How I Live Yoga (Hint: It's More than Just Asana)
Depending on one’s exposure, there may be a variety of different mental images when hearing the word “yoga.” Some may imagine a hot room filled with loud music and sweaty people. Others may envision a home practice in a beautiful outside garden space. Also common is the thought of a sun salutation or some extremely bendy person in various contortions. For many people, yoga may be considered a work out but I personally consider the practice a work-in. An asana class is only one small portion of the work-in.
To fully live as yogis, we need to first know what exactly Yoga is.
“to calm the fluctuations of the mind.”
In the entire Sutras, there are in fact only 3 verses that refer to the body posturing aspect of yoga. However, in our current culture, the asana practice is usually where most of the emphasis is placed.
In the second book of the Sutras, Patanjali gives us a roadmap of sorts to guide us on our yogic way. The complete journey takes us through eight limbs of life practice. Asana, the third limb, is of equal importance to the other seven, but it is only 12.5% of the teachings. To fully live as a yogi, the other seven limbs need to be applied. Let’s look deeper at a couple of the often-overlooked paths.
The First Limb—The Yamas
The literal translation of this word is “restraint.” Within this one limb there are five ways we can apply these restraints to our lives. Perhaps the word “restraints” sounds restricting, but applying these principals to our lives will ultimately bring joy, abundance, and freedom.
The five Yamas are non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, moderation, and non-grasping. These are the first steps to living yoga off the mat.
How do we begin to apply these Yamas in our lives? Typically, when Patanjali wrote lists in the Yoga Sutras he would write them from outer to inner or start with the most important thought. It is no accident that the first restraint is non-violence, sometimes referred to as non-harming. It is the foundation to the other four and helps us create a correct relationship with ourselves and others. It is based in love and doing what is in the best interest of the greater good. Imagine the difference we would make in the world, for ourselves and others, if we make non-harming the foundation of everything we do, think, and say. We would experience a radical shift in our lives. Those around us would be directly affected by the application of our non-violence as well.
Once non-violence is set, we can build truthfulness on top of it, which is the second yama. With a strong foundation, we can speak boldly and filter our speech through love. This is not a wimpy notion. In fact, it brings great power to our words. We no longer speak from fear which creates harm, insecurity, greed, and control. Instead, our speech and actions originate from truthful courage, compassion, and wisdom.
The next restraint on our yogic path is non-stealing, or resisting the idea that we need to reach outside ourselves to feel satisfied. Think of this yama as having a sense of stewardship—looking at everything that is given to us as a gift and taking responsibility for the care of these gifts. This sense of stewardship begins with our bodies and minds, then expands to our relationships, material goods, and even the planet.
Stealing from others can happen in many ways. It can show up in a conversation by not being present, or talking over the other person because what you have to say is more important. We can steal someone's joy if we need to “one up” them when they are sharing an experience they are excited about. We can steal others time by making appointments we do not honor or holding them hostage in a conversation because we feel the need to be heard. Do we take more than we need in any of these situations?
One of the best ways to not steal from ourselves is to implement some daily practices of self-care. Taking time for meditation, time to sit and breathe, allowing yourself the room for nonjudgmental reflection, and creating space for a daily self-massage to calm the mind, body, and conscience are all ways to not steal from your own health and well-being.
The next yama that Patanjali presents is the restraint of moderation. The Sanskrit word for this is brahmacharya, and it is sometimes translated as celibacy or abstinence. The literal translation however is “walking with God.” What does this have to do with moderation, non-excess, or having too much? When we walk with God, or a belief in something greater than us, then that is enough. We are fulfilled and we don’t need to dive into excess to be complete. The tendency for excess can range from sexual needs, which is one of the strongest drives for humans, to material possessions, food, entertainment, and sleep. We are bombarded by media that tells us we need more and more with bigger and better of the latest and greatest. When we pay attention to our inner voice, we can tune into what is enough. When eating mindfully, our body will signal when it is full. When our sleep is balanced, we will rest for the perfect amount of time and naturally wake up refreshed. When we practice walking with God, we gain the sensitivity to know when we have enough.
The last Yama is non-grasping or non-attachment. Perhaps you are noticing how these tenets are building on each other. Once we are living in moderation, the question becomes how attached are we to what we have? How do we grasp our relationships, material goods, habits, and belief systems? We may feel we are in control when we are holding on to what is comfortable to us, and grasping our things. The problem is this tight grip is creating a prison that will limit us to only what we know and what is familiar. When we can faithfully let go of this bondage, we can truly grow.
The Second Limb—The Niyamas
Limb number two is the niyamas. These are five observances that turn the focus more inward to help us create a right relationship with ourselves. They are purity, contentment, self-discipline, self-study, and surrender to God.
Purity is the first step. We take time to purify our bodies, living space, and work space. We also take steps to purify our minds, thoughts, and words. When we do this, it opens the door to great clarity. In Ayurveda, we have several practices that we do every day to help purify our bodies. Scraping our tongue, nasal rinse (neti), pranayama (breathing exercises), eating clean, seasonal food, and yes, asana will aid in this observance. When we purify our bodies and space we have the ability to dive deeper into our meditative practices, which then in turn de-clutters our minds.
As our minds calm down and peace fills our heart, we move into the next observance—contentment. Contentment is a wonderful watermark of knowing that you are on the right path. When we are content we can be present in each moment and greet it with curiosity. The opposite of this is the feeling of lack. When we approach life with curiosity it keeps us out of the place of judgement. Something I was taught years ago is the phrase, “Isn’t that interesting?” When I approach situations, relationships, asana, and meditation with this thought, it helps move me out of seeking what I want and avoiding what I don’t want. I move into my center where contentment resides.
With a calm and content heart, the next step is to develop self-discipline. I was taught by one of my teachers to “Do what you need to do so that you can do what you want to do.” This often requires effort. It takes work to have enough discipline to create the transformation that we as yogis are looking for. It does not come in a pill, or a quick weekend crash course, and I doubt you will find anything on late-night TV. Self-discipline requires daily exercise to do what you need to do so you have the physical, mental, and emotional strength to continue your yogic path. Another dear teacher gave me this teaching that took place in his life. He had moved into a new house that had a large peach tree in the back yard. The tree did not bear any fruit. He did some research and decided that the tree needed a good trimming. He chose the 8 healthiest branches to keep (representing the 8 limbs) and removed everything else. He cut off all the excess branches that were depleting the tree’s ability to bear fruit. The next year, once that draining energy was chopped off, the tree was dripping with delicious peaches. The effort to remove that which is sucking our vital life energy takes self-discipline. But the fruit we will bear is worth the work.
With our committed self-discipline, we can finally begin to do self-study. It is no mistake that we first need all the yamas and previous niyamas in place before we take a deep look at ourselves. Our view will be clearer when we can approach ourselves steeped in non-harming, truthfulness, and on down the list. We can use tools such as sacred scriptures or inspirational texts to help us observe ourselves. We learn to be the witness so we can get to know the non-dying self that lives within each of us. I was taught to use Yoga and Ayurveda as tools to make my relationship with the eternal part of me more real than the part that is finite. It is not easy to remember as we move through our days filled with the stuff of living. When we carve out time to be the witness, we can then get glimpses of our true, undisturbed nature.
The last of the five observances is surrender. Giving it up to the Divine Force that is greater than we are. This force is working in our lives and always has our best interest. This is very hard to do when we feel the “need to know” all the time. Radical change can occur when we lose the desire to control people and situations.
We should work to integrate these first two limbs before we master the third (asana). The next five limbs Patanjali gives us are breath work (pranayama), turning inward of the senses (pratyahara), concentration (dharana), meditation (dhyana) and lastly a state of unity (samadhi). When learned as a collective practice, everything else falls into place.
My ashtanga teacher, Tim Miller, was taught by his teacher Sri Pattabhi Jois, that the reason we practice yoga is to see God in everyone. That is what I bring to my practice every time I step onto my mat or sit in meditation. I continue the lineage by teaching this to my students. If we can see God in ourselves first, then is it possible to see God in others. The path was laid out many years ago and the first step is restraint.