Yoga in Action: abhyasa, diligent practice

Daily practice is challenging. Especially if you aren't comfortable with a home practice, have a long commute to and from work, have a regular work-week, have children, etc. Carving out the time to get on the mat and get on the cushion may not fall high on the list of priorities. I feel really grateful to have established my yoga practice at a time when I didn't have a lot of responsibilities and I could make yoga and meditation a daily priority. It just stuck and now it's in there for keeps. 

Wild Thing. Practice, practice and all is coming.

Wild Thing. Practice, practice and all is coming.

The good thing about coming to practice regularly is that you end up practicing through the ups and downs of life. When you are rooted in a regular routine of morning meditation or evening asana you can't help but do it even when things are really bad, or when things are really good. When I think back over the past decade of my practice, I think of practicing through break-ups, through moves, practicing on vacation, making it to the mat in India, practicing through health issues. And a great thing about the versatility of a yoga practice is that you can always practice something, no matter your state of mind, state of body.

Some days I seriously don't feel like it. And not always, but sometimes, those are the most fruitful days of my practice. 

Now I know that some of you are probably thinking that I obviously practice every day because yoga is my job and that's what I do and so I have to. But it isn't that simple. I think about my personal practice, my personal spiritual quest as somewhat separate from my teaching. I incorporate a lot of my findings into my classes for sure and my training is usually translated right into my teaching. But, my time on my mat and my morning meditation is mine. It's work that I do for me, it's work that I do to actualize my potential, it's work that I do to fulfill my dharma. Being anchored in regular practice is the key for me to living in the middle ground.

In the Yoga Sutras the sanskrit term for diligent, continuous practice is abhyasa. (The following translations and explanations are taken or adapted from Nicolai Bachmann's The Yoga Sutras. It's a great resource with a workbook, flashcards and several cds explaining the philosophical concepts. I would highly recommend it for anyone interested in deepening their understanding of yoga philosophy)

There are several sutras which explore the concept of abhyasa

The most commonly cited is sutra 1.12:

abhyasa vairagyabhyam tat nirodhah
The stilling of the vrtti-s (mind-chatter) is due to diligent practice and vairagya or unattached awareness. 

Sutra 1.13 goes on to further explain abhyasa:

tatra sthitau yatno 'bhyasah
Diligent practice is the effort put forth to maintain a point of focus. 
Ganesh, rooted in practice as the lord of the root chakra.

Ganesh, rooted in practice as the lord of the root chakra.

Nicholai goes on to list the qualities of a yoga practice that represent abhyasa. They are effort of focusing on a point, over a long period of time, uninterrupted, with sincerity and firmly grounded. The following sutra 1.14 suggests that abhyasa becomes firmly established when pursued with eagerness, sincerity and continuity for a long time. 

Whether it's good news or bad news, there is opportunity to practice yoga all day every day, even when you're not on the mat. The work of the yamas and niyamas is never ending and can be put into action with every interaction with another person, in your daily routine and each time you find yourself aware of your thoughts. 

Mr. Iyengar (R.I.P.) translates abhyasa as practice and about the everyday work of yoga he says:

"I have said that the cure for our inherent flaws lies in sustained practice of the eight petals of yoga (here, understood as the eight limbs). Knowledge of yoga is no substitute for practice. Since the difficulties lie within ourselves, so do the solutions." —Light on Life (pg 94)

And so, we must practice. The more often we confront our difficulties, the more likely we can create solutions to them. If you find yourself struggling to commit to regularity on the mat or the meditation cushion, what can you do to encourage yourself to get there? How can you make greater lasting changes by incorporating your yoga work with regularity?

Satya: Tell It Like it Is

As a way of introduction, allow me just say that I am currently in the dating pool and it has been a very, um, interesting experience thus far.

There are some challenging aspects to putting yourself out there: nerves about meeting new people, having awkward encounters with them, the potential for rejection. But the real difficulty for me in this experience has been consistent with just about every one of my potential suitors. People really don't like to tell it like it is. Especially guys who don't want to screw up the possibility of maybe some day getting into your pants (sorry mom!).

Moose, the cat, who tells me no lies.

Moose, the cat, who tells me no lies.

It's really difficult to be forthcoming with your feelings. This I know. We are all concerned with not hurting feelings and trying to let people down easy. It feels yucky to be rejected and our awareness of that feeling can keep us from presenting information clearly.

But. Wouldn't it be more kind if we were upfront with our feelings? In relationships with people, romantic or otherwise, we have to be able to trust their words in order to have open and honest interactions. We also create expectations for people around what they tell us. Whether for good or bad, we tend to choose our activities, think our thoughts, and live our lives around our interactions with others. When someone is unclear or untrue in their communication, it's quite challenging to know how best to proceed. It doesn't require brutal honesty or unkindness, but maybe just letting someone know that you'd rather be friends, or even that you really like them would make life easier in the long run. Plus, when we can tell the full story, it means that we no longer have to worry about it. It's often a load off of our chests to let someone know how we truly feel. 

My grandmother, who you may remember from previous posts, is a big proponent of The Four Agreements. One of the agreements is to "use your impeccable word." Impeccable. As in true, with integrity, honest, open. In the yogic tradition, the word for truth is satya and it's one of the yamas or the outer observances of practice. It's essentially the second rule of thumb for how to treat others.

Sutra 2.36 says

satya-pratistayam kriya-phala-asrayatvam
When one abides in truthfulness, actions result in their desired end

So, if we truly mean the words that we say, if they are actually our intentions, the likelihood of them coming true is high. Nicolai Bachman says it like this:

Satya also involves a high degree of responsibility and follow-through. If we give our word that we will do something, then it becomes our responsibility to finish it. Following through on commitments develops confidence in ourselves and others that we will do what we say. If we think one thing and say another, the energy becomes diffracted and much less potent. When all three energies are the same, they are focused like a laser beam and the intention is much more likely to come true. (The Yoga Sutras, pg. 108)
Non-harming through truth-telling. How sweet.

Non-harming through truth-telling. How sweet.

How would our lives be different if we were more careful with our words? If we could be honest and open and upfront about our intentions with other people? I understand that at times we feel that we're protecting them from pain or shielding them from the suffering that may result from the truth, but is that truly kind? Wouldn't we be practicing ahimsa, non-harming, in the fullest way possible if we told the whole story? Can we tell it like it is?

Operating on a positive plane

I was talking the other day with my pal and boss Jamie about the poisonous effects of gossip. Everyone seems to do it. Whenever I meet someone who isn't a shit-talker, it stands out in my mind. Like, I am surprised and impressed by their ability to refrain from negativity.

When you spend any amount of time with someone who has a negative outlook/talks shit/can't find positivity in anything it sucks. It's actually kind of the worst.

say nice things, y'all

say nice things, y'all

And I'm not saying that everyone has to be always super-bubbly and warm and kind (though it sure would be nice), but I think we would all be happier if we kept our mouths shut when we didn't have anything good to say. And said nice things about people when we did.

If you are unhappy with someone/something that happened, there is a natural tendency to look for a commiserator in your misery. Telling someone else who agrees with us makes us feel better. But does it? I am starting to think that it actually feels really gross. And unkind. And hurtful.

I am reading Christina Sell's book My Body is a Temple. I had the super fortune to study with her in Austin, TX for a few months. She's been through some serious stuff and has come out with a gorgeous positive perspective on the experience of being alive. At the end of each chapter in the book, there are journaling exercises and one chapter in particular is a personal study in the yamas and niyama.

The yamas  are social observances, ways that you should practice interacting with others and with the world around you. The niyamas are personal observances pertaining to your individual internal thoughts/actions. If you are interested in an in-depth look at all 10 of them click on the link in the text.

So, for each of the observances, she poses 5 questions for you to consider and write about. They are:

  1. What does (yama/niyama) mean?
  2. What does (yama/niyama) mean to you?
  3. In what ways do you violate the spirit of (yama/niyama)?
  4. What areas of your life could benefit from the consistent application of (yama/niyama)?
  5. How might you practice (yama/niyama) in these areas?

I love this kind of work. You have the opportunity to choose to be thoughtful about all your actions/reactions toward others AND toward yourself. And if you really want to do the hard work, you can look deep inside yourself for true answers, even if they aren't always the ones we want to have.

I have found through my own work on these questions that a consistent difficulty for me is in the realm of gossip. I don't like to do it, it makes me feel terrible. Yet I find myself again and again in situations where it's happening and I'm involved. Maybe I'm not saying anything, but I'm also not shutting it down.

What to do?

 

the path of yoga is often an uphill battle

the path of yoga is often an uphill battle

A simple practice that I do all the time is one of shifting perspective. Whenever I have a negative interaction or feel some troubling emotion about a person or situation, I try to turn it around to see their perspective. I know I've mentioned this many times before in this blog and it is truly transformational work. It can be maddening at times, but it almost without fail makes me feel better every time. And it saves me the vast amount of energy that we can potentially expel by having a negative response.

Something else I've been trying out is to say nice things about whomever is being gossiped about. Mentioning their good points and doing so with compassion usually works to diffuse the negative speak and change the subject.

Life is a work in progress. Mistakes are consistently made along this path and our work is to be aware of them and try to be better next time.

Lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu.
May all beings be happy and free from suffering.

Yamas: Brahmacarya

Everything in moderation is the universal truth that accurately describes the goal behind the fourth yama Brahmacarya. I have heard specifics about to what specifically one should be applying the principles of moderation, but I don't personally find them individually important.
The key to this broad understanding of the fourth yama is as easy as it sounds.
In everything in your life—work, food, exercise, meditation, talking, shopping—practice moderation.

It's so simple right? We all know what is an appropriate amount of food for dinner, versus the heaping plate of pasta which so tempts us. That one's a no-brainer, because when we overdo it, we immediately feel the effects in the form of an upset stomach. When we over-indulge in exercise, our body becomes physically taxed. Et cetera. In Meditations From the Mat Rolf Gates describes this phenomenon well in his chapter on yamas. He says:

"There is the middle of the road and while on it we experience "knowledge, vigor, valor, and energy." If we indulge in immoderation, though, even for a moment, we immediately embark on another set of experiences-- namely, guilt, remorse, obsessive worry, inertia. It is really that simple." (p. 56)

I do consider this understanding of brahmacarya to be totally valid and not only that, completely comprehensible to everyone. But, I think there is more. I think that there are several layers of depth to the true brahmacarya.

I have heard another simple description of this yama, which explains it essentially as "conservation of one's individual essence."  Which is like moderation from a different angle.

How to describe it?

  • It is not giving too much of the self away, and equally not taking too much from others.
  • It is understanding one's mind and the nature of the mind, and then acting accordingly.
  • It is determining one's dharma, the overriding purpose of why we are here, and then pursuing it.
  • It is practicing everything, and I mean everything from a place of love in one's heart.


How to practice it in everyday life?

Practice yoga! The true meaning behind the practice of yoga is self-realization. It all starts and ends with the self. Maybe the first years are mired in physically practice (asana) only, but that's okay! The important piece is that you are here on your mat, not running on the treadmill, and that there's a reason that you're consistently drawn back to the practice on the mat.

Furthermore, live out your days—your time at work, eating, sleeping, reading—practicing yoga. Practice the yamas and niyamas (I'll get there someday, I swear!) in all that you do. Set aside some time to meditate--even if it's just a few moments a month, begin to cultivate the notion of quieting your mind. 

How to practice brahmacarya on the mat?

Practice with love. While we all want to have rockin' bods, there is no need to overdo your asana practice. Trust me, I'm as guilty of this as anyone. I love to push myself physically and am as competitive as the next guy. But we are not here practicing yoga in order to be bootylicious. We practice as part of a comprehensive plan to understand fully the Self.

And as with anything in life, your heart will tell you when you are practicing brahmacarya accurately. And when your essence is fully in balance you will know because you will shine.

Yamas: Asteya

I have been stuck for the last couple of weeks thinking about asteya, the third of five yamas . I was steadily humming along writing easily once a week until I bumped up against  asteya,  and haven't been able to drag myself to the computer to hammer out some specific ideas until now. So, I guess I can't promise any specific ideas--I feel as much in the dark as I did two weeks ago.

I wonder if my problem is that I'm trying to find some hidden meaning in the literal translation of asteya. In English it translates to non-stealing. That being stated, I suppose that it can most easily be understood as not taking what does not belong to you. Or to avoid the double negative, taking only what is rightfully yours.

Much like the first two yamas (for an in-depth explanation, see the previous two posts) despite the social connotation of non-stealing, the third yama must originate with us, with the self. How then can we avoid stealing from ourselves?
The most obvious things that come to my mind are things like getting enough sleep, eating properly, not smoking and drinking too much, and getting proper physical exercise. But those things make me sound like a 1950s government health announcement. And, for students of yoga, even beginning ones, they should be understood as necessary to a balanced life and practiced regularly.

What are some ways that we can avoid stealing from us on the yoga mat? Or in other words, how can we practice asteya and give to ourselves rather than take from ourselves when we are practicing? Here are a few of my ideas:

Link the breath with each movement.
I see so many students struggle through postures trying to find the deepest expression of a pose while all the while holding their breath or gasping for air. The practice of yoga is about gaining awareness and consciousness while on the mat. When practiced properly with breath supporting body and body supporting mind, yoga can be very soothing for the neural system and should serve to energize you. Forcing yourself to go too far in a pose and struggling for comfortable breathing as a result is simply a disservice to the self. One which could even be considered a form of stealing. So, BREATHE! Make it smooth, even, and comfortable. And if you're not in the greatest yoga pose ever seen, at least you'll be making progress, rather than hindering your journey.

Try to stay present in the moment.
Unless we are consciously working on present moment awareness through a meditation practice, our minds are generally humming along at a million miles a minute. Our lives are regularly narrated by our constant barrage of thoughts. When we come to a yoga class, we are often looking for a refuge from the outside world; a place in which we can relax the body and mind and "escape" from what lies beyond the edges of our mat.  When you're on the mat in a classroom setting or in your home practice, try to avoid "escaping" from your current task at hand. Rather, enrich your moment by being hyper-aware of your body, breath, and surroundings. The practice of yoga is really a training for Self-discovery, so use your time on the mat as such.

Know your limits.
This is as much for me as it is for you. As a fellow-human being I am regularly subject to all the issues that I boss you around about on this blog. Just like the rest of you, I also desire to strike my very best pose and make big leaps quickly in my physical practice. But the practice of yoga asana is not a practice of quick rewards. As mentioned in the previous point, this time on the mat is training time, practice time for progress on the yogic path. Injury and pain is the result of trying to move too quickly toward asana achievement. In the end (now!) you will be best served to treat your body with respect and keep your practice pain free.

So, while I can't say that I solved any mysteries about  asteya, I will say that I feel more comfortable with my understanding of it. To sum it all up, I think asteya is about following your body, mind and spirit toward the positive and toward ways in which you can give rather than take. And let it begin with you and naturally it will move outward to positively (hopefully) effect others.

Yamas: Satya

The second of five yamas  is Satya which translates as truth or truthfulness.
(For a refresher on the limbs of the eight-fold path or all five yamas, you can refer to the last post: Yamas: Ahimsa)

Ah, the notion of truth. A sticky subject in my opinion.
I suppose I should start by trying to define truth. Is it non-lying? Complete honesty? Certainty?

I think non-lying is a good place to start. So, what does that mean?
As I touched upon with ahimsa, although the yamas are considered "outward observances" or social conduct, they must inherently begin with the self.
How? So, not lying to ourselves about our intentions, our capabilities, our dharma. Not only not lying, but also recognizing our full potential as an aspect of truth. And knowing what it is that we desire out of situations and people; which is more easily obtainable if we are truly knowledgeable about ourselves to begin with. And also knowing the limits of our abilities and knowing when we've given our best and when to cease.

Okay, let's simplify. The yama of satya begins with us.
We must first come into an understanding of ourselves about our true nature. In other words, we need to get to know ourselves. Some of us have no problem with this initial step, while for others it's easy to avoid addressing the issue by being caught up in daily life, watching TV, surfing the internet, etc.
An easy place to begin the practice is on the yoga mat! We can use our asana practice to gain awareness of everything, but especially of ourselves. The physical practice of yoga is the perfect platform on which we can begin to grasp a sense of Self.
If we don't know us, how can we be held accountable for our actions? Judith Lasater actually talks about integrity as element of truth. To her, integrity is internal honesty--the idea that you wouldn't do something harmful even you were the only one to know about it. (Living Your Yoga p. 124) I think I have to agree that integrity can act as a self-test for whether or not we have established satya within ourselves.

Once this initial step is taken, when we can firmly grasp at least some truth about ourselves, then we can take the next step and bring the satya into our daily lives.

This part of it seems much easier to me because of its literal social implications. Socially, we tend to all (mostly) know that it's better to tell the truth than to lie. Even little white lies can be damaging. And sometimes this means saying things that don't want to be heard.
But this does not mean saying things that are intentionally damaging!! I think we've all been in situations in which we are fully aware that what we are about to say will be hurtful, but we do it anyway. But speaking our minds honestly is a great way to develop satya in social situations.
By acting honestly in each of our interactions and relationships, we create a solid base from which to grow most functionally. When we lie, we create separation between ourselves and others, potentially damaging our relationships with them.

How can we apply satya to our practice on the mat?
Knowing our physical limits and understanding the truth of pain vs. non-pain. Despite whatever it is that your neighbor is doing or that your teacher is requesting of you, you are remaining true to your physical capabilities and not pushing yourself to injury.
Another truthfulness practice is knowing why you are in class. What is it that you are there to achieve? You can work on this by setting an intention for your practice (however small) and sticking with it throughout your time on the mat.
One final satya practice is recognizing the broader scheme of Yoga. This one can be hard for new practitioners and those who feel that they attend class to work out. Understandable in the first few years of practice. But eventually, if you are acting from a place of truth, you must reconcile the work on the mat with the greater goal of Self-realization.

There is one final thing to say. The word satya literally translates as "actively becoming the truth of the Universe." (Lasater p. 124)
Wow. Something for which we truly can aspire.

Yamas: Ahimsa

I've decided to include you all in my own little self-study of the 8-limbed Raja path of yoga. The idea of the Ashtanga (eight-limbs) method is that through devoted practice to the eight steps, the yogi will progress toward the final limb, samadhi, understood as "self-revelation." But of course, there is much work to be done along the way.

The limbs, in order, are:
1. Yamas: Social Conduct
2. Niyamas: Individual Conduct
3. Asana: Posture
4. Pranayama: Breathing
5. Pratyahara: Withdrawal of the Senses (beginning stages of meditation)
6. Dharana: Concentration (also in relation to meditation)
7. Dhyana: True Meditation
8. Samadhi: Self-Revelation

There are five Yamas which begin the 8-limbs. They are basically five ways to act in the presence of others. To me, they represent a way to sort of set ones' intentions in a clear and pure direction. They are the "if you can accept these, then you can move on to the next stage" step.

The yamas, in order, are:
1. Ahimsa: non-violence/non-harming
2. Satya: truthfulness
3. Asteya: non-stealing
4. Brachmacharya: moderation
5. Aparigraha: non-attachment

Today, I want to do a little exploration around Ahimsa or non-harming. Whenever I think of the first Yama I think of the lesson told to me by my teacher, Theresa Murphy. She is brilliant when it comes to putting knowledge of the 8-limbed path into practice on the mat. Although the Yamas are in reference to social conduct, certainly, you must be able to apply them to yourself first. In Theresa's lesson, one needs to consider acting with non-violence not only toward others, but toward oneself, especially when it comes to yoga asana.  In the class setting, we often try to push ourselves further than our bodies want to go or are prepared to go. Maybe we are trying to impress our teacher or others or maybe we feel a sense of peer-pressure to look as good as our neighbor does in their pose. In practicing ahimsa on the mat, you respect your limits and abilities by avoiding harmful behaviors which could lead to injury.

In the social context of ahimsa how do we act non-violently, or non-harmfully toward others? Seems like a no-brainer, right? Treat others with kindness, compassion, and love.
Easy to say. Not always so easy to fulfill. It is common to become annoyed or angry with others due to the wide-range of personalities out there and the regularity with which we interact with people. Even those who we choose to spend our time with can anger or annoy us, leading us to act in a harmful way.
What steps can we take to prepare ourselves to act regularly in a non-harmful way?

I like Donna Farhi's perspective on the first yama. In Bringing Yoga to Life on page 30, she says,

"When we feel connected to others, we find that we are naturally compassionate, ahimsa, and that the first yama, "not-harming" is not something we strive to be but something that we are. We see the essence of ourselves in the other and realize that the tenderness and forgiveness we so wish to have extended toward us is something that all humans long for."

Okay. So maybe the first step of the first yama is (again) beginning with our own selves, actually recognizing our own humanity. Recognizing our own desire to be treated non-harmfully and without violence. Calls to mind the old adage to treat others the way you'd like to be treated. Understanding that we ourselves should prefer love, compassion, and kindness over hate, misunderstanding and meanness is a great way to prepare ourselves to act accordingly when we go out into the world.

Now the hard part. Acting with ahimsa toward those whom we love. They are (almost) always the recipients of our anger because we spend more time with them and we know that they will love us even when we are cruel to them. How do we avoid funneling our harmful thoughts and actions toward them? I can think of a few ways, but surely they are boundless:

1. Thinking before you speak. My mother used to suggest this to me all the time. And I finally just decided that she's right. Before something unproductive and harmful comes out of your mouth, taking a moment to reflect on its possible damaging effects. And then stopping yourself if it's bound to do more harm than good.
2. Consider how you would feel if the roles were reversed. Putting yourself in the others situation and trying to understand their perspective and reason for action before acting hurtfully yourself.
3. Breathe. Sometimes when we are going to say something negative or hurtful, the best way to avoid it is to breathe deeply and count to ten. Perhaps by the time you get to ten, you will have thought about what you were going to say before you say it and you may also have considered the reversal of roles.

So, maybe as you move through your week, thinking about ahimsa and how to put the philosophy into action. Perhaps each time before you are about to act in a harmful way (be it towards yourself or another) you can stop yourself and consider the possibility of acting more kindly. And with each time you do so, making it more habitual and more likely that you will live with love in your heart.