By Saraswathi Vasudevan
On the occasion of International Yoga Day, Saraswathi Vasudevan advocates an immersion in the foundational yama-niyama through the formation of supportive sanghas, before moving full throttle into asanas.
Now that the whole world is going gaga over yoga, and yoga practitioners often sport a halo over their heads, it will be good to revisit the question of why we are doing what we are doing with yoga. As a yoga teacher and practitioner, this is something I have to ask myself everyday so that I don’t get swept off my feet with the frenzy of “yogic” activities we seem to be consumed with all the time!
What is our goal in yoga?
At the highest level, yoga is about being established in our true nature: to understand that we are in essence the imperishable, pure Self. This appears to be a distant dream, even beyond our imagination. So we have to begin with realistic goals that are tangible at some level. It may be that we want to improve our health and well-being, reduce stress, or acquire peace of mind and clarity. And these actually unfold quite effortlessly, if we practice regularly. However, if we were to stop there, we would stagnate or even regress. For many of us, despite our search for happiness and the avoidance of pain, our yoga journey can often taper off inconclusively.
A more diligent practitioner is no better off! In doing my asana practice with great zeal, I could get obsessed and indulgent with my body. In practising meditation, I could get attached to the identity of a “meditator” and build barriers around me, separating the very “special” me from the “ordinary” world! We could get so strongly identified with our “practices”, “mantra”, “tradition”, “guru”, even with the accessories of yoga, that what is meant to liberate us actually traps us!
So it is absolutely important for any serious seeker to know if she is on the right track…
Am I moving in the right direction? What are the signposts on the path of yoga?
Patanjali, the author of Yoga Sutra, expounds the fundamental principles of right action through the concept of yama and niyama. Yamas are boundaries of right action and engagement with the world. Non-violence, honesty, non-stealing, seeking the highest truth, non-grasping are the five yamas. Niyamas are personal observances that, when practised constantly and consistently, will facilitate the yamas. Purity of body and mind, contentment, austerity, study and self-reflection and surrendering to Divinity are the five niyamas.
Are my feelings, thoughts, actions and responses to the world in alignment to what I am seeking through yoga?
Do you know that while Patanjali has only allocated three sutras out of 195 for asana, he has talked about the yama-niyama in 18 sutras?! It is not that asana is irrelevant, but that yama-niyama are of paramount importance. Without cultivating these character-building qualities, there is no yoga (union with the Divine)! But how conveniently we have magnified the physical aspect, and allowed it to eclipse the yama-niyama!
How do we practise yama-niyama? Is it really possible to be established in them?
Yama-niyama are to be practised each day, but we are not expected to perfect them overnight. These are habits of the mind and character traits that will take lifetimes to perfect. Unfortunately, in our zeal to prove that we have “arrived”, we suppress, or deflect feelings, thoughts or even actions that run counter to them. Our unwillingness to look at ourselves separates us from our deeper self and forces us to sport a façade of false piety! Even more deviously, we engage in intellectual discussions about yama-niyama, convert them into attractive slogans, or into instructions with which to terrorise others. We are very good at making others do what we ourselves cannot or will not.
The soft target is always the other! Even before I understand what non-violence is, I want the other to treat me with unconditional kindness. Even if I have only just set off on the road to truthfulness, I already expect others to be unconditionally honest and trustworthy towards me. One of my teachers once wrote in jest: “I fully believe in ahimsa, nobody should hurt me”.
Our incapacity to work on ourselves emerges from our desire for pleasure and aversion to pain. And that keeps us stuck!
What is the way out?
Patanjali uses the word swadhyaya – study and self-reflection. Unless yoga practices are coupled with self-reflection, they can spell danger not just to the practitioner, but to others too, who have to tolerate and live with the self-obsessed “more evolved beings”!
Self-reflection is not self-analysis or self-judgement! It is to learn to honestly look into ourselves, and maintain a non-judgmental awareness of everything that is happening in the moment. It also means becoming aware of our thoughts, intentions and feelings, listening to ourselves when we think and speak, taking responsibility for our actions and inactions.
And for this we require the support of a strong sangha – spiritual community.
And we also need to create contexts for this exploration that will help us cultivate the yama-niyama. We need to take time off from our frenzied activity, regularly and periodically. We need to create a quiet space within our sangha that we do not fill with mindless activity and chatter. We need to make this space safe and nourishing for each other.
In this sacred space:
Can we bring to this circle our experiences and insights from practice, our gifts as well as our struggles?
Can we practice equity and self-disclosure, without the fear of judgment and rejection?
Can we listen with compassion and learn to reflect for each other what we may be blind to within ourselves?
Can our sharing help to break illusions of being more or less evolved, and give hope and inspiration for all of us?
This deep work, of course, has to be actively supported by our daily practice. Right practice of asana is meant to reduce rajas and improve our tolerance. Pranayama reduces the heaviness of tamas, sensory and mental indulgence. Meditative practices help in sharpening the mind to stay with our enquiry. Such a mind can observe the inner and outer realities without much distortion. Such a mind is aware of our feelings, intentions, thoughts, actions and reactions, while assuming active responsibility. Only such a mind can practice yama-niyama and inspire others too!
Even if it is painful, it is important to stay with the yamas and niyamas. Through this work of shifting and changing our thoughts, feelings and behavior, we become the person we are meant to be; or rather, we let go of the person we are not. We slowly learn to recalibrate our aspirations and expectations. We see more and more that it is not about having the right answers, but staying with important questions. It is not so much about “doing the right thing” but enquiring into our compulsions for unwholesome actions. We slowly begin to understand what the yama-niyamas mean and this very understanding helps us to refine our thoughts, intentions and actions.
Together, we can work towards creating a more wholesome life that is reflected in all our thoughts, actions and responses to life situations. Such active, practising communities are the need of the hour. As a collective, when we shift our focus from result to quality of actions, from purpose to meaning, yoga comes alive… and a better world is born.
About the author : Saraswathi Vasudevan is a yoga therapist trainer in the tradition of Sri T Krishnamacharya. She specialises in adapting yoga to the individual. (www.yogavahini.com).
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