Rox Does Yoga

Yoga, Wellness, and Life

Niyamas: Isvara Pranidhana April 16, 2011

Filed under: reflections,yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 3:26 pm
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The final niyama is isvara pranidhana, defined as surrender or devotion. The idea of isvara pranidhana is to surrender to a higher power: God, the Divine, the ultimate reality, whatever you want to call it. The idea is to put your faith in something larger than yourself. When we surrender the ego, dedicating ourselves to something beyond our own desires, we are practicing isvara pranidhana.

Satchidananda talks about surrendering in selfless service to God and to humanity (because how do we best serve God? by caring for others). Most of us have done some volunteer work at some point; how did you feel as you left the soup kitchen or the hospital or the community center? Probably tired but satisfied. You’ve worked hard, and your work is going to help others. Someone will eat dinner because of what you did; someone sick and alone feels comforted. You did that. That good feeling comes from setting our selfish desires aside in order to serve.

Devi discusses isvara pranidhana in terms of prayer and wholehearted devotion. Have you ever had an experience of the Divine that came from prayer? I have. Sometimes when I’m walking in the woods, the beauty of the world just overwhelms me. Sometimes when I work hard, I can forget myself in my yoga practice, so that in sivasana I feel truly peaceful. It doesn’t have to be a traditional Hail Mary to count as prayer.

My usual experience of isvara pranidhana is random; it’s a harder practice for me to cultivate purposefully. I’m so busy, I say, I don’t have time to volunteer. Even just in my thoughts, it’s hard for me to relinquish control, to “let go and let God” as they say. I’m always trying to imagine the possible outcomes of every situation, what will happen next, how other people will react, how I will deal with their reactions. It’s not useful, and it can get exhausting. I suspect that making a practice of isvara pranidhana would alleviate this: I’d like to say more often, “I’ve done everything I can, now it’s up to the universe.” And then stop worrying! It’s hard to imagine being able to surrender like that even once, let alone every day.

Satchidananda and Devi both say that isvara pranidhana can be one of the easiest paths to enlightenment if you can do it. It seems like it’d be a nice way to live: do your best, work hard, serve others, pray devotedly, and let your higher power take care of the rest. It sounds so simple. Maybe the first step is doing it once, or even just imagining doing it once. We have to start somewhere.


Niyamas: Svadhaya April 12, 2011

Filed under: yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 1:20 pm
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The fourth niyama, svadhaya, can be translated as “spiritual study” or “self-study”. Devi translates it as “sacred study of the Divine through scripture, nature, and introspection”, which is wordy but a very complete description. Svadhaya is important because we’re all seekers on our own path of spiritual understanding. If you don’t seek, if you don’t study, you’re not going to get anywhere.

There are many ways to practice svadhaya. The most obvious (possibly even the most direct translation) is to study spiritual books. The Bible, the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, whatever spiritual book calls out to you. But it’s more than just reading the book: if I pick up a Bible and I read a story about a guy who got eaten by a whale, then I think “What a funny story!” and I move on. What we really need to do is not only to read the story, but to think on it, ponder it, discover its deeper meanings. Jonah got eaten by a whale because he said no to God; he turned his back on the gifts and talents God gave him, on the work he was meant to do. It’s not a story about a whale, it’s a story about discovering and accepting your purpose. It’s also a story about surrendering to God’s will, which we’ll talk more about when we get to the last niyama, isvara pranidhana. There are many meanings to discover; each time we read the story, we may find something new that relates to our own lives. That’s why these are the sacred books: people have been finding meaning in them for thousands of years. These stories endure and have meaning for young people, old people, men, women, people of different races, ancient peasants and modern CEOs. We can do a lot worse than to study these books. By reading the Yoga Sutras, reading the commentary on them, and thinking it through to add my own commentary, I’m engaging in svadhaya right now (and I have been for weeks! Score!).

Books about sacred practice are also valuable. Before bed every night I like to read about Buddhism and meditation. Thich Nhat Hanh is one of my favorite writers of this sort of book. Written in simple, beautiful language, Hanh’s books calm my spirits and give me faith and hope (all of which makes it easier to sleep). I also read practical books about how to meditate: I’ve read Pema Chödrön, and right now I’m reading Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche (who based on his cover photo seems like he must be the nicest man in the world). These books are most useful to me, again, when instead of just reading and saying “that’s nice”, I actually go on to use their strategies and practice the techniques.

Satchidananda says that any spiritual practice that you regularly engage in can be a practice of svadhaya. I think something like saying the rosary would fall into this category: it’s a spiritual practice that can be done regularly and that leads to a meditative or contemplative state. Whether you attend a daily religious service, meditate, roll out your prayer rug five times a day, light incense at your family altar, or just go hiking in the woods or ladle soup at a homeless shelter: whatever it is, if you’re doing it thoughtfully and with your full attention, it can be a practice of svadhaya. Mindfulness is key: most of us have known someone who practiced their religion in a huge, time-intensive way, but yet came out of that daily practice with a holier-than-thou attitude. The point of religious practice isn’t to pump up our egos (most of us don’t need any help with that!), it’s to deepen our connection to the Divine.

Last month in class, J told us that svadhaya is important because, simply, it’s really helpful to study the words of those who came before. If we’re following in someone else’s footsteps, it just makes things easier: we already have a map to where we’re going, and we don’t have to break our own trail. In the book Finding Your Religion, Rev. Scotty McLennan likens spiritual searching to hiking up a mountain. There are a bunch of paths going up the mountain already, some more and some less traveled. If you pick one, you’re going to have an easier time of it and will make more progress than if you were off hacking through the brush yourself. You’ll meet more fellow travelers who can help you on the path, and you don’t have to stick to just one path: the paths cross back and forth, all the time, so if you pick one, you’re not committed forever, you can switch to a different one whenever you want. Just pick one and get started. In my yoga practice, I have a lineage and tradition that I’m following (J was taught by Jai Deva Yogendra, who is the son of Sri Yogendra, who founded the Yoga Institute and was a great guru). What J is teaching me was passed down to him from Sri Yogendra, so there’s an established path for me to follow, and I can look to Sri Yogendra’s teachings and example for help on the way. I can also look to others, like Patanjali in the distant past and Thich Nhat Hanh in the modern day. It doesn’t have to be someone from the East, either: I get a lot of inspiration from attending my Unitarian Universalist church. Many people look to American philosophers like Emerson and Thoreau for guidance, or poets like Whitman or Mary Oliver, or religious theorists like Thomas Merton.  They can all be guides on the journey.


Niyamas: Tapas April 9, 2011

Filed under: yoga,yoga lifestyle,yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 1:54 pm
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The third niyama, tapas, is a tricky one. Along with svadhaya and isvara pranidhana, the fourth and fifth niyamas, tapas shows up in several places in the yoga sutras, so we know it’s really important, but the translation is hard. Tapas means “to burn”. It can mean “austerity”, or a “purifying flame”, or “self-discipline”, or “self-restraint”. So what is it, and how do we practice it?

When J makes us hold a challenging pose for a long time in yoga class, he’ll come over to me and whisper “tapas” to me while I struggle (he has seriously done this at least twice now). Tapas means to feel the burn of the pose, and instead of giving up, to grit my teeth and stick it out (and to not punch J who is just trying to encourage me). Tapas is a purifying burn because when I hold the pose, when I stick it out, I become stronger. Tapas is both the burn itself and the self-discipline to stay there and experience the burning.

Both Satchidananda and Devi have useful things to say about tapas (although I had to cross-reference to the other mentions of tapas in the sutras to get a fuller understanding). Satchidananda says that anything that causes us pain will make us stronger and give us steady minds. Rather than running from pain, he encourages us to welcome pain, to suffer through it, because we’ll emerge on the other side purified and strong. He gives the example of washing cloth. When a shirt is dirty, do we just spray some perfume on it and then fold it up again? No, we wash it. In the US we have machines to do this for us, but whether you’re using technology or river water and a rock, the shirt gets soaked, spun around, scrubbed, thrashed, and beaten. Then we squeeze it out, leave it to dry under the hot sun, or put it in a clothes dryer, where it tumbles around under high heat. Then we take it out, lay it on a table, and press it flat with a hot iron. All of this can’t be fun for the shirt, but afterward, the shirt is purified, free of dirt and wrinkles, and fit for us to wear. So it is with tapas.

We can make a practice of tapas with all the worst people in our lives. Satchidananda says that when someone insults you or frustrates you, the best response is just to smile and accept it. Try to bring love and compassion to the challenge, and as well as the understanding that you’ll be stronger afterward. And Satchidananda says we should even try to thank the person who causes the pain: “Thank you for causing me so much frustration today. I know you just want to make me stronger. Bring your friends next time.”

The other day a friend asked me which yama I’d use to deal with a frustrating person. She had done her best to help this person, going out of her way to do so, but what she had to offer him wasn’t what he wanted, so he just got annoyed. My friend felt like her sincere and generously given help was thrown back in her face, and she spent the rest of the day seething about it. I told her I’d try to practice ahimsa, which is still a good thing to practice, but now I’m thinking this is a job for tapas. “Yes, annoyed guy, I see that my help wasn’t enough for you. That’s fine. I’ll still try to give you what you need.” What an incredibly hard thing to do! Thank goodness we have so many chances to practice, right?

So tapas is the burn of our muscles as we work physically, as well as the flame we feel internally in tough situations. Tapas is also our self-discipline to persevere with the exercise, our self-restraint in not yelling at the other person. With tapas, we can turn the everyday annoyances of our lives into opportunities to respond to others with love and compassion, or at least serenity. With tapas we can reflect to ourselves that, no matter how maddening this person seems to me right now, he deserves my compassion for whatever he’s suffering in his life today. What I like about tapas is that it forces us to see the silver lining, even if it’s just “if I get through this, I’ll be a stronger person.” With tapas we can turn frustration into opportunity.


Niyamas: Santosha April 8, 2011

Filed under: yoga,yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 1:54 pm
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The second niyama is santosha: contentment or satisfaction. This is a pretty easy one; we can all understand why it’s good to be content. Santosha means looking inside yourself for your happiness instead of to external things, and being satisfied with where you are and what you have no matter what’s going on around you.

One of my dear friends has a motto: “It is what it is.” Good or bad, every situation or problem is the way it is: you can’t change it. It’s raining; your boss is in a bad mood; the coffee shop is closed for renovations. We can’t control these things. So my friend reminds herself, “It is what it is,” and accepts the situation, which allows her to move forward and make better decisions. Over the years I’ve seen her make it through many a tough time with grace, kindness, and humor.

Another friend has a similar approach: she reminds herself that she’s only responsible for her own actions. When the boss is being a jerk or the coffee shop is closed, we can’t change that – the only thing we can control is the way that we ourselves act. So do we yell at our boss, cause a big scene? Or do we find a way to respond with serenity? After all, we don’t know what happened to the boss this morning. Maybe his kid is sick and he’s acting angry because he’s worried. That’s no excuse for taking it out on us, but when we try to see things from his perspective, we can react with compassion. We’re not responsible for his bad behavior, but just because he’s behaving badly, that doesn’t mean that we have to do the same.

Practicing santosha helps us to stay calm and balanced. There’s no reason for these external things to affect us: we are who we are no matter what’s going on. It is what it is. I can’t control the world, but I can control how I respond to the world. I am enough in myself to be content.


Niyamas: Saucha April 5, 2011

Filed under: reflections,yoga lifestyle,yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 7:47 pm
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Today we move from the five yamas (restrictions or restraints) to the five niyamas (observances).  (I’m hoping that when I’ve finished with the niyamas, I will have formed Voltron.)

The first niyama is saucha: “purity” or “simplicity”. Saucha involves keeping the body clean, because that’s important for keeping both body and mind healthy. One shouldn’t be prideful about her appearance, but paying attention to cleanliness and hygiene is part of life. We should also practice mindfulness about what we put into our bodies (for example, choosing an apple over a Big Mac), since the food we put into our bodies affects our internal cleanliness. Saucha is also about purity of mind. We need to make mindful and discriminating choices about everything we take in: not only food, but also books, TV, movies, and the company we keep, because these things have an affect on the purity of our minds. For example, I decided a long time ago that I can’t watch horror movies. Although horror movies are exciting in the short term, the bloody violent images get emblazoned on my brain and I have nightmares for days – but horror movies are cool and lots of people like them, so I kept watching them and kept having nightmares. Finally I decided it wasn’t worth it and said goodbye to Freddy and Jason. I’ll still freak myself out over things I saw a long time ago, because I can’t erase those pictures from my mind, but I’m much happier not adding new horrible things to the gallery.

Satchidananda and Devi have pretty different translations of the sutras on saucha (2.40-2.41):

Satchidananda: By purification arises disgust for one’s own body and for contact with other bodies.  Moreover, one gains purity of sattva, cheerfulness of mind, one-pointedness, mastery over the senses, and fitness for Self-realization. (142, 145)

Devi: Through simplicity and continual refinement (Saucha), the body, thoughts, and emotions become clear reflections of the Self within. Saucha reveals our joyful nature, and the yearning for knowing the Self blossoms. (206)

Satchidananda’s version sounds a little crazy. He states that our bodies are dirty: always excreting waste, even through our pores, and never truly being clean no matter how often we wash. He says that when we realize this, we lose our attachment to the body and our desire to join our dirty bodies with other people’s dirty bodies (see, I knew Voltron had a place in this post somewhere) and we are able to focus more closely on spiritual practice. Satchidananda then goes on to say that once you understand the body, the heart and mind become purified as well, making us ready for meditation and Self-realization. For this one, I’m glad that I’m also reading Devi, since her commentary really provides a nice counterpoint to Satchidananda’s and helps me make sense of what he says.

For Devi, saucha is about simplicity as well as purity. When we eliminate needless complication from our lives, we can distill down to the pure essence of who we are, who and what we love, and what we want to do. Devi also talks about purity of heart. She notes that nurses kindly take care of sick people, no matter what bodily discharges are involved, because they have the purity of heart to serve others with patience. This is such an interesting counterpoint to what Satchidananda says about bodies being dirty. People like Mother Teresa, Florence Nightingale, and the nurses at your local hospital know exactly how disgusting the body can be, but they’re able to rise above it with compassion. Satchidananda’s description makes me think of an OCD monk, so I find Devi’s real-world example very moving. Of course that’s what purity is really about! I think too of a mother with a young child: whether it’s a baby with a dirty diaper or an older child with a stomach bug, the mother cleans up the mess. It’s simple because it’s really about love.