Yoga in Action: Loving You First

Perhaps it's self-imposed, but I commonly sense that other people think of my yoga practice, or yoga practice in general, as very selfish. And to a point, it sort of is. It's certainly self-involved; I would even argue that yoga is the study of the self, it takes up large chunks of time, and typically your practice isn't really a group thing. Sure, you go to class and see your friends and fellow practitioners, but ultimately you're there to dig into you. And then hopefully, you can take that work out into the world. (That seems to be a message in every single one of my posts, huh?)

In one of my favorite books on yoga, Awake in the World, author Michael Stone puts it this way:

Yoga reawakens ones connection with the whole body and mind and in so doing restores pathways of communication at an inner level that then begin to spread out into the interpersonal world as well. When we are safe in our own bodies, we have a ground from which to step out into the world. (p. 155)

And I wonder, how else are you going to get to know yourself? To really begin to understand the inner workings of the mind, you have to go deep. You gotta really go inward and get really quiet and listen, listen, listen, and do that again and again and again. And then you might, just maybe, possibly catch the tiniest glimpse into your true nature. Your capital S Self, if you will.

Okay, that's all well and good, but take caution. You come to know yourself through svadhyaya or self-study, but hopefully we can use that self-awareness to be part of the greater whole. We get into trouble when we think of ourselves as separate from the rest of humanity.

Again, Michael Stone:

We are not in any way separate from anything else. Ocean cliffs get hammered by the wind, falling rain is eventually pulled back into cloud, and the ego is always traumatized by the flux of life. When we are stuck in the framework of a "me" and a "world out there" or a "me" in a body in a world, we alienate our "selves" from the world. Self apart from the world is a mere abstraction because we are not inherently separate from anything. (p.23)
Makin' myself the Number One love.

Makin' myself the Number One love.

Alright, so we've got a few things going on. Through the practice of yoga, we study ourselves and become aware of our habitual patterns of thought, our reactionary tendencies, and the intense hold of our ego on our own minds. Then, (probably many years later) once you are armed with your Self-knowledge, you can start to break down the barriers of the mind which see the self as separate from the rest of humanity. Everyone has the same (to borrow a term from sanskrit scholar Nicolai Bachman) inner light of awareness and ultimately we're all just trying to be happy. Or perhaps more importantly, we're trying to have santosha (contentment). 

Which brings me to my point, the reason I'm writing this post.

Only you can make you happy. When we rely on other people (spouses, children, boyfriends, friends) to create our happiness, we run into trouble. It might work for a bit. We can certainly feel joy and love in the presence of others, but to rely on that feeling, to need the presence of another person to feel it sets us up for future pain. Because then when things change, as they inevitably will (the world and all its creatures are in a constant state of flux) suffering results. 

When we can take refuge and root into ourselves, while we will evolve and change in time, we are present for that change. If you can be comfortable with all your quirks, if you can accept your humanity, if you can love you, you'll have the foundation for a life of contentment. Which is not to say that there won't be suffering, but when it occurs, you will be both your anchor and your guiding light to joy again.

Okay great! Let's do it, right? Well, how?

Like pretty much all the posts on this blog, it's easier said than done! If it was so easy to love ourselves, there wouldn't be nearly the heartache and pain and struggle that exists in the world. But I know it's possible! We have to practice acceptance. We have to be as kind to ourselves as we would to another being. We have to offer ourselves compassion for our failures and missteps. We have to acknowledge our shortcomings and try to be better. Put your lovin' kindness into you first. If you can be happy and content, you'll project that action out into the world.

What are some of your ideas? How do you practice self love?

Niyamas: Svadhyaya

Svadhyaya the fourth of five niyamas is the "study of one's self."

In Living the Yamas and Niyamas by Aadil Palkhivala, he writes:

"As yoga teachers, it's our responsibility to help students develop a practice of constant inner reflection so that they will become aware of the changes that yoga is making. This can be done by asking such questions as, "Why are you here? If you had all the money, all the time, all the energy you wanted, what would you do with your life?" In my teaching, I find that these sorts of questions stimulate the practice of svadhyaya"

When we first begin a yoga practice, there are many overwhelming and potentially confusing new concepts, i.e. "you want me to put my foot where?" and "why are we chanting om?" After a few classes, as we begin to get more comfortable with our teachers and begin to enjoy the after-effects of practice, we may begin to notice a new sense of ourselves that we'd never experienced prior. The sense that we feel more alive, or that we have musculature that we never even knew about. This turning inward and observing your personal growth is the essence of the fourth niyama. You can even begin your classes by asking yourself, "what did I come here to achieve?" And, any answer is the right one for you today, even if it is six-pack abs or peace of mind. They are all just stepping stones along the path.

In terms of your asana practice, svadhyaya is the part of the practice in which you tune in to what you are feeling. From the observation deck of the mind, you begin practice by sensing--how does your breath feel as you embark upon your practice? What bodily sensations are you experiencing? What is your mental state?

Observe, non-judgmentally, the state of your being prior to practice. And then you continuously check in as you progress. After each pose, come back to your observation tower and have a look. Have you been able to increase the flow of prana? Is your breath calm, steady and deep? Is the body becoming more supple, or are you holding tension? How about your mind? Are you making grocery lists and envying your neighbor's bakasana or can you quiet the ticker tape of the mind and tune into your practice?

In terms of your day-to-day life practice, svadhyaya is put into practice by watching your emotional states. Especially those that are uncomfortable such as anger, shame or sadness. Was it an external force that created your emotional state? If so, in the future, rather than jumping to an increased emotional state, can you begin to step back and observe the situation, observe the activity of the mind before your reactive sense of self (EGO) flies off the handle?

This capability is years in the making—and isn't easy. But the more often you come to the mat and come to the cushion, the more you can "study the self" to be able to soothe your potential reactive mind before it even starts.

This practice of yoga is all about self-transformation—the possibility of waking up to experience the joy of the real you. So quite naturally, you have to take a darn good look at yourself, spend some time with your svadhyaya practice, before you can begin to make true, effective progress.