This is part 9 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.
If we have a look at the Yoga Sutras, right away Patanjali lays out the goal of the entire practice. The second yoga sutra reads: "Yogas Citta Vrtti Nirodhah", which translates into "The restraint of the fluctuations of the mind-stuff is Yoga". What this means is that the functional purpose of yoga is to let go of the thoughts that are constantly whizzing through our brains. However, in order to let go of those thoughts and quiet the mind, we must first notice that we have those fluctuations in the first place, and see them for what they are; this is the process of svadhyaya.
Of course, an opportune time for self-reflection, and eventually stilling the mind, is during meditation. When we meditate, we direct our energy and our awareness to watching the breath: breathing in and out with consciousness. Of course, it doesn't take long before the mind gets distracted. When this occurs, we simply observe the fluctuation of the mind, then let go of the thoughts that arise by choosing to bring the focus back to the breath. People often tell me that they "aren't good at meditating" because their minds are busy. Of course they are. We were all raised to be hard-working little multi-taskers who only pause to refill our coffee cups. It takes a lifetime to undo that conditioning. Meditating does not mean our minds will be perfectly quiet- it is simply a time when we allow ourselves to be conscious of our mental processes so we can start to control them, rather than letting them control us. By noticing how busy our brains are, as well as the nature of our distracting thoughts, we can get to know ourselves a little bit better and live out this penultimate niyama.
Of course, the asana practice also offers us plenty of opportunities to explore svadhyaya. As I tell students at the beginning of every class, the physical yoga practice is a time to listen to our individual bodies, and to honor our own needs. It is only by anchoring into the body that we can practice mindfully to avoid injury, and to increase our vitality and strength. Also, moving the body through a complicated, dynamic sequence or into a funky, challenging pose is also a great way to make sure you are focusing on what is going on right now, rather than succumbing to the wanderings of the mind. It's hard to do a handstand if you're thinking about laundry, you know?
I also think that when we move through our asana practice we can learn a lot about our attitudes, and habitual patterns (known as samskaras). We can notice the way we approach the practice: is it with a determination, hesitation, an open heart, or a fear of not 'measuring up'? If we try a pose and fall out of it, do we pick ourselves up with a smile and try again, or drop an f-bomb loud enough for the whole class to hear? Specific groups of poses can also be really revealing. For example: it took me years to feel comfortable trying inversions, because I was always so afraid to fall. When I thought about it, I realized this fear reflected my worries about failing in other areas of my life, as well as my fear of turning my world upside down and drastically changing my perspective on things. As I became more comfortable upside down in yoga poses, the changes in my attitude carried into my life off the mat. As another example, let's think about backbends... deep heart openers like camel (ustrasana) and upward bow (urdhva dhanurasana) can make us feel really vulnerable and exposed. Is this something you shy away from? Or, if backbends come easily to you, does this maybe mirror a tendency to bend over backwards for others, perhaps even in situations when you'd be better served by standing your ground and staying upright? Poses that work on certain body parts can also reveal some truths about our selves. Our hips, for example, are where we store emotions such as anger, sadness, and irritation. When we work on hip openers, we might end up with a lot more to deal with than a sweet pigeon pose. Opening our hips can release these pent-up emotions and all of a sudden we have to reconsider whether we really did forgive our annoying college roommate, or move on after a difficult break-up. It's important to remember that the yoga practice helps us let go of physical toxins, yes... but emotional and energetic ones as well.
I propose that the way we approach our yoga practice is likely to be very similar to how we approach other areas of our lives. The issues that we deal with on the mat are probably not very different from the issues we need to sort out off the mat. Through the practice of svadhyaya we can start to notice our habitual patterns and thought processes, and then maybe decide to do something about them.
The good news is that svadhyaya isn't just about facing our demons. I think it's safe to say that if you dedicate yourself to the practice of yoga, it will make you feel good. So good, in fact, that you might start to notice things that leave you feeling less than sparkly. This is why a lot of yogis and yoga teachers are often considered to be pretty healthy people. The yoga practice itself (physical and otherwise) will of course make our bodies healthier and stronger, but added to that, the more time you spend doing things that lift you up, and the more energy you put into getting to know yourself, the easier it will be to stop habits that bring you down. Whether it's changing your diet, quitting a bad habit like smoking, or just making sure to get enough sleep at night, practicing yoga is a great way to tune into your needs, find out what works for you, and let go of the stuff that doesn't.
So. There we have it. Self-study: svadhyaya.