christmas Past – We spend a great deal of energy either continually rehashing past unpleasant experiences, or completely ignoring them. Break both of these thought patterns. Bring to mind an action (thought, word, or deed) you chose to take in the past that was harmful to another person in some way. This can be quite challenging, since as yogis we are misled into believing we should be non-harming and compassionate all the time. While this is certainly something we are striving for, it is not expected that the moment you become a yogi or learn what the yamas are, you instantly embody them.
The yamas are not meant to induce guilt or suppression, instead they are meant to be tools of self-analysis. To admit to ourselves that we have within us these unflattering tendencies, to be open, and honest about them, and then to work on them, is the true path of a yogi. To “act yogically” is not to act like some sort of flexible angel, but to be brutally truthful and present with what really is. No matter how ugly. So bring to mind, as honestly as possible, a harmful act of the past – without going into the story of why it happened, or what happened after – just the act itself. Resist the urge to feel guilty or think “why did I do that” “I can’t believe I did that”, etc. Instead, consider how you would act differently if a similar situation presented itself in the future. Acknowledge that, as uncomfortable as it may seem, you did the best you could at that moment. Then let it go on your next exhale. If it feels particularly sticky, sense where it is stuck in your body. See it as a black cloud, and with each exhale release some of it out through the nose. Continue until it has completely emptied out. Take a few moments with slow steady clean breaths.
2) Ghost of Christmas Present – The Ghost of Christmas Present can be even more elusive than the Ghost of Christmas Past – our unconscious patterns and actions. Being unconscious, they can be very tricky to see. A large part of the work we do in yoga classes is to bring unconscious habits (whether in our bodies or in our lives) to light. From there, we have the ability to act with full awareness, and prevent wear and tear on our bodies or lives that unconscious habits create. In this stage of the reflection, bring to mind the way in which you move through your entire day. Try to identify moments when you are moving unconsciously – common points are eating, commuting, etc. Try to dig a little deeper, or take a step back and look broader. This is can be a powerful wakeup call. Observing how often we move unconsciously, and in which moments we do so, can lead to subtle or momentous shifts. If it’s challenging to do this right now, notice this tomorrow, throughout the day check in and see how often and when you are moving unconsciously. Then take one of those moments, and commit to seeing things clearly and being fully present from then on. Create plan that will help you, or even talk to someone close to you that can help remind you.
3) Ghost of Christmas Future – In A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer is swayed to change his ways due in large part to his fear of death. In yogic philosophy, a fear of death is actually a hindrance to the practice. A yogi works to cultivate living with death without fearing it. There are a variety of practices to choose from, which were the subjects of a previous post, so I won’t go over it again here. Please refer to that post and end this session with one of these practices. By cultivating a new relationship with death, we can let go of that fear and what keeps us from residing in the present moment.
At the close of 2010, I just want to thank you for your continued support of my teachings, and for your interest and dedication to yogic study. I look with great joy to deepening the practice with you in 2011.