This is part 10 of a 10 part series that I'll be posting. Each post will be discussing one of the yamas or niyamas, which form the foundation of a yoga practice. To provide a little background: the path of yoga was described about 2000 years ago by Patanjali, in the Yoga Sutras- one of the most important texts on yoga. Here, Patanjali laid out the 8 limbed path of yoga. This means that there are 8 stages of yoga, starting with the simplest and moving to the most advanced. The 8th limb is Samadhi, which is enlightenment, aka when you become One with the universe. We can't just skip to limb number 8, however. We've gotta start with the basics. These days, we tend to jump right in at the third limb of yoga: asana (aka. the physical postures). Maybe we'll also dabble in the 4th limb, pranayama (conscious breathing, and control/ manipulation of breath). Unfortunately, we tend to skip right over the first two limbs: the Yamas, and the Niyamas. The Yamas are the 5 restraints; the things we should avoid, in order to be good yogis, and decent human beings. The Niyamas are the 5 observances; the qualities we should cultivate, in terms of how we treat ourselves. Each of the Yamas and Niyamas has important lessons to teach us, both on and off the mat. Here are my thoughts on each one.
All of the yamas (restraints) as well as the first four niyamas (observances) all rely on a yogi's free will. That is, the ability we each have to make conscious decisions about our thoughts, words, and actions. However, as well all know, there are certain things that are simply out of our control; accepting that, my friends, is what it means to uphold isvara pranidhana.
Whether you think of the forces of universe as God, fate, destiny, or any other term that suits you, it is undeniable that there are forces beyond our control. By remembering to surrender to the universe, we are acknowledging the fact that sometimes things don't go as planned - we are taking into account the little bit of mystery that exists in everything- that keeps us on our toes and makes it impossible to know exactly what will happen in any given situation.
Sometimes it feels like the universe is conspiring against us (this is basically what paranoia is). Maybe we fail an exam we studied really hard for, get dumped by the person we thought was The One, or have to deal with the untimely death or illness of a loved one;a we've all had moments where it feels like the sky is falling and we have bad (terrible, awful) luck. In these cases, we can resist the cause of our pain, and become miserable, stressed, or tense. We can opt to distract ourselves from reality by watching copious amounts of TV, or drowning our sorrows in drinks and drugs. We can run away from the situation, becoming hardened, jaded, and/or miserable in the process. Or, we can choose to let nature take it's course, however difficult that may be. We can choose to relinquish our perception of control and let the universe do its thing, with love, trust, and faith.
There exists an opposite of paranoia. This is something I like to call "pronoia". Basically, it's the idea that the universe is conspiring to give you exactly what you need. When I look back on my life I can think of numerous times when things definitely did not go as I had planned. At the time, it felt like I was failing, or like things were going terribly wrong. Looking back, though, I can see the good that came out of those situations, and I wouldn't change a thing. Of course, there are other times when the shit hits the fan and years later we still don't know why. If we choose pronoia over paranoia, however, it will be much easier to deal with these tumultuous times. We can choose to believe that things will work out for the best.
Of course, our asana practice is a perfect opportunity to start to get comfy with the universe and its tricky ways. Some days we step on the mat and the practice comes easy - it feels effortless, we are connected to our bodies, and can move into tricky poses with ease. Everything just flows, and we are joyful and at peace on the mat. Other days... not so much. Some days poses that we usually have mastered are totally impossible. We feel stiff and awkward and disconnected. Maybe there is a clear reason why, but there might not be; sometimes, it's just the way life goes. We can embody isvara pranidhana by learning to love the difficult days as much as the easy ones. Remember: whether a pose is easy or hard is not the point. The point is to come into the pose with an open heart, and to move out of the pose the same way. What happens in the middle is not such a big deal. The days when the practice comes naturally feel lovely, yes - but we are not any "better" at yoga on those days than on the days when we struggle. What makes us "good" at yoga is the fact that we show up. On the hard days and the easy ones. Over and over again.
To really live out this final niyama we need to balance effort with surrender. We need to do our best to uphold the yamas and niyamas, to live in a way that aligns with our morals, values, and desired outcomes. Then, we need to allow the universe to work its mysterious ways on us, and have a little faith.
Hari Om Tat Sat.