Monday, 28 February 2011

Yoga for Stress II

I’m visiting India this week – staying in Chennai.  I was travelling in a rickshaw yesterday when we got caught up in a political demonstration outside the Governor’s Residence.  The roads were gridlocked, there were people everywhere waving flags, it was hot and humid and the rickshaw I was travelling in was stuck behind a couple of enormous 4x4s which were full of men.

I started to get a bit nervous.  I am the only Western woman that I have seen travelling in rickshaws alone and I had no way of knowing exactly which street I was on or how I could get back to my hotel on foot should I need to.

So here’s what happened: I started to imagine the terrible things that could happen to me... my handbag (containing all of my money and my passport) might get grabbed and stolen; I might draw the attention of some of the people milling around in the road and someone might take exception to me; I might get attacked or verbally abused...  My mind went on creating horrible scenarios and simultaneously wondering what I should or would do in any of these terrible situations... would I run away?  How fast could I run in my sandals?  Or would I kick off my sandals in order to be able to run faster?

While all of this was going on in my brain, I noticed what had happened to my body.  My shoulders had drawn upwards towards my ears and were tense; the muscles in my legs were tight; my chest was concave as my shoulders drew forward and my arms were crossed around my body hugging my handbag to me.  My breath was very shallow and at times even stopped.  I was physically braced against a totally imagined threat.

I was in the fight or flight stress response.  And not because of any real danger (I am happy to tell you that I was in fact perfectly safe and with some nifty driving around and between the bigger cars the rickshaw driver soon had us on our way), but because of the danger I had dreamt up in my mind.

The trouble with the body’s stress response is that the body doesn’t know if a threat is real (you are actually about to be attacked and you know this because you can see the approach of your attacker) or imagined.  So that any situation in which we imagine danger, threat or impending discomfort sparks off the fight or flight stress response in us.  That's why we sometimes end up unable to sleep, with body tense and mind full of worries or why we sometimes end the day with tense shoulders or stress headaches - the troubles in our head have caused a physical response in our nervous system and it can be difficult to switch that stress response off.

Patanjali wrote about imagination in the Yoga Sutras:

“Imagination is thought based on an image conjured up by words, and is without substance”

What Patanjali is telling us is that we have a choice – we always have a choice.  So I can choose to sit in my rickshaw and get tense, or I can choose to sit in my rickshaw and remember that it’s just my imagination running wild; I can remember to breathe deeply; I can soften my muscles and loosen my body.  I can choose to perceive the situation in a different way and by choosing a different way take the fear and the stress out of the situation and stay relaxed and content, instead of feeling fear.

Think about the times that you might have imagined something terrible happening...  How often you were right?  Of course terrible things do happen, but rarely how we imagined them.  Sadly, tragedy comes out of the blue.  Imagining the worst that can happen neither prevents it, nor prepares us for real tragedy and pain when it does occur. 

One of the gifts of yoga is not only this increasing capacity to notice ourselves and our habitual (and sometimes negative) responses to things, but to offer techniques for creating a more positive and healthy way of moving through life.  Experimenting with different techniques will bring you the methods that work the best for you.  Here is another practice that you might like to try.

Practice: Visualisation
  • Set a Timer for 10 minutes.
  • Sit comfortably on the floor or in a chair with your back straight.This meditation might help you on nights when you feel too stressed to sleep.
  • Bring your attention to your breathing.  Consciously deepen your breath, paying particular attention to the length of each exhalation.
  • Count 20 deep breaths.
  • Invite your body to relax, starting with your feet and moving gradually up your body, so that your whole body feels relaxed, heavy and still.
  • Now bring to mind a time when you felt stressed, uptight or anxious about something.
  • Remember the scenario, run it through your mind.
  • Remember how your body felt when you were feeling this way.  What parts of your body were affected by the stress you felt?
  • What was your breathing like?  How was its rhythm?  Was it deep or shallow?  Fast or slow?  Did you hold your breath?  Where in your body did you feel your breath move?  Where was it restricted?
  • As you recall those anxious feelings and the effect they had on your body, enquire into yourself a little more deeply.  Whereabouts in your body do you feel the stress?  Is it a particular colour or shape?  Does it have a sound or vibration?  Does it feel hot or cold?
  • Continue to enjoy deep and even breathing.
  • Now consciously breathe into the space where you feel the stress.
  • Imagine the stress (whatever colour, shape or feel it has) melting away.  As the stress melts away, you can visualise it dispersing and moving out of your body.
  • As you breathe, you might want to repeat the words ‘let go’ silently to yourself.
  • Continue to allow the stress to melt away until your feel its edges soften and until you feel able to fully let go of it.
  • Continue to breathe deeply until your alarm goes off.
It is also a good practice for when you are in the middle of a stressful situation.
You can teach your body to learn how stress manifests itself in you, to recognise the signs (as I did in my rickshaw) and through breath-work and focus, how to let go of it a little so that you are more able to maintain calm clarity even in the middle of stressful situations.

Friday, 25 February 2011

The 8 Limbs of Yoga - the Niyamas - Sauca

So, back to the 8 Limbs of Yoga... The second limb of Patanjali’s eightfold path of yoga are the Niyamas, or restraints.  There are five niyamas and they represent Patanjali’s advice for personal well-being; they are the things you need to do to form the basis of a successful and productive yoga practice.
The five niyamas are as follow–
  • Sauca - cleanliness
  • Santosha - contentment
  • Tapas – austerity, fire, heat, effort
  • Svadhyaya – study, self-study, self-knowledge
  • Ishvara pranidhana – surrender to that which is greater than you
Sauca - cleanliness.  Patanjali states simply that cleanliness is an important starting point for any yoga student - both outer cleanliness (it is traditional in India to ceremonially wash one's feet before practice) and inner cleanliness (the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, for example, lists various kriyas, or cleansing practices, such as jala neti - cleaning out your nostrils with saline water). 

Of course, moving your body in your asana strengthens your muscles, moves your joints, increases your lung capacity and increases your heart rate, all of which are simply the movement of bodily fluids and movement (as opposed to stagnation) can be regarded as a cleansing process.

But in addition, Patanjali tells us that from sauca comes:

“Purity of mind, cheerfulness, mastery of the senses, one-pointedness and
readiness for self-realization follow”
YS II, 41 translation by Alistair Shearer

The mental clarity that you gain from your yoga practice is a form of sauca – we often begin our practice with a mind clouded by thoughts, but find that somewhere along the line we have been able to let that busyness of mind go, so that by the time we get to our final meditation and savasana, our mind is much more clear and calm than it was at the start.  So the word sauca also describes a mind which is clear, uncluttered and straightforward. 

Through invoking the idea of sauca in our practice, we are more able to maintain our focus without being distracted by physical discomfort, illness, or mental chatter.

Through the practice of sauca we bring a simplicity to our practice.  It doesn’t need to be that complicated.  We come to our mat, set aside all the to do lists of the day and begin to move in a way that we know will bring a calm strength to body and mind.  We meet resistance (mental or physical) with an open mind and without judgement.  We enquire into it rather than push against it.  So that if, for example, we feel irritated by a teacher or a particular asana or practice, we ask why we feel that way, rather than indulging the irritation by languishing in it and getting crosser.

So when in your practice you find yourself getting bogged down by technique or philosophy, when your mind feels full of distracting thoughts, when you feel the worries of the day clinging to you as you begin your practice, try bringing a sense of sauca to it: simplicity, purity and clarity.  Let your yoga practice itself develop the feeling of clarity within you and when you have finished your practice, see if you can take that cleanliness of mind and body out into the world with you.

A word about the Yoga Sutras...
One further word about the Yoga Sutras in general here – sutra means thread (from it comes our word suture).  Patanjali’s sutras are aphorisms – succinct, pithy sentences that present the seed of a teaching.  Each yoga student, with the help of a teacher (in person and/or through commentaries published in books), extrapolates each sutra to fully understand its wider, deeper meaning and brings the experiences of their own practice to their study.  It’s not inconceivable that entire dissertations could be written on the subject of just one 15 word sutra... from each seed of thought come great banyan trees of meaning.

If you are looking for a good translation of the Yoga Sutras, I can recommend Alistair Shearer’s The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, published by Bell Tower and available on Amazon, I think.  It’s got a great commentary and is clear and approachable translation.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

My Top 10 Reasons for Doing Yoga

In no particular order...
1.         Perspective.  The feeling of calm and clarity that I get after practising.  Things that had niggled me before my practice seem to be less of a problem; things I couldn’t work out before seem simpler and more easy to deal with.  It puts things into perspective, helps me to remember the things that are important and to let go of the stuff that doesn’t really matter.
2.         The lightness I feel in my body when I’m practising regularly.  It’s to do with being stronger and more flexible in my body, and also with letting go of unnecessary tension.  It also makes a lot of things easier... running up and down the stairs, avoiding injury, gardening (all that forward bending!), better posture which helps digestion and lets your body work the way it’s meant to.  It just makes everything feel better. 
3.         Health.  I have no scientific proof, but for me one of the benefits of regular yoga practice is that I seem to get ill less often, and when I am ill I tend to get better more quickly than I used to.  A yogi would tell you it's because yoga opens up your energy channels and frees you of the blockages that cause illness.  I think it's a lot to do with learning how to listen to your body and to give it rest when rest for recovery is needed (instead of ploughing on regardless).
4.         Energy.  The strength, flexibility and improved lung capacity you get from regular practice gives you more energy, of course, but it’s also that once you have taken time to remember what’s really important to you, you leave aside the unnecessary things and choose to give your time and energy to the things that matter instead.
5.         Happiness.  Yoga makes me happy and when I’m happy I’m a better, kinder, more generous person.  Yoga helps me to be the person I hope to be, more of the time.
6.         Acceptance.  Going with the flow.  I have wasted so much energy in my life wishing I wasn’t somewhere (on the tube going to work, in a queue at the supermarket, at a family party I didn’t want to go to)... yoga helps me to accept where I am with good grace and stops me wasting all that energy on things I can’t change.  Erich Schiffman calls it being wholehearted... we learn (or begin to learn) that being wholehearted about everything we do in life means that all our energies are directed towards the positive and not wasted on the negative.
7.         Gratitude.  I don’t know why yoga makes me feel grateful, but it does.  I emerge from my practice feeling grateful for the things I have and for the freedom and opportunity to practise yoga.
8.         Fun.  I have fun when I am practising yoga – the people you get to meet through yoga are great, the practice is challenging and it changes every day, there's tons to read and study and lots to learn about life and about yourself.
9.         Peace.  Yoga makes me feel peaceful inside and it’s a feeling I love.  The more I practice, the more peaceful I get, the more peaceful I get, the more peace becomes a priority for me.  It’s a good feeling and I want it to permeate through more of my life.  Different people describe this peace differently... for some people it relates to a feeling of being with God or a sense of the Divine, for others it's a connection to nature, some call it love.  However you define it, it’s one of the most important goals and outcomes of yoga practice.   
10.       Patience.  Yoga itself is a lesson in patience – hamstrings don’t lengthen overnight, your body opens more readily with gentle persistence than with force, deep meditation and all its benefits come only with time and practice.  Having patience means that you can wait for things without losing your rag; it means you have time for things; it means you can stay calm in the face of delays or setbacks, which makes you healthier, which makes you happier, which makes those around you happier, which can’t be a bad thing, can it?
If you’re out there and you have time, let me know what your favourite things about yoga are... and what I’ve forgotten...

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Yoga For Stress I

Your body’s response to stressful situations is effective and efficient.  When you perceive a situation that is threatening your nervous system sends glucose to your muscles so that you have the strength either to fight an attacker or to run away from them.  Your pupils dilate so that you can be alert and responsive to changes in a dangerous situation.  Your heart rate rises and the force of contraction of your heart increases so that you have the energy to deal with the threat. 
This is known as the fight or flight response.
When you are in a safe situation your body can rest and the other side of your nervous system comes into play: the hormones released when you are at rest manage your digestive system, salivation, lacrimation (tears), urination, sexual function and defecation. 
None of these bodily functions are crucial when you are dealing with a threatening situation, so your body directs all of your energy to the things you really need to fight off or escape an attacker.
It’s a wonderfully balanced system. 
The trouble is that too many of us are spending too much time in the stressed state for too long.  Instead of being an effective short-term response to stress, for many people the fight or flight bodily response has become the default setting.
This means that we inhibit all those bodily functions that our body arranges to have happen when we are at rest and this has myriad repercussions for the health of body and our sense of well-being.
In the short term inhibiting digestion is not a problem, but in the long-term it can cause illness and pain (IBS, constipation, bloating and cramps).  Likewise, it is good that our heart rate increases in response to stress, but in the long-term it can have serious health implications such as high blood pressure. 
Your body might lose the skill of switching off the fight or flight response, so that you stay in it, even when it is time for your body to relax - this might mean that you suffer from sleeplessness or insomnia, or from pain from stressed and hyper-alert muscles.  Your body has forgotten how to be at rest.  
Stress also inhibits your immune system, so you might find that you get ill frequently, or take a long time to recover from illness.  Long-term stress has also been linked to infertility, disruption of menstrual cycle and loss of sexual function.
Our nervous system needs to be in balance.  Many of us have forgotten how to get that balance. 
The good news is that yoga is very good for teaching us how to bring our nervous system to equilibrium, so that we can experience the fight or flight response when necessary (before a big presentation), but can return to a non-stressed state quickly afterwards.  It can also help us to manage stressful situations so that we are more able to remain clear and calm in the face of daily pressures, rather than being run ragged by living in a state of permanent panic.
Different techniques will appeal to different people, but I hope to give lots of options on this blog over time.  Really simple things that you can do wherever you find yourself.  Try some out.  Give them a chance to work (so be consistent, choose a practice and try it over the course of 2-3 weeks, don’t chop and change from one thing to another).  Let me know how you get on and if you need any techniques for specific situations (like giving speeches, or insomnia).
Practice 1 – The Three Part Exhalation
Here’s a really simple thing that you can do anywhere.  Begin by bringing your attention to your breath.  Breathe in for the count of four and out for the count of four.  Do this for 5 breaths.  You might already feel a bit calmer. 
Now divide each exhale into 3 parts.  So breathe in for the count of four and then exhale and pause, exhale and pause, exhale and pause.  Repeat for at least 5 breaths – up to 10 breaths if you have the time. 
If you lose your focus, don’t worry, just bring your attention back to your breathing and re-establish your smooth inhale and the 3-part exhale.  You will find your ability to focus grows over time.
Try not to bring too much force to the pauses (make it a gentle pause, not a strong feeling of holding your breath).
Be patient with yourself.  Set yourself a timer or a number of breaths that you are going to do and stick to it.  See how you get on.
When you have finished take 3-6 ordinary breaths, in and out for the count of four again.
Why it works: when you deepen your breath and lengthen your exhale your body sends messages to your brain that you are in a safe and relaxed place and it can therefore switch off its fight or flight response (thereby switching off all those things your body needs to do in an emergency and switching on all those things it gets on with while you’re relaxed).

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

The 8 Limbs of Yoga - Aparigraha

aparigrahastairye janmakathamta sambodhah
When we are established in non-attachment, the nature and purpose of existence is understood
YS II,39 translation by Alistair Shearer

The last of the yamas from Patanjali's 8 limbs of yoga is aparigraha - greedlessness.  And it's really difficult - it always has been, but is particularly so in modern Western life, whose economy is based on the accumulation of more stuff; and whose advertising industry spends millions on trying to make us feel that we lack something, or that happiness will be ours if we purchase that toothpaste, or this gadget.  The worth of a human being seems to be calculated on what they have and what they do for a living, rather than who they are and what they contribute to society.  Aparigraha describes everything that we are attached to, be they possessions, people, opinions or ways of living. 

In asana practice aparigraha might manifest itself as attachment to practising a certain way.  You might play with the idea of aparigraha in your practice by asking what you can let go of in your practice...  Your ego?  Your competitiveness?  Your fear/dislike of certain poses?  Or you could think about what you are attached to in your practice...  Being the best at forward bends?  Being the worst at forward bends?  Do you collect postures, moving onto the next new thing as soon as you have mastered a pose?

Injury gives us a great opportunity to work with aparigraha, because it shows us just how attached we have become to doing our yoga practice a certain way.  When we are injured we have to let go of what our practice looks like when we are well; if we want to recover, we are forced to work around our injury with sensitivity.  It can be so frustrating.  Or it can be an opportunity.  A chance to work in different ways, an opportunity to let go of mental images of what we do when we do yoga and to confront how attached we have become to being 'good' at asana.  

In pranayama, you can explore the idea of aparigraha by working with your exhale - it's the most basic physical form of letting go.  Have you noticed how you sometimes hold your breath when you are in a challenging posture?  As if you could keep it all together if you hold onto it hard enough?  See if you can let go through your breath throughout your practice.  Choose a really challenging pose, or one that you find mentally difficult (handstand?  full back-bend?) get yourself into your version of it and breathe...  just let go and see what happens. 

In life we all grapple with aparigraha.  We know that all humans have basic needs (food, shelter, security) and if we live in a country where we have these things we know we are lucky.  Beyond that, there are things that make our lives more radiant, more fun, more exciting (books, new clothes, holidays) and if we have access to these things we know we are luckier still.  Patanjali counsels us to be wary of becoming so attached to the stuff of life and to protecting it, that we forget what really matters and what our real purpose in life is. 

"Aparigraha is the subtlest aspect of yama and difficult to master.  Yet repeated attempts must be made to gain pure knowledge of 'what I am' and 'what I am meant for'"
BKS Iyengar, Light on the Yoga Sutras, p 153

The 8 Limbs of Yoga - Brahmacarya

brahmacaryapratisthayam viryalabhah
At its best moderation produces the highest individual vitality
YS II,38 translation by TKV Desikachar

Brahmacarya essentially stands for the ideal of chastity.  There have been many yogis who practise chastity, but even more who have been householders, married with children (Mr Desikachar, Mr Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois, Krishnamacarya, Gandhi, among others)  This might be seen as having your cake and eating it, but for modern yogis chastity is a rare choice.  For most of us brahmacarya is about practising self-restraint, being faithful to our partners, avoiding using our sexuality in a way that causes harm to ourselves or to others (ahimsa).  It is using discrimination in our dealings with other human beings and seeking to live with wisdom and to practise moderation.

The 8 Limbs of Yoga - Asteya

asteyapratisthayam sarvaratnopasthanam
By abiding in freedom from the desire for other's possessions, that which is precious is revealed, and all that is beneficial is freely given
Yoga Sutra II,37 translation by Mukunda Stiles

The next of the yamas is asteya - non-stealing.  Not taking that which does not belong to us forms one of the basic rules of society all over the world and is clearly as relevant now as it was when the Yoga Sutras were compiled.  Most of  us would hope never to steal anything knowingly or unknowingly.

It is not only belongings that we can steal, but another's happiness, confidence, time, energy or ideas.  I suppose that we all know people who seem to drain us of energy and positivity, who never seem content and who leave us feeling depleted after spending time with them.  Making the vow of asteya is about never being that person!  In this yama Patanjali entreats us to give more than we take and never to miss an opportunity to contribute positively to the world.

Modern concerns about the environment are connected to the concept of asteya.  We try not to take too much from the world and to ask ourselves if we really need that item/car journey/food.  We attempt to waste less and to value what we have more.  The idea behind asteya also carries with it the sense of replenishing the world for the things that we do take.

Bringing a sense of asteya to your yoga practice might mean that you stop coveting someone else's yoga practice (I guess we've all envied that person who with seeming ease manages the pose we feel we'll never be able to do); it might be trying not to take another person's peace by turning up late or crashing into class noisily; it might be not robbing yourself of the glory of your own yoga practice by chiding yourself for what it isn't, rather than enjoying what it is.

The deeper meaning of this yama is that possessions and attachments sometimes engender fear and anxiety - once we have things we can be guilty of holding onto them, becoming attached to them, wanting more, forgetting what is really important.  Patanjali tells us in this sutra that all wealth comes to those who practise non-stealing - that when we are free from jealously guarding our ideas and belongings, or coveting the possessions or attributes of another person, then we are free to appreciate that which is really important and those things then flow to us naturally.

Friday, 11 February 2011

The 8 Limbs of Yoga - Satya

satyapratisthayam kriyaphalasrayatvam
when we are firmly established in truthfulness, action accomplishes its desired end
YS II,36 translation by Alistair Shearer

The first of the 8 limbs of yoga are the yamas, and the second of the Yamas is satya -truthfulness, honesty, sincerity or integrity.

Such a simple vow, the promise to be honest, but much more difficult to consistently fulfil.  Small untruths litter our communications with each other.  We lie about the reason we are late, or the reason we can't make an event, how much we spent on a shopping trip, how much yoga we did today or how much time we spent fruitlessly surfing the internet.  Other people may never know (or care) that we lied, but we know and we weigh ourselves down with it.

It can therefore be very liberating to tell the truth.  In a sense, telling the truth allows us to be totally human (with all of our weaknesses and all the mistakes we make) and to be content with that perfect imperfectness.  For example, if we admit that we are late because we overslept (instead of blaming the traffic), we are admitting to our mistake with the confidence that it doesn't have anything to do with who we are as a person.  We will not be the first or the last person to be unable to get out of bed in the morning!  We make the choice to be honest, rather than to find a false explanation that might conform more to what is expected of us (or what we expect from ourselves).  We choose to feel better on the inside, rather than to look better on the outside.

There are times when it might be hurtful to tell the truth, so we temper our honesty with kindness (ahimsa) - if telling the truth will hurt somebody, then it might be better to say nothing.  And satya doesn't give you license to go and tell the person you dislike all the bad thoughts and feelings you have about them.  Be wise, be kind, do your best.  As the Mahabharata advises:

"Speak the truth which is pleasant.  Do not speak unpleasant truths. 
Do not lie, even if the lies are pleasing to the ear."
Mahabharata translated by TKV Desikachar

Part of yoga practice is to reflect honestly on all of our actions.  In the quiet stillness of yoga we confront ourselves and our actions with a clear eye and seek to understand the source of our behaviour, so that in future we might avoid the actions that cause ourselves and other people harm.  If you can't be honest with anyone else about the way you feel, you can at least be honest with yourself.  With careful scrutiny you are able to find the root of the matter and to discern why it made you feel and behave the way you did.  Once you understand that, you are free to address the causes in the hope that you might behave more generously in future. 

Satya is also about trusting yourself.  You know who you are and what you need, admitting this to yourself is an important first step to admitting it to the world and to living by your own deepest truth.  It's about integrity too: saying what you mean, meaning what you say and living up to it in practice.  

According to the Yoga Sutras, when we live honestly, speak honestly and think honestly, other people take more notice of what we say because they know it to be true; moreover we do not waste energy on the concealment of untruths and secrets.  Patanjali tells us in this sutra that through the practice of satya, we are free to live life wholeheartedly and without apology. 

Monday, 7 February 2011

The 8 Limbs of Yoga - Ahimsa

ahimsa pratisthayam tatsannidhau vairatyagah
The more friendly one is, the more one stimulates friendly feelings among all in one's presence
YS II,35 Translation by TKV Desikachar

The first of the 8 limbs of yoga are the yamas and the first of the yamas is ahimsa - do no harm.  Do no physical, verbal or mental harm to yourself or to others.

The idea of doing no harm might sound passive (we might think of those Jain monks sweeping the ground before them with a broom, lest they inadvertently kill a bug with their feet), but ahimsa is a dynamic, active, positive kindness.  It is the idea that formed the basis of Gandhi's philosophy of non-violent protest (satyagraha), which influenced Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela among others, and which demonstrates just how powerful, vigorous and world-changing this simple idea can be.

Ahimsa is a good first principle for your asana practice - practice with compassion and sensitivity for yourself.  You don't want to sacrifice the positive feeling gained in a pose by pushing yourself so far into it that you feel pain.  There is a balance to be found between effort in a pose (the sensation of having muscles work, stretch and come to life) and the pain felt when you crank yourself into a pose with the determination to get further or deeper, but without the self-love to make it work for you and how and who you are today.  You make the effort to come to your mat, you commit to focus on your practice, you do your best to make each asana your best version of it, so that it looks like your asana and not someone else's and so that it feels good (challenging, but positive).  That's all.  That's perfect.

Ahimsa is a good first principle when approaching your inner critic.  Most of us have one, don't we?  What does your inner critic say to you?  Would you ever dream of being as hard on anyone else as you are on yourself?  Ahimsa means accepting yourself exactly as you find yourself - stiff hamstrings, weak biceps, tight hips and all - and not wishing it were otherwise or berating yourself for being afraid of handstands or unable to perform cakrasana.  In your practice, see if you can be alert to your inner critic: notice when it sparks up it's commentary, listen to what it says to you, you will find that you can choose to ignore it.  You might even be able to laugh at it.  Decide to be kind to yourself instead.  

Ahimsa is the most basic principle for living well.  If you're ill, let yourself be ill; if you need to stay in and eat chocolate, stay in and eat chocolate; if you know a long walk will help you today, get outside and do it; if you need to do some yoga, come to your mat.  Listen in and be kind.  Give kindness to other people.  My teacher told me that you can change someone's life by offering them a kind word. 

Be kind to yourself and through finding compassion for yourself learn how to be kinder to others, even the people you find difficult; we're all just doing our best in any given circumstance.  Even just trying to be kinder to yourself and to others brings more kindness.  Don't intimidate yourself by imagining that you need to reach the highest of ideals, we can all think of someone who seems to us the quintessence of eternal sunshine and kindness (the Dalai Lama?  Nelson Mandela?), but we're all human, so we all get impatient, cross, grumpy, unreasonable, or frustrated sometimes. 

The great thing about yoga is that it lets us be human (with all our mistakes and weaknesses and the dark bits that we'd rather other people didn't know about), but it gives us a place to reflect on how we could have a better, kinder, stronger, more generous way of living and it gives us a method for working on it.  It makes sense that it all starts with the concept of ahimsa.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

The 8 Limbs of Yoga - The Yamas

The first of Patanjali's 8 limbs of yoga are the Yamas - observances for living well in the world.   

There was a time when spiritual pursuits were solely the domain of the Brahmin class.  In Vedic times it was only a member of the Brahmin class who could be a priest, perform religious observances and translate the Vedic texts.  But by the time of the Buddha and Patanjali, many of these religious ceremonies had become meaningless ritual; the shallow outward trappings of faith.  In response to this lack of genuine religious endeavour came the Upanishads, Buddhism and Patanjali's Yoga Sutras.

Patanjali's system of yoga took away the need for someone to be of a certain class or social standing by birth to follow a spiritual path - then as now, yoga is for everyone.  The Yoga Sutras also give responsibility for one's path to the student himself; we may consult teachers or learn from others, but essentially the yoga path is something we must do by and for ourselves.  To walk along the path of yoga, you have to practise; you have to experience it for yourself.

The Yamas are Patanjali's rules for this new breed of yoga practitioners who were often living normal lives in the world, rather than living cloistered lives as priests or scholars.  They describe a set of restraints, which if practised, give yoga students a firm foundation on which to build their yoga practice. 

They Yamas are as follow:
  • Ahimsa - non-harming/non-violence
  • Satya - truthfulness/honesty
  • Asteya - non-stealing/integrity
  • Brahmacarya - chastity/self-restraint
  • Aparigraha - non-grasping/freedom from greed/non-attachment 

These restraints are consistent with the purpose and method of all yoga practice, for instance we cannot practice yoga successfully if we are being violent or causing harm elsewhere in our lives; we will not have a fruitful practice if we are being dishonest to ourselves or to others.

Patanjali describes the Yamas as follows:

jati desa kala samaya anavacchinnah sarvabhaumah mahavratam
Yamas are the great, mighty, universal vows, unconditioned by place, time and class
YS II.31 translation by BKS Iyengar

These are vows for everyone regardless of their place or situation of birth (this had particular meaning for a culture with a caste system like India's) - they are for everyone.  They must not be broken for any excuse, be it time, place, or circumstance - it is no good being truthful all week and dishonest on Friday because it was expedient to for you be so.

Some of us don't like the idea of rules.  They can seem restrictive and limiting.  In this case, it is helpful to think of the yamas not as rules, but as freedoms... to be free from causing harm; free from dishonesty; free from the guilt caused by having stolen; free from over-indulgence; free from greed.  I have always been averse to rules myself, they have always made me feel instinctively rebellious, but in my own practice and in my everyday life I have found great freedom by endeavouring to adhere to the Yamas.  

Sometimes discipline gives us more freedom than being at liberty to take what we want when we want it, or to do what we feel when we feel it.  Think of the discipline required to master an instrument and the freedom and joy gained from eventually being able to play it and you will have some idea of what I mean.  

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

The 8 Limbs of Yoga - Not Just Asana

The practice of yoga goes back thousands of years, but the way it is practised has changed emphasis over the millenia.  Nowadays most of us come to yoga through the practice of asana, but when Patanjali wrote the Yoga Sutras in about 200BC the word asana simply meant 'seat' and was used to refer to the posture assumed for meditation (typically a seated lotus, siddhasana, or cross-legged position) and to the place where you sat to meditate.  Patanjali's only instruction when it came to asana was as follows:

sthiram sukham asanam
yoga pose is a steady and comfortable position
YS II, 46 translation by Mukunda Stiles

That's it.  Sit in a comfortable and steady position and practise yoga.  For a modern yoga student, it doesn't give us much to go on... and some of us can't sit comfortably in a seated position on the floor for very long without experiencing pain... and some of us can't sit quietly with ourselves for even a few minutes without being distracted by the chattering of our minds... we need a bit more help and that came later in the form of Hatha Yoga, a system which gives us the physical exercises to get us to the point of being able to sit quietly with ourselves.

But the 8 limbs of yoga naturally occur during any good modern asana practice and contemplation of all 8 limbs will deepen your yoga practice, whatever form it takes.

The 8 limbs of yoga as taught by Patanjali are:

  • Yamas - social observances for living well within society
  • Niyamas - individual practices for living well
  • Asana - a steady and comfortable position
  • Pranayama - breathing practice
  • Pratyhara - withdrawal of the senses/drawing the mind's focus inward
  • Dharana - concentration through fixing the attention on one point
  • Dhyana - meditation
  • Samadhi - deep meditation to such an extent that you forget yourself entirely

Some people imagine the 8 limbs of yoga as a ladder - in this analogy we must conquer each step in turn, first mastering the yamas, then moving on to the niyamas, etc. all the way through to samadhi, or enlightenment. 

Another common analogy is to imagine the 8 limbs like the legs of a spider with ourselves as the body; in this analogy each limb contributes concurrently to yoga practice. 

This image resonates more with my own experience of yoga practice.  Not only did I come to asana practice before I had even heard of the yamas or niyamas, but many of the concepts expounded in the 8 limbs had risen naturally in the course of my deepening asana practice before I knew or understood that they had names and had been codified by Patanjali thousands of years before.  For me, therefore, mastering each rung of the ladder in turn was not a prerequisite for experiencing a profound and transformative yoga practice.

Patanjali himself does not prescribe how we should approach the 8 limbs, so in a sense we are free to choose how we view them.  If you decide that you would like to begin by mastering the first rung of the ladder before moving on the next, then let me know how you get on - I am in awe... I fear that were I to take that option, I would spend the whole of this lifetime on that pursuit and end my days no nearer to being ready to step onto the next rung!

Over the next couple of weeks, I'll be writing about the 8 limbs... taking each one in turn, examining their meaning and considering how they enhance and enrich modern yoga practice.  Perhaps you'll have ideas and experiences to add to the conversation.

I think I am fairly typical - I tried yoga; it worked for me and so I wanted to know more; in seeking to know more I found that much of what I was experiencing in my practice had been described by various teachers and writers over the course of the preceding 2,500 years or so.  It's one of the wonderful things about yoga that once in a while you stumble across something that describes your own private experience so accurately that it amazes you, some of these descriptions are modern, but many of them are from ancient teachings, still as relevant today.  Those teachers from centuries past have a lot to contribute to our modern yoga practice, even if that modern practice looks very different to what they would have understood as yoga.