Rox Does Yoga

Yoga, Wellness, and Life

The Yamas: Aparigraha April 4, 2011

Filed under: reflections,yoga lifestyle,yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 12:38 pm
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The last of the yamas is aparigraha: non-greed, non-possessiveness. Devi defines aparigraha as “acknowledging abundance”. Especially here in the US, we have an abundance of material goods, and they’re nice to have. When we take what we have for granted, then we just get caught up in getting more and more things. I know that for myself, it’s sometimes really useful to look around my closet and say, “I do not need those cute green shoes I saw in the sale flier. Look at all the super-cute shoes I already own! Hey, I haven’t worn these in a while.” And then I plan an outfit around those shoes instead and I get excited to wear them. And because I didn’t buy shoes I didn’t need, I have some extra cash to spend on a date night with my husband, or on giving to charity, or something else nice.

When I do buy more shoes, even if they’re shoes that are practical and that I will wear for a long time (for example, I recently bought plain nude-colored heels that I can wear with my brown business suit and also with a lot of my office clothes), I still feel a little guilty over the expense, and then there’s yet another box of shoes in my closet, causing clutter, which I find very stressful when it gets out of hand. There’s all this great stuff in my closet, stuff that I “loved” when I bought it, but now it’s taking up space and it’s all jammed together and I can’t find anything. Time to clean house and practice non-attachment: keep the things I love and wear often, and get rid of the things I don’t so that someone else can use them.

Both Satchidananda and Devi mention fear and anxiety if you’re not practicing aparigraha. When we hoard things away, just the sheer weight of all our stuff becomes stressful. We have all these gadgets and closets full of clothes and fancy cars and computers, but do they really add joy to our lives? Often having so many things just adds anxiety: more to do just to maintain the stuff, more to worry about (Did I leave the GPS in the car? Where did I put my iPod?). And there are always more things out there to acquire. On the other hand, if we strive to live more simply, to be not attached to our stuff, then when the stuff goes away we don’t get upset. Devi writes:

Life’s ebb and flow brings things into our life and then out again. Even the slightest hesitation of holding impedes the flow. Our belief system has the ability to hinder or expand this flow of abundance. If you believe that material and spiritual blessings are infinite, a cornucopia awaits you. (202)

The danger doesn’t lie in having possessions, but in our attachment to them. We need to remember that we already have everything we need right now.

I lost some weight recently, and it’s been on my mind that I need to get some new clothes that fit me better. To an extent, this is a good thing: I only have two pairs of business pants that I can wear, and they’re both black, so I could use some khakis. But then I get caught up in it, and start worrying about when I can go to the mall, and do I have this or that coupon and when does the coupon expire, and it’s just stressful. Hey: I’ve got some pants. I have two pairs! And I can wear jeans to work, too. I already went through the “I lost weight and oh noes none of my jeans fit” marathon shopping trip last fall so I have two excellent pairs of jeans. And soon it will be warm enough outside to wear skirts all the time! I don’t have to stress about finding a new pair of khakis. At some point, I’ll be out with a friend and we’ll go past a store and oh hey, let’s try some stuff on, and the khakis will come to me.

I also get possessive about books and DVDs. I’ve gotten better about books – borrowing from friends or going to the library – but it’s been a struggle the whole time because I REALLY like books. I still feel pangs when I think about a certain book or series of books that I loved but oh, I can’t go over to my shelf and pick it up right now because I got it from the library. Boohoo. I can go back to the library and get it again if I really want to reread it or reference it. I like to own my favorite movies, too, but now we have Netflix – we can get DVDs or do the streaming thing – and we also have On Demand, and so I can watch my favorite movies pretty much anytime even without owning a physical object. This is taking some getting used to. I still kind of want the Back to the Future trilogy on DVD, and I have a strong aversion to getting rid of my Indiana Jones set. But what Indiana Jones and Marty McFly gave me as a kid – that sense of adventure, that curiosity and excitement – is always going to be mine, whether or not there’s a little box gathering dust on a shelf to remind me about it.


The Yamas: Brahmacharya April 3, 2011

Filed under: reflections,yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 8:44 pm
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The fourth yama, brahmacharya, means to have control of your sensual cravings. Yep, this is the one about sex. (So far, this is the most difficult yama for me to write about. Interesting.)

Satchidananda translates the sutra like this: “By one established in continence, vigor is gained.” (137)
Devi’s version is a little different: “Devoted to living a balanced and moderate life, the scope of one’s life force becomes boundless.” (193)

In the past, brahmacharya was interpreted as necessitating celibacy. Satchidananda talks about continence, meaning “self-restraint or abstinence”, and tells us that our sexual energy can give us great power to use in our meditation (i.e., “vigor”), which is why monks practice a celibate lifestyle. However, he states that each person should practice brahmacharya as best suits his or her stage in life. Over time, each person passes through different stages: being young and a student; becoming an adult and perhaps marrying and supporting a family; eventually growing more interested in spiritual pursuits as age comes. Most of us are in that second stage – we’re adults, householder yogis, yogis who live in the world, and so for us, brahmacharya isn’t about abstinence, but about spending sexual energy in an appropriate manner.

Devi talks about brahmacharya in terms of moderation and balance. These are important words to keep in mind. We should try to practice moderation with all things that give us pleasure – not just sex, but food and drink, going to the gym, watching TV, everything. When we go overboard with these activities, we tire ourselves out, maybe make ourselves sick. That disturbs our mood and makes it harder to do our work or be kind to others. If we’re being moderate in our activities, then they fill us with energy, not the opposite.

I think for me, it’s very easy to binge out on things I like. If one cookie is good, ten cookies will be better; if one episode of Buffy was pretty awesome, then clearly I should spend all day Sunday watching seven more episodes. This is something I do struggle with. Instead of packing the whole bag of chocolates to take to work, I will pack five chocolates in my lunch – if I brought the whole bag, I’d eat ’em all, arguing with myself with every bite, causing a great deal of stress, plus guilt and shame once the bag was empty (and probably an upset stomach and a headache). So I’ll just bring a few, and then they’re a nice treat, not something that weighs me down. A day of marathon TV watching can be fun, but you can’t do it every weekend. Go hiking, visit your mom, go to a museum, cook a new recipe, and when that rainy day comes around, you can enjoy all the Lord of the Rings extended edition movies back to back, guilt free.

But back to the sex, because I know that’s what you’re really interested in. Satchidananda argues that making love should be saved for one’s marital partner. Don’t be out there sharing your sweet energy with anyone who wanders by – save it for someone special, and when you release your energy together, it’ll be a celebration of everything that’s great in your relationship. Satchidananda notes there there are many different kinds of love, not just sexual love; he says, “If people want to know each other before marriage, they can become friends. That is how our ancestors lived” (140). Even from my modern feminist perspective, I have to admit he has a point there.

On the topic of sex, Devi recommends the following approach: “Your only desire is to pleasure the other person, and their only desire is to pleasure you. Each is fulfilled and satisfied, and when we are satisfied, we are moderate and balanced” (200). I think this links back to asteya, too – if you’re all “me, me, me” when making love, aren’t you taking the other person’s energy and love without giving back? I like her idea of approaching the act with generosity, not demanding gratification. If you go into the bedroom just wanting your own pleasure, nothing will ever be enough to satisfy you, but if both partners come together just wanting to be generous to each other, they’ll both be happy afterward.


The yamas: Asteya April 1, 2011

Filed under: reflections,yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 3:27 pm
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The third yama is asteya, or non-stealing. This yama encompasses every sort of theft: taking someone else’s possessions, but also stealing their ideas, claiming another person’s work as your own, or accepting bribes and inappropriate gifts. Swami Satchidananda says that just by breathing, we are stealing: the air we breathe belongs to nature, so we should accept each breath with reverence and use it to serve others. The implication is that we should do the same with any wealth or money or goods that come to us: don’t take it for granted, and don’t hoard it away just for yourself, but be grateful for it and then use it for the good of other people. Patanjali writes, “To one established in non-stealing, all wealth comes.” If you use what wealth you have so kindly, it’s understandable that others will return your kindness and wealth will come back to you.

Similarly, Devi defines asteya not as “non-stealing” but as “generosity”. Devi says, “When we don the attitude of caretakers instead of owners, we enjoy things when they come and let them go with ease. It is nature’s rhythm: all things come and all things go” (189).When we can be generous, with our possessions, our money, and our time, then others are more likely to be generous to us in return, but more importantly, we feel happier.

Satchidananda talks about being greedy, wanting to do a little and get a lot. He says, “Many people go to the office and just sit around, use the phone to make their own appointments all day, take free supplies from the supply room, and accept their paycheck at the end of the week. Aren’t they stealing that money?” (133).  Having worked as a summer office temp, I’m not quite ready to give that one a whole-hearted yes – sometimes there just isn’t that much to do at your job. But I see his point: you should do the work that’s given to you to do, do your best to help others in the workplace, find work to keep yourself busy. There’s always something that needs to be done even if it’s not your favorite sort of work to do.

Devi talks about taking someone’s time. If you schedule an appointment with someone, you should arrive in a timely way. Being late steals the other person’s time – you don’t know what she needed to do to rearrange her schedule to meet you here.

I think the time issue is probably where asteya hits closest to home for me. I am not careful enough with my time: I dawdle along too much, try to get one more thing done before I leave, and then I need to rush to get out the door. I almost miss my train, or I drive too fast to make it to my appointment on time. It doesn’t do me any good to get all stressed and flustered, frustrated by the traffic, worried that I’ll be late. It doesn’t do the person I’m meeting any good, either, when I arrive in that state. It’s better for both of us if I can take my time and arrive in a pleasant mood. I want to be more generous with my time for the other person’s sake, and more importantly for my own sake.

Satchidananda also talks about the idea of stealing resources, stealing from the environment. This is something I’ve been trying to work on as well. In our culture, we throw so much away, and I think in this context, creating waste is tantamount to stealing from the earth. Good things have been taken from the earth, and we’re putting back junk. Nobody can fix this problem on her own, but we can all do things to try and make it a little better. My apartment complex doesn’t participate in a recycling program, but rather than saying “oh well”, I save all my recyclables anyway and lug them to my mother’s house a few times a month. I don’t buy bottled water; I have a metal canteen that I refill from the tap. That saves a lot of waste, and it’s healthier for me (I used to refill the plastic bottles, but after a while chemicals leach out of the plastic into the water I’m drinking, which doesn’t happen with a clean metal or glass bottle).

A few years ago, I decided I wasn’t doing enough and made a new year’s resolution to give $25 to charity every month. I could always afford $25, right? It went brilliantly. I never ran out of charities where I could give a meaningful gift: when you’re paying attention, things just suggest themselves. A friend is running in a 5K to benefit cancer research, or another friend mentions how hard it is when her father is ill, or how much she loves the dog she rescued from the shelter. Ding! There’s one more place doing good work that I can help. And during the past few years, sadly, there’s always been an earthquake or natural disaster happening somewhere, and even when there’s no current disaster, Doctors Without Borders is ready to go whenever something happens. That first year, giving just $25 a month was so easy that I usually gave more, so the second year I started giving $50. And my company has a matching gift policy, too, so every single gift I made was doubled. I started to love filling out the matching gift form every month! Instead of getting spent on a latte or a shirt, my money has been out there saving whales, books, arboretums, historic preservation, little children with cleft palates, poetry, the right to choose, and the right to marry; it’s been funding breast cancer research, MS research, Crohn’s and colitis research, leukemia research, AIDS research, and probably some other research too. Taking part in this practice has really made me feel better about my lifestyle and the energy I’m putting back into the world, which seems like what asteya and generosity are all about.


The Yamas: Satya March 26, 2011

Filed under: reflections,yoga lifestyle,yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 2:22 pm
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Satya, or truthfulness, is the second yama.  We all know that we should be honest; when I am dishonest, I always feel a little sick inside.  So why do we tell lies?  Maybe we want to save a friend from hearing a painful truth, so we tell a gentle lie instead.  Maybe we think the lie will benefit us or protect us in some way, or make us look better to others than the truth would.  No matter what our intentions are when we lie, our dishonesty can cause hurt feelings, or upheaval within ourselves.  The more lies we tell, the stronger our fear that someone will find us out.  All this inner turmoil is created.  It would have been better just to tell the truth to begin with and get everything out in the open. While people can be hurt by our actions or words, I’ve always found that others are hurt more when we lie about what we’ve done.  For ourselves, the untruth is a lot heavier and harder to bear than whatever it was we thought was worth lying about in the first place.

Not long ago, a friend and colleague of mine left our office for a better job at a different company.  The following week, another colleague emailed me to say that he hadn’t known K was leaving and he was sad he hadn’t been able to say goodbye.  Had there been any kind of farewell party for her?  Of course, when I opened this email my first instinct was to lie.  I didn’t want to hurt this man’s feelings or make him feel excluded.  But if I lied, chances are that he would find out.  The party hadn’t been a secret.  What would happen if someone else in the office mentioned the party in front of him?  I couldn’t ask all my coworkers to join me in a lie – how childish, and how purposeless.

So I told him the truth: there’d been a small party with just our immediate workgroup, and then some of us went out for drinks.  I didn’t know how he had been left off the invitation list, and I apologized, but I would tell K that he was thinking of her.  I tried my best to keep it simple.  I hadn’t organized either event; I thought it was just an oversight, but I truly didn’t know why this colleague hadn’t been invited.  Since I wasn’t responsible, there was no reason to lie, and even if I had been the one who inadvertently neglected to invite him, there would still be no reason to lie, because a lie could have caused a lot more hurt than the original omission did.

There may be times when the truth would be far more hurtful than a lie.  Consider a friend who’s just bought a hideous dress that she adores.  Her dress isn’t hurting anyone (and hurting your eyes doesn’t count), so why spoil her joy in it with your interpretation of the truth?  Her truth, that the dress is lovely, is just as valid a perception as yours.  Or consider a group of friends where one person is being gossiped about when she’s not around.  Do we need to join in on the gossip, even if every word being said is technically true?  Do we need to run to our friend and repeat every harsh word that was said about her?  We want to be honest, but we also want to practice ahimsa: non-violence, non-harming, reverence and love for all.  At times when we cannot be honest without causing hurt, the best choice may be to be silent.  Sometimes it’s hard to know the right thing to say.  I want to start asking myself, why do I want to say this, what reaction do I want to cause by saying these words?  If I really believe that telling the truth will help someone else, or will prevent future hurt, that’s one thing; if I’m saying something to try to get others to like me, or to delight in someone else’s pain, then those words might not need to be said.


The Yamas: Ahimsa March 23, 2011

Filed under: reflections,yoga lifestyle,yoga philosophy — R. H. Ward @ 7:46 pm
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Ahimsa, or non-violence, is the first and most important of the yamas: when you’ve got ahimsa down, all the other yamas will fall into place.  Swami Satchidananda describes ahimsa as not causing pain or harm; he says, “Causing pain can be even more harmful than killing. Even by your words, even by your thoughts, you can cause pain” (126).  This is an important point.  There are three main ways to be violent: physically, verbally, and mentally.  You might think, “But I’m not a violent person! I don’t punch people, I don’t say mean things!”, but we all have the capacity for violence in our thoughts.  Every violent action taken or word spoken started out as a thought, and even if that thought never makes it that far, it’s still hanging around in your head, causing tension, causing pain.  In practicing ahimsa, we should strive not to cause pain even to ourselves, and this is the really hard part.

Pantanjali has some suggestions for us about how to deal with these negative thoughts.  He tells us, “When disturbed by negative thoughts, opposite ones should be thought of” (book 2, v. 33). When we feel hatred and anger, then, we should try to feel love instead.  Easier said than done, of course.  Both Satchidananda and Nischala Devi give the example of a married couple who are arguing, when their child crawls up or cries in another room.  Most likely, their anger will dissipate when they go to their child and hug him, because they’ve been reminded of love in the midst of their anger.

Satchidananda has this to say about how negative thoughts affect us: “But even before the other person is affected by my anger, I will be affected.  I’ll shake up my nerves.  My blood will boil” (128).  There might be something satisfying about getting good and mad, sure, but is it actually pleasant to feel that way?  Not for me.

I feel like I struggle with my temper all the time, but for a very long time, I never even used the word “anger”.  I would say, “I’m so annoyed at my boyfriend, he never washes the dishes”, or “That parking ticket really upset me.”  But what I really felt was anger – blood boiling rage!  And for some reason I wouldn’t admit it even to myself.  Maybe I don’t want to see myself as an angry person, but anger is still going to be there.  Not admitting to the anger doesn’t make it go away, it just makes it harder for me to deal with the anger and become a less angry person.  Now when I’m angry, I at least try to notice it, and say to myself, “Wow, I’m angry!”  Then that opens the door for me to do something about my anger.

If I’m not getting mad about something happening right now, then I find myself getting mad about something that happened days or months or years ago.  I’ll find myself standing there in the shower, holding the soap and not even doing anything, getting mad all over again about that stupid parking ticket from 2005.  This doesn’t do me any good.  I’m making myself late, ruining my experience of a perfectly nice shower, and getting all tense and worked up over something that’s past. Or, if I’m not getting angry about something long ago, then I’m getting worried about something that hasn’t happened yet, imagining how things could go wrong and how angry I’ll be!  I make up these long stories about how the man at the post office will be mean or how my friend will forget to invite me to her party, and I get all worked up about something that never even happened and is never likely to happen.  My friends are thoughtful, and I know the man at the post office (his name is Pete, and he’s kind of gruff but never nasty!).  So what good does all of that anger do me?  I squinch up my shoulders and get a crick in my neck, and that’s just the physical effects.  What’s worse is that my mind is disturbed, sometimes all day, sometimes such that it’s hard to concentrate on my work.  Sometimes I’ll be so busy yelling at someone in my head that I end up actually yelling at my husband when all he wanted to know is when we’re going to start dinner.  This is a violent habit!  It causes harm to me by affecting my moods, and it causes harm to those around me by making me grumpy and peevish.  It’s a habit I really want to change.

Instead of defining ahimsa as “non-violence,” Devi defines it as “reverence and love for all.”  I think this is a nice thought: it’s one thing to say, “don’t be violent, don’t cause harm,” but sometimes it’s easier to change a behavior by focusing on what to do instead – like Patanjali says, to think of the opposite, positive thing.  Now when I’m worked up about how my friend was inconsiderate, I try to remind myself about how busy she is at work right now or planning her wedding or  traveling lately, and how good a friend she’s been to me in the past and how much I care about her, and then I realize that it wasn’t a personal insult, she probably just forgot.  (I’m still working on loving the airport traffic cop who wrote that parking ticket, but hopefully throughout this training process I can get there.)

I think I have a lot more in me to say about ahimsa, so consider this part 1.  (It really is time for dinner!)