This is part 2 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.
There are times when it seems as though Satya and Ahimsa are mutually exclusive - upholding one value may mean violating the other; for example, if we feel that by being honest we will hurt someone we care about. So, we are left with a difficult decision to make: do we tell the truth, or do we refrain from causing harm? What’s a well-intentioned yogi to do?! If I told you that I had some sort of magical solution, I’d be violating Satya myself. Sometimes we need to tune into our inner wisdom, make a choice, and swallow the consequences. If you want my opinion, you’ve gotta be honest (while still choosing your words mindfully). Although the truth can be scary or even hurtful, we have to remember that withholding true feelings is in itself a lie by omission, which will inevitably only end up causing harm to everyone involved.
I am constantly reminding myself, as well as the yogis who I’m lucky enough to have come practice with me, that yoga is a path of self-awareness. Satya plays a big part of that for me. We need to be honest not only with others, but first and foremost with ourselves. All of us, myself included of course, often act unconsciously. I don’t mean that we’re in a weird fugue state, Breaking Bad-style, but rather that we act habitually, out of old fears and patterns, rather than from a place of awareness. In yoga, we call these habitual patterns Samskaras. We build up these Samskaras through our life experiences, as learned behavior. Our task, as yogis, is to learn to move past these ingrained responses. Then, rather than going along with our old habits, we form our thoughts, words, and actions from a place of consciousness, awareness, and integrity. Once we start to recognize and tune into our inner wisdom, we find that it becomes much easier to be honest with others, and that we instinctively know what the right action is when we’re faced with conflict.
This isn’t to say that becoming self-aware is easy, or that it works all the time. For example, just a few minutes ago I was frustrated with myself as I wrote these words, which weren’t coming out like I wanted. I was starting to fall back into my old habits, doubting myself and my abilities. So, I took a break, had a long shower, and now I feel much better, and my fingers are busily tapping away at my computer keys. Sometimes we just need to step back and take a deep breath. In many cases, though, we need help. This can be in the form of formal therapy, or talking through things with a trustworthy friend. A few years ago I read Eastern Body, Western Mind, by Anodea Judith, and it blew my mind. I can’t recommend it highly enough for anyone and everyone who is interested in becoming more self-aware, and building a relationship with your Self.
Of course, the yoga practice itself is a great way to get to know yourself. Your time on the mat is 100% yours, to be exactly who you are. When we step on our mats, we are absolutely free. Yet, we sometimes forget this, or don’t think that it’s true. Ask yourself: are you always honest with yourself when you do your asana practice? I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that you, like me, are probably not perfect (gasp)!
If you ever ignore your body’s signals and push yourself to perform to the point of pain, you are being dishonest. How can we be cultivating self-awareness if we are forcing our bodies to do things they don’t want to do? If you find yourself gasping for breath, or holding your breath altogether, as you forcibly muscle your way through a challenging sequence, remind yourself that your job on the mat is to serve your body, not to beat it into submission. On the other hand, if you’re slacking off, and not doing the poses to the best of your ability, you are not being honest with yourself about your capabilities. Remember that just because your body is in the shape of a particular asana it does not mean you are doing yoga. The physical postures must be combined with deep steady breathing, concentration, and intelligent effort.
So, perhaps the next time you get on your mat, you can choose to make Satya your focus for the practice. Be aware of what you are feeling, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Listen to your body. Be true to yourself. Do your yoga. There are no negative consequences.
Once you’ve begun to focus on self-awareness and honesty as you do your physical practice, you can start to take the yoga off the mat. So that next time you are faced with a challenge, you will be able to be honest with yourself, and others, in your thoughts, words, and actions. This is how we work to uphold Satya.
In what other ways do you consciously work at being honest with yourself, and others?