LIVING IN BALANCE
by Lynn Theodose
So, here we are at another New Year. For most of us, it is a time of reflections and resolutions… a moment to look back at the year behind us – the challenges, victories, missteps, and lessons. And gaze into the year ahead – identify opportunities for positive change, reassess our goals and priorities, and imagine what we might become. Although it is an arbitrary moment on a man-made calendar, New Years Day is considered a reset point. After the year we’ve had, it certainly feels like a poignant moment of possibility and optimism…and a much needed return to hope.
Unfortunately, we’re not going to wake up on January 1st to find the pandemic eradicated, or the economy fully recovered, but as we turn the page on another year, the possibilities seem closer somehow. It is the perfect moment to explore the first teaching of the Patanjali Yoga Sutra. Atha Yoga Anushasanam– Now the process of yoga is explained (PYS 1.1). The 196 sacred seeds of yoga wisdom open with an invitation. I like to translate this sutra “And now the yoga begins again…” The very first word “Atha” or “Now”, is a prayer found at the beginning of many spiritual texts. It indicates an auspicious moment of readiness, a continuation, a next step, a fresh start. This first sutra rolls out the red carpet for anyone interested in following along with the teachings, right now, regardless of whether we have explored them before. No beginning takes place in a vacuum, but rather follows that which has led up to it. We can choose more of the same, or move towards a pivot or reversal. Even the tiniest shift can lead to great change down the line. Imagine you are preparing to walk a hundred miles. If you turn even one degree to the right or left as you start out, you will end up somewhere very different at the end of your journey. Atha is a ripe opportunity to move in the direction of a more authentic and peaceful future.
Whether or not we’re aware of it, we are constantly shaping our future. Our thoughts are the architects of our actions. Our actions are the building blocks for our experiences. Yoga teaches us to familiarize ourselves with the thoughts that drive us, so we can decide which ones align with the future we desire. When we put in the work to uncover our unconscious triggers and biases, we stop reacting and lashing out in ways that damage our relationships and wound our sense of self. As we clear away the cobwebs of our unexamined beliefs, we begin to move through the world with clarity, and learn to avoid kneejerk reactions that can lead to unnecessary suffering. Yoga is a tool for cultivating peace, and a time tested method for reuniting with source. The yoga path is always there, just waiting for us to take a step. How wonderful that we don’t have to wait another 365 days to begin again! The possibility for the smallest shift in behavior, thought patterns, or perspective is available any time. We can recommit again and again…
Every Practice – “As I set my intention and chant “Om” to plug into universal assistance, I listen to what my body is asking for, prioritize my breath, remain on the lookout for self-criticism, and cultivate gratitude for all of my blessings.”
Every Asana – “I focus on my own practice with honesty and curiosity. I build this pose from the ground up, with loving attention to detail, mindful of where I am pushing too hard or holding back out of fear.”
Every Interaction – “I remain open, patient, and compassionate. I understand that everyone is battling demons I cannot see. I seek out the best in everyone, and excuse any unkindness as a manifestation of unattended pain or fear.”
Every Breath – “I draw this breath deep into the places of tension in my body, pause in fullness, and invite release. I let this breathe go with faith, and surrender into the emptiness that follows…confident that the next breath will come”
Every Moment – “I choose to stay present, accepting the reality of this moment. I investigate my inner landscape, and recognize the urge to react. I pause & consider the most appropriate and loving response.”
Yoga teaches us that we always have a choice in how we meet each moment. Every second we are alive is another opportunity to choose love, peace, kindness, forgiveness, tolerance, patience, and acceptance. Even if we have never made those choices before. The past is behind us, and the future lies ahead. The direction we face NOW determines where we will end up.
2020 – What a year. The Yogis believe that we come to the Earth School to learn, evolve, and enjoy the adventure of our unfolding. As it turns out, it is often the times of greatest discomfort that lead to the deepest insights. Comfort is just so darn comfortable, and sometimes circumstances beyond our control are necessary to shake us out of our complacency, and guide us to new ways of seeing ourselves, and the world. The yoga mat is microcosm of life, so it’s unsurprising that this difficult year has taught us many of the same lessons gleaned from a challenging yoga practice. And while I will be as happy as anyone to see 2020 in the rearview mirror, I’ve learned a few things along the way, and I hope you have, too…
We Can Do Hard Things– Do you remember back in March, when it all began? How we couldn’t imagine staying at home, not seeing loved ones, wearing masks all the time, online school? And yet, we’re doing it. I am astounded by the way my low-tech husband has mastered online teaching, and my stepchildren have adapted to remote learning. I’m surprised by how connected I can feel to friends by just keeping a group text thread going. It turns out we are incredibly adaptable. It’s why yoga poses have modifications, and bricks, belts, and bolsters are available for extra support. While this past year has looked nothing like what most of us expected, we are getting through it, and may be better for it in the end.
Respect Your Limits– I tend towards nervousness, and recognized immediately that in order to come through this pandemic with my mental health intact, I needed to err on the side of caution. At first it was hard to turn down invitations– Everyone has varying comfort levels regarding risk, and I would wonder if I was overreacting…or just being a weenie. Maybe. But it’s what works for me, and I no longer apologize. As we gain a deeper understanding of ourselves through our yoga practice, we learn not to push past our limits, to respect our boundaries. It’s how we avoid injury, exhaustion and burnout. When we let go of our ideals about what a pose, or a year, should look like, we develop acceptance, patience and fortitude, and discover the relief found in surrender.
The Importance Of Rest– We often tend to gauge our worth by how busy & productive we are…how much we can get done. On the mat, we learn to rest in child’s pose when our breath becomes labored, signaling that our nervous systems are over-taxed. In a year of collective grief, fear, and trauma, we may have found ourselves requiring extra rest. Hopefully we’ve discovered that downtime, those hours spent reading, resting, binge watching Netflix, sleeping more than usual, or simply sitting with our breath, is not a waste of time, but absolutely necessary. We cannot sustain ourselves on high alert for long periods of time. We must pause and recharge to be able to fight again another day.
Don’t Miss The Point– Talk about perspective. The point of deep backbend is not an Instagram worthy pose, but rather to practice relaxing into fear, finding peace in the midst of uncertainty, and learning a bit about ourselves along the way. During this trying time I’ve rediscovered what’s truly important. I’ve come to prioritize my closest relationships. I have remembered the significance of a small gesture…a moment of commiseration with a neighbor on a dog walk, a quick check-in with a friend. I have doubled down on self-care: rest, home-cooked meals, long walks, snuggle time with my man and my dog. Instead of worrying that our kids are falling behind, I’ve found inspiration in watching them rise to the occasion, learn the power of adaptability, and recognize that personal sacrifices are worth making for the greater good. While I miss restaurants and live music and girls’ outings, I appreciate a good dinner in my warm home more than ever…and the beauty found in simple moments.
Community Is Powerful– My teacher often says, “Together we can do so much more than we ever could alone.” As we go through this global crisis, it has been so inspiring to see countless displays of courage, compassion, and communion: Italians singing on their balconies during lock down. Doctors and nurses working horrific hours, risking their lives everyday. Neighbors running errands for each other. Thousands of volunteers running food banks. The Wall of Moms. Young children raising money for Covid relief…and endless other examples of heroism. And to all of the people around the world who have set aside their personal desires, and made hard choices to help keep everyone safe… Thank you.
So, my Christmas Wish is that, as we go forward, we continue to integrate the lessons we have learned this year. May we always remember that we are stronger than we think we are, more adaptable than previously imagined, infinitely capable of peace, and above all, we are ALL IN THIS TOGETHER.
Batten down the hatches!!! In addition to all its other unexpected developments, 2020 has emerged as a record-breaking year for hurricanes. Hurricanes are rude and inelegant. They sweep in, loud and chaotic, trampling everything in their path. They are unpredictable, frightening, and unstoppable. And for those who are forced to ride them out, the only option is to tuck in, hunker down, and pray for deliverance. Sounds a bit like everything this unique year has served up – the pandemic, a completely new way of living-working-learning, financial hardship, social unrest, political chaos…(add your personal challenges here). And now, just when we are drenched and exhausted, and can’t possibly deal with anything else, here comes the annual Holiday Hurricane! While this time of year can be Merry and Bright, it can also be hectic, expensive, and stressful. It is fraught with unrealistic expectations of how it’s supposed to look and how it’s supposed to feel. You might feel the added pressure of trying to create holiday magic in a season that looks very different from previous years. Many of you are already experiencing the force of this latest storm. But let’s not forget that within the maelstrom of every hurricane lies a calm and quiet eye. What if we could live there?
Patanjali tells us we can. According to the Yoga Sutra, the state of yoga is accessed through a combination of effort and release. The word for release, Vairagya, refers to dispassion, acceptance, and surrender. We let go of our attachment to a particular outcome, and meet every moment with openhearted curiosity. We embrace the adventure of experiencing everything, while learning how to tap into our center, regardless of the situation. When we have mastered the art of detachment, we become so firmly grounded in our inner strength and divinity that we are no longer affected by the forces around and within us (PYS 1.16). We stand firm and unflappable in the eye of the hurricane. Sounds great, right? So how do we get there?
We practice. It is much easier to find peace in a silent temple, quiet yoga studio, or tranquil forest than in the noise and frenetic activity of everyday life. In moments of peace, and within the controlled experiment of our yoga practice, we can work to build, and continually reinforce, a fortress of wisdom and stillness within. The mat is the perfect place to learn to calm ourselves. Backbends and inversions teach us how to move through fear. Deep lunges show us we can survive, and even relax into, discomfort. As we work towards challenging poses, we learn that we can do hard things, and reach our goals by working carefully and methodically. And our favorite asanas can teach us the lesson of fortitude. These are the poses that feel great…at least during the honeymoon phase. Adho mukha svanasana (downward facing dog) can feel wonderful at first…the lengthening of tight hamstrings, the unfurling of the spine. It’s easy to relax when it feels good. But if we can continue to stay and breath deeply when our arms begin to shake and our shoulders begin to burn, then we slowly expand the boundaries of our comfort zones. In meditation we learn to identify our habitual thoughts, emotional patterns, and hidden resistances, and discover how to investigate and release them without being triggered or hijacked. As we grow more familiar with our tendencies and more adept at relaxing into discomfort, we shore ourselves up to withstand any future turmoil (inner and outer) that may threaten to throw us off center. We learn to assess a situation, take a deep breath, and respond instead of react. The more we practice inhabiting our inner stillness, the more proficient we become at accessing it…until, eventually, we live there fulltime. My teacher likes to say, “There is very little worth losing your peace of mind over.” As we continue to practice surrender and release, we recognize that while we may not be able to control everything that happens in our lives, we hold the key to an inner refuge. From the safety of this sanctuary we can meet each challenge with grace and clarity.
So, even as this year continues to challenge us, please keep practicing…whatever that looks like for you right now. Grab onto moments of quiet when you find them. Be willing to put yourself in uncomfortable positions. Let go of the myth of perfection and do the best you can on any given day. Invite your fears, worries, and sorrows to come a little closer so you can get a good look at them. And them thank them for coming and show them the door. All hurricanes pass eventually. When the sun comes back out, assess the damage, clean up the debris, and fortify the foundation….so the next time the weather turns, you are calm, prepared, and ready to withstand whatever comes your way.
It happens. Sometimes we fall off the mat. Life gets busy or hard or complicated, and our yoga practice falls by the wayside. Maybe it’s due to a major life shift – having a baby, relocating, a job change, getting married or divorced, injury or illness, a death in the family…etc. Or sometimes something as simple as your schedule changing, your favorite class being cancelled, travel plans, or good old -fashioned exhaustion and overwhelm can come between you and your practice. Maybe it happens slowly…you start practicing less and less frequently until you realize that weeks, months, or years have gone by, or maybe it happens all at once. Either way, it can be very discouraging, and quite a shock!
The Covid pandemic has certainly been a hurdle for many of us. Some studio classes aren’t available, or we don’t feel comfortable interacting in public. Many of our lives are disrupted and regular schedules are skewed. Maybe everyone is home all the time now, and it’s challenging to find a quiet time and space to go inward. Maybe you’re extra busy home schooling your kids. Maybe your nerves are simply frayed and you find yourself paralyzed by all the fear and worry and muddling through. Add in the extra pressure of the holidays, and we can end up feeling like something’s got to give. If you have found yourself disconnected from your yoga practice, I just want to let you know that it is natural and normal and okay. And I want to reassure you that it is possible to get it back.
In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali reminds us that it takes a very, very long time of uninterrupted practice, with earnestness and heart-felt devotion, to become firmly grounded in our practice. (PYS 1.14) Backsliding is often part of the journey. So, if you’ve abandoned your practice and are grieving the loss, forgive yourself, keep the faith, and begin again!
The good news it that taking a break from our practice can come with an unexpected bonus. When we return to yoga after time away, we often rediscover the power of the Beginner’s Mind, that sense of openness and wonder we felt when we first came to the practice. As we reacquaint ourselves with our bodies, which may be very different than the last time we were on the mat, everything feels new again. We get to rediscover our strengths and weaknesses, and re-examine the stories we tell ourselves about our challenges and abilities. It is common to bemoan what we have lost in our time away – flexibility, strength, endurance. But these things will return. Our bodies remember. And we might find that what we gain – a fresh perspective and a new appreciation for our practice and ourselves – is even more valuable.
Here are a few suggestions for getting back into your practice:
Start Slow – With yoga, a little goes a long way, and you want to set yourself up for success. If you tell yourself you have to get up at 5am and practice for 90 minutes, five days a week, you are bound to encounter resistance. Maybe you start with a modest goal – 3 sun salutations and five minutes of sitting quietly every other day. Maybe you just commit to one class a week, or lying with your legs up the wall for a few minutes each evening before bed. It often takes the gentlest of nudges for inertia to give way to momentum.
Or Dive In – You know yourself best. Maybe you’re the kind of person who needs to jump in with both feet to get things rolling. They say it takes at least 21 days to establish a new habit. Maybe you commit to a month of consecutive daily Zoom or in-studio classes. Chances are good you’ll be right back in your yoga groove by the end of the run.
Re-evaluate – It’s entirely possible that your past practice no longer fits your present needs. Perhaps you need something more gentle and nourishing right now, or maybe it’s time to crank things up. Maybe you want to consider trying a new teacher or a completely different style of yoga. Make it an adventure, and try to have some fun. You might discover new things about yourself or an unexpected practice that feels just right.
Buddy Up –It is more important than ever to find ways to connect with the people we love. You and a friend could try the same online class, or explore something totally different, like Ariel Yoga, together. Perhaps you just both commit to a 30- minute home practice most days, and hold one another accountable. Meanwhile you can send each other inspiring yoga articles and videos to reignite your love of the practice.
It’s going to be a very different Thanksgiving for many of us this year. I’m going to miss seeing my dad before heading down to Roanoke for a raucous afternoon with my husband’s extended family, cheering on the family football game, and meeting the new baby. I will miss my traditional post-Thanksgiving weekend in Blacksburg with friends and a Hokie game. My mom will spend the day alone with her dog. The temptation is strong to bemoan everything we have lost this year…to lament the traditions that mark the season, to miss reconnecting with the people we don’t see often enough. It is natural and normal to feel disappointed and a little cheated.
I challenge us all to dig a little deeper this year…to recognize that all is not lost, and to shift our attention to the things we are grateful for. Let us be thankful for the simple things, big and small. Let us change our perspective and recognize our countless blessings. I give thanks for the food that will grace my table, my husband and stepchildren and dog, my continued health, the doctors and nurses who are risking their lives to help others, the brilliant scientists who have created vaccines, the angels at the food banks, my warm home, Zoom and Facetime. And Yoga…I am so grateful for Yoga.
Yoga is the gift that keeps on giving. It is available to us anywhere and anytime. As long as there is a breath in your body, you can rest your attention upon it and reconnect with deeper truths…that we are all connected beyond the plane of time and space. That love transcends geography. That it is a sacred duty and honor to sacrifice our personal desires for the greater good. Yoga gives us so much, and asks only that we keep showing up and doing our best. Let us be thankful for its many gifts:
Physical Health: Yoga keeps us strong and flexible. It is a full-body practice that strengthens and purifies. A consistent yoga practice can keep us vital and healthy deep into old age. A pliable body helps us avoid injury, and the practices can help us heal many of the things that ail us. It improves balance and organ function, lubricates the joints, increases respiratory and circulatory performance, and prevents diseases caused by stagnation.
Mental Health: Yoga quiets our minds. It helps us establish intimacy with our self-limiting thought patterns. It gives us the opportunity to question the thoughts we feed ourselves on a daily basis. It shows us where we are blind or stuck, and encourages us to take control of our own mind stuff. It hands us the key to the cage of unnecessary suffering.
Emotional Health: We do not have to be slaves to our emotions! Emotions rise and fall like waves. As we turn inward and begin to track the lifespan of our emotions, we discover that we can let them come and go without getting hijacked. We become observers instead of victims of our varying emotional states. As we take a small step back and watch the waves roll in and out (Isn’t it fascinating?!), we gain equanimity and perspective, and finally freedom from the rollercoaster.
Personal Responsibility: Victimhood can be very seductive. “Poor me…this painful thing happened to me and now I am entitled to wallow in misery.” And we certainly can choose to wallow…but what a wasted opportunity! Yoga teaches us to play the cards we have been dealt. To start from where we are…injured, ill, heart-broken, disenfranchised, traumatized, or whatever challenges we might be facing. “It’s not FAIR!!!!”, but so what. Regardless of our circumstances, yoga invites us to pick up the reins of responsibility for our health and our lives. YOU are in control of your own healing. YOU have the ability to take your power back. Get radically honest with yourself to identify what you need to thrive…and then get busy making it happen!! Helen Keller, Stephen Hawking, Nelson Mandela, kids with cancer in their blood and joy in their hearts…and so many countless others who have gotten a “raw deal”, can inspire us to move out of victimhood and into greatness!!
Community:It’s been said that 99% of spiritual advancement is who we hang out with. The yoga path is a lifelong journey, and I am forever grateful for the fellow pilgrims I have met along the way! Those of us seeker deeper meaning in life, and the most authentic and loving center of ourselves, need each other now more than ever. It seems the world is getting more divided and shallow all the time. Distractions are everywhere as we are encouraged to worship at the altars of busy, successful, attractive, outraged, and relevant. Let us come together on the mat…in the studio, on the internet, in the park or our living rooms, in our hearts and minds. Let us remind each other of our inner beauty and inherent worth. Let us love and support each other on the quest for peace and self- acceptance. Let us stoke one another’s flames so we can shine our collective brilliance out into the darkened corners of the world. It is our life’s work and a priceless gift.
Wherever you go, there you are. No matter how old, wise, mature, disciplined, or spiritually advanced you are today, the toddler you once were still lives inside you. This little person wants what she wants when she wants it. And this little person has no interest in things that are unpleasant or uncomfortable. Your inner toddler has no problem wreaking havoc to get her way. She will happily create chaos in your house, the grocery store, the park…etc, until concerned bystanders start wondering if they should call child protective services.
Our inner toddlers are the embodiment of Raga and Dvesha (attachment and aversion). These natural human tendencies are two of the five mental disturbances, called Klesha, that are most often responsible for taking us out of the present moment and into unnecessary suffering, for ourselves and everyone around us.
Let’s look at Raga (attachment to pleasure) (PYS 2.7). Of course we enjoy pleasant experiences. It feels good to feel good! And the yoga teachings encourage us to enjoy ourselves along the way to self-realization. It’s not the pleasant experience itself that gets us into trouble, but rather the immediate desire to repeat it. I know that I am powerless against peanut M & M’s, and will never be able to eat one potato chip. But I also know that if I blindly follow these delicious cravings wherever they lead, I will end up obese, diabetic, and toothless. That does not match my long-term goals. How often do extra-marital affairs lead to peace and harmony? Most of us are old enough to recognize that the indiscriminate pursuit of pleasure can result in future suffering – guilt, regret, indigestion, hangover, STDs, addiction…etc. But how easy it is to forget in a moment of burning desire!
And then there’s Dvesha (aversion to pain) (PYS 2.8). Unfortunately, uncomfortable situations and feelings are part of the human experience. For those of us on the yogic path, they are vital to our growth and awareness. On the mat, it’s often the poses we avoid that we need the most. Again, the problem is not this tendency to avoid discomfort, but the fact that it’s immediately followed by the desire to never repeat it again. When we avoid discomfort at all costs, we end up suffering more. Have you ever stayed in an unfulfilling job to avoid the fear of the unknown on the other side? Or continued to beat the dead horse of a bad relationship rather than have a tough conversation or face the pain of loneliness? And then did you spend weeks, months or years marinating in your misery? Listen, I HATE going to the dentist. But honestly, it’s 2 hours out of the year for routine maintenance. But sometimes I start thinking and worrying about it days before my appointment. So instead of being uncomfortable for a few brief moments in the chair, I waste hours in the discomfort of dread…much unnecessary suffering! Meanwhile I miss the moment I’m in.
It is a vital part of the spiritual maturation process to acknowledge Raga and Dvesha when they arise, examine them, and decide the best way to respond. We are not looking to ignore or eradicate our natural impulses. Often they serve us…the urge to recreate the high we get from a good workout, learning not to touch a hot stove…the key is to learn to recognize them (they can be sneaky), and pause to question before reacting to every urge. Enter Viveka Khyati – the sword of discriminative awareness that pierces through illusion and goes straight to the truth. In that poignant pause between the desire to advance or retreat, and the knee-jerk reactions that follow, draw your sword and ask the question, “Will this truly serve my growth and lead to lasting contentment, or rather lead me further from self-awareness and peace of mind?” We can spend our lives running towards what feels good and away from what feels bad, but we’re only going to end up exhausted and ultimately unsatisfied.
Here’s how I view the yoga process: Imagine a bright, clear light buried beneath a pile of rubble. This light is the pure beacon of divinity that resides in each of us. It is kindness, clarity, compassion, wisdom, and bliss. It is where the myth of separation falls away, and we feel our connection to the love that forms the matrix of the universe. It is always shining brightly beneath the confusion, neuroses, thought patterns, and emotional habits that keep us shrouded in darkness. It wants to be free! We use the yoga practices to identify and examine the debris of our misconceptions. It is only through investigation that we can locate, refine, and remove that which buries our light. With each piece of rubble we remove, the light within escapes through the cracks created and shines out into the world.
Sometimes we remove pebbles – Maybe you catch yourself judging your process on the mat and choose to question the unkind thought. Sometimes we remove boulders – Perhaps during meditation you uncover that the root of a long held belief that you are unlovable originates from a family dynamic that requires dismantling. The yoga path is an endless process of discovering and discarding thoughts, beliefs, and tendencies that keep us separated from our inherent goodness and worth. It is long, hard work. Expect blood, sweat and tears, but the pay off is phenomenal. As we cart away the junk that fails to resonate with our highest good, we begin to vibrate with clarity and calm. And the light we unearth illuminates everyone around us.
Recognize that the love labor of liberating your brilliance is a priceless gift to humanity. The personal flame we ignite sparks the light of awareness in others. As the spotlight of our knowing shines on those around us, it helps them locate the flicker within themselves…one candle lighting another. We are all energetically linked. Just think of how grounded and loved we feel around people who have found love and grounding within themselves…how drawn we are to true teachers and gurus who radiate peace and acceptance. My friend, Mike, once told me a beautiful story of flying home from Thailand. The moment he walked into the crowded and chaotic Bangkok airport he felt enveloped in love and peace. The feeling stayed with him as he stood in a long, loud line to check his bags. As he was making his way to his gate, he came to a railing where he could look down over the swarming crowd. Among the masses he spotted a small sea of orange. It turns out that the Dalai Lama, along with his attendants, was travelling that day also. The light emanating from His Holiness and his entourage was so warm and bright it flooded the entire bustling airport, drenching my friend in happiness and calm.
We expose our inner light, little by little, by adhering to our practice and questioning everything. The asanas (yoga postures), pranayama (breathing practices), and meditation help us focus inward enough to become familiar with our distortions. The poses show us where resistance and trauma is imbedded in our bodies, and meditation exercises reveal habitual thought patterns that need closer examination. Breath restraint can expose everything. The beautiful thing about practice is that it only requires us to ask the questions, not formulate the answers. We use these ancient yoga disciplines to turn down our intellect enough to hear the whispers of our deepest wisdom. This is where the answers are born. We set aside the need to figure it all out, and trust the practice to ignite the inner knowing that surpasses understanding. We do our work and keep our eyes on the prize, so to speak. We discipline ourselves to keep returning to the anchor of our practice, surrender to the process, and keep the faith that our inner light is always shining, guiding us home, even when we cannot see it through the fog of our confusion. Sometimes we get glimpses of our inner brilliance, and other times it is shrouded in darkness, but remember it is always there, just waiting to be excavated. Remain committed, curious, and tirelessly optimistic!!
I don’t know about you, but I learned a lot of things in school I’ve never used. (I’m looking at you, Trigonometry.) Now, hopefully we can all agree on the value of a well-rounded education, but I imagine most of us have managed to navigate adulthood without needing to diagram sentences or describe the different rock formations. I’ve never been asked to list the presidents at a job interview, or explain the circulatory system before checking out at the grocery store. Good thing, too, as much has drained out of my brain colander over the years…
It turns out we actually learned many of our most useful and important lessons in Kindergarten: Be Nice, Tell the Truth, Don’t Steal, Control Yourself, and Share. Yoga philosophy refers to these five tenants as the Yamas, or moral codes. They comprise the first of the eight limbs of yoga, and offer us guidance on how to interact with others. A yoga seeker’s ultimate goal is peace of mind. How can we begin to find the space and silence to quiet our distracting thoughts if we are caught up in unnecessary drama with the people around us? Integrity in our relationships liberates us from needless conflicts and strife, and frees us up for deeper endeavors. As an added bonus, when we live by the code of the yamas, we reduce the toxins of guilt, shame and self-judgment. Let’s review the class rules…
Ahimsa – BE NICE – Ahimsa means non-violence, and is also referred to as loving kindness. It is a commitment to do no harm to yourself or others. It encourages us to always look for the best in everyone. Ahimsa speaks of tolerance and understanding. It asks us to see ourselves in everyone we meet, and extend the same level of acceptance and kindness we hope to receive from others. It is the Golden Rule. Meanness begets meanness, and kindness is contagious. Life is so much more peaceful without enemies.
Satya– DON’T LIE – Truthfulness is essential for inner harmony. We must be honest with others, and honest with ourselves. We lie for so many reasons: to stay out of trouble, to make ourselves look better, to get something we want, to spare someone’s feelings, to avoid conflict… Lies compound and confuse. We have to remember what we said, and deal with shame and the fear of being exposed. When we lie to ourselves we miss an opportunity to refine our thoughts and behaviors. We become prisoners of our own false narratives. Tell the truth even if it’s hard or scary. A commitment to honesty creates a clear, drama-free life.
Asteya– DON’T STEAL – We don’t take what isn’t ours – whether possessions, positions, or credit. When we take something we have not earned, we rob ourselves of the gratification that comes from working towards, and achieving our goals. If you cheat on a test to get an A, you will always know deep down that you did not earn it. When you feel envious of what someone else has, a great job or beautiful backbend, let it inspire you to redouble your efforts. There is never true pleasure to be found in ill-gotten gains. Commit to the truth and do your work, and all good things will come in time.
Brahmacharya– CONTROL YOURSELF – What kind of energy are you putting out into the world? Traditionally, brahmacharya refers to the preservation of the life force through celibacy, but in a broader sense it is about restraint and taking responsibility for where we expend our energy. Are you a hedonist exhausting yourself chasing pleasure? Do you allow your emotions to rage unchecked, infecting everyone around you? It is madness to follow every impulse and emotion wherever it leads. Brahmacharya encourages moderation in all things in order to reduce the fall-out from excess and preserve our vitality for higher pursuits. Instead of flinging our energy around indiscriminately, this yama asks us to strengthen our self-control and pull inward.
Aparigraha– SHARE –Literally meaning, “not filling your dwelling”, aparigraha is all about letting go. Change is inevitable…things, people, emotions, and experiences come and go. Only the inner peace we cultivate is ours to keep forever. Fear and anxiety result when we attempt to grasp and hoard…It’s mine. I love it, and I don’t want anyone to take it away! We are only free of our possessions and attachments when we are willing to let them go, creating space for something new. Let what comes arrive with gratitude, and what leaves depart with grace. In this way we maintain a flowing stream of blessings.
Talk doesn’t cook rice. – Chinese proverb
My teacher’s teacher, Pattabhi Jois, famously said, “Yoga is 99 percent practice and one percent theory.” We can get together and discuss yoga philosophy over cups of tea. We can study the teachings and research the lives of the masters. We can read step-by-step instructions for the asanas (poses), and memorize anatomy manuals to try to understand the mechanics of the body. We can read volumes on the chakras (energy centers) and pour over pranayama (breathing practices) tutorials. We can sit at the feet of our favorite teachers and learn from the wisdom they’ve acquired. We can read yoga articles and try to compose illuminating blog posts. We can become fluent in Sanskrit. We can spend decades conversing, expounding, and dissecting the yoga experience. In fact it’s encouraged – and we will gain a great deal of knowledge and intellectual insight. But, if we really want to experience yoga, we absolutely must do the legwork and commit to our practice…again and again and again.
Yoga is a journey to our deepest knowing. It is the return to our divine nature, and the remembrance of our connection to all of creation. It is ineffective to try to use the mind to understand an experience that transcends intellect. It’s the wrong tool. It’s like using a fork to eat broth. You might get a taste, but most of it will drip through the tines. The mind, by its very nature, needs to quantify everything by cataloguing and tucking things into neat little boxes – This is good, that is bad. That was then, this is now. I am this, not that. The mind’s job is to understand, to try to make sense of what it encounters. This act of sorting and interpreting removes us from the moment itself. The goal of yoga is to simply experience every moment exactly as it is, without trying to figure out what it all means. So we use the yoga practices to access universal intelligence through our bodies and breath, while quieting the mind’s incessant need to explain.
Language is limited, and completely inadequate for describing a sensation or experience. How do you describe the taste of a mango, the feeling of salt water drying on sun-kissed skin, or the holistic release and relief when your psoas finally lets go in a lunge? How do you convey the full-body hum of a deep backbend, or the delicate moment when a balancing pose settles at center? How do you describe the vibration of prana (energy) flowing through the subtle channels of your body? How do you explain the blissful peace in shavasana (corpse pose) or deep meditation when you absolutely know, if only for a second, that you are not alone, and are always being held by a loving universe? You can’t. You have to feel it and live in it. You have to turn off your brain and get inside your body. When you are anxious, how much more effective is it to take ten slow, mindful breaths than to command yourself to relax while trying to talk yourself down? Our thoughts and interpretations can be interesting, but they tend to get between us and the visceral experience of yoga.
My teacher, Bhavani, refers to the Yoga Sutra as a roadmap. All of the things we read, study, and learn about yoga are travel guides. They can give us an idea of what yoga is, what it feels like, and how to get there. But they can’t create the experience for us. Imagine you’re preparing to visit Blacksburg for the first time. You could spend months studying maps, talking to residents, and reading about the town’s community, culture and history. You’d certainly learn a great deal, and might imagine you know what the town’s all about. But all that research could never capture the feeling of a perfect, crisp autumn day in Blacksburg…the peace found at the top of the municipal golf course looking out over the vibrant colors of Ellett Valley, the friendly warmth of the people strolling through the quaintness of downtown, the haunting quiet and intense emotion of the April 16th memorial, the community spirit of a tailgate at Lane Stadium, the ecstatic vibration of thousands of exuberant Hokies jumping to Enter Sandman.
Close your eyes and picture the Yoga Path. What do you see? I have a lovely painting over my bed that evokes the path…it is a wide, gentle, well-marked trail through a calm and peaceful wood. The trees explode with the pale green of early spring. Sunlight filters down like fairy lights through the soft canopy. When I look at it I exhale and imagine a soothing forest bath, bare feet on the earth, cool breeze kissing my tranquil smile. It is a sweet, romantic fantasy, the April photo on a yoga calendar, and absolutely NOTHING like my actual experience.
For dedicated seekers, those attempting to unravel unconscious patterns and uncomfortable truths in a bid to transcend self-limiting habits and beliefs, the yoga journey is quite different – less Disney princess dancing through the forest, and more Frodo from The Lord of the Rings. Yes, there are calm times, laughter and victories. There is also great peril. There are companions along the way, but some things you must do alone. There is magic afoot and orcs on your trail. There is no way through without descending into the Mines of Moria. There are guides and helpers, fear and exhaustion, and moments you rue the day you left the Shire. There are great battles, heart-wrenching losses and Gollum, always Gollum. The temptation to give in and give up is strong. It takes heroic effort to drive out the darkness, but we know in our hearts that the light is worth it.
Not the best advertisement, I know. I doubt anyone’s using this metaphor to fill yoga classes or sell Lulu Lemons. And maybe it’s not this way for everyone. But I believe that yoga is a path to healing deeply buried wounds, and that healing can be a long, hard, messy process. Anything we dig up must be re-experienced before it can be released, and it can be incredibly uncomfortable. The road is long and unpredictable, and we’re going to need supplies. Luckily, the Yoga Sutra provides us with a list of things to pack: Reverential faith, strength and courage, remembrance, a calm and integrated mind, and our deepest internal wisdom. (PYS 1.20)
Shradda – Keep the faith! Have trust in the process and confidence in your abilities. Only a very few people are born enlightened. Most liberated souls have arrived there under their own steam. It is possible! Commit to your practice and know that progress is always happening, even when it feels like you’re stalled or backsliding. Freedom is your birthright, and no effort is ever wasted. Never doubt your potential to heal yourself. Relax and keep going!!
Virya – Be brave! Be accountable. Be consistent. The journey to self-actualization requires sincere effort and fortitude. Be willing to look at the hard stuff. Be open to sacrificing comfort for progress. Be fearless in your self-assessment and unflinching in your desire to take control of your self-defeating thoughts, and ultimately your life. If you fall off the path, dust yourself off and climb back on. You are stronger than you think you are. Your potential for peace, clarity, and bliss is your personal responsibility, and it’s within reach. Stand tall, stand strong, and grab it!
Smrti – Don’t forget! It’s said that yoga is the remembrance of that which we’ve always known, but simply forgotten. Remember your divinity. Remember why you stepped on the path in the first place. Remember your victories and how far you’ve come. Remember lessons learned from past mistakes so you’re not doomed to repeat them. Remember that the view from the top is worth the climb. Remember that you are loved and capable and worthy of a life free from unnecessary suffering. Remember that the light you unearth within yourself will help brighten the whole world.
Samadhi – Meet the moment! Samadhi, the word assigned to profound meditation, means consistent integration. It is the ability to inhabit each moment with calmness and clarity, free from preconceived ideas or hidden prejudices. It is openness to every experience, without judgment or labels. Through practice we can quiet our opinions about our experiences long enough to actually live them. When we release resistance and welcome exactly what is, we become fully present and permeable to what the moment has to offer.
Prajna – The inner guru awakens! As we continue to exercise faith, courage, remembrance and integration, our deepest knowing begins to arise. There is much information to be gained from the world, but we each carry an ancient intelligence inside of us…that “little voice” that can always be trusted, even when it defies the noise outside. It is the true wisdom that emanates from the earth and our ancestors. It is the drumbeat of the cosmos in the rhythm of our hearts. The further we travel on this magnificent path of yoga, the more quiet the distractions of the mind become, and the more loudly this voice begins to sing. Let its song guide you home.