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Niyama #2 Santosha

September 3, 2013

The second niyama is Santosha, which translates as contentment. Yes, this is the same name as our beloved little neighborhood yoga studio in Wheat Ridge, Colorado. In fact, I wrote an article about the name Santosha in April, 2012, and you can read it here. But for the sake of this series, I will write another explanation of this incredibly life-changing niyama, a.k.a. personal discipline.

Practicing contentment sounds pretty simple, and it is, but the effects of such a practice are anything but simple. They are devastatingly impressive. One can find many quotes about contentment from the Bible, Mother Teresa, Socrates, or even Lao Tzu. The subject is a popular one, because it is so powerful, accessible, and attainable for all of us.

The reason it is so life-changing is the effect it has on your outlook. When practicing contentment, you recognize all the blessings you have in your life, in whatever circumstances you find yourself. Santosha is a conscious choice to appreciate what you have, not focus on what you think you don’t have. It isn’t just giving up or “accepting your fate”. It isn’t complacency. It isn’t settling or even satisfaction when you’ve achieved a goal. It is actively remembering the benevolence that surrounds your every breath.

Think of the people you enjoy being around the most:  perhaps their presence is so delightful because of their simple ability to be content. Try it for yourself, this practice of Santosha. Contentment fills an imaginary hole that otherwise existed in your heart.


Healing Happens in a Relaxation Response

August 2, 2013
Would you like to heal a little faster? Then consider this little known biological fact that ought to be headline news: healing happens in the physiologic relaxation response. Meaning, the literal healing, maintenance and repair of body tissues occurs when the central nervous system is in parasympathetic dominance – the classic relaxation response. In the simplest of terms, we heal when we’re sleeping, resting in a state of calm, or on a nice vacation.
The implications of this are quite profound. That’s because it’s quite common for us to be in a stress state – an anxious rush, overworking, worry, fear, anger or self- judgment. The stress response means that the central nervous system is in sympathetic dominance, and our metabolic energy is preferentially geared towards fighting, fleeing and survival. The last thing your body is trying to do when it thinks it’s being chased by a lion is to heal your digestive issue, your adrenal burnout, or manage your cholesterol level.
So, anything that has us move into a stress state will put a limitation on healing. Likewise, anything that has us let go, relax, surrender, take a deep breath, will help facilitate the maintenance and repair of the body. If you’re trying to overcome an ailment and you’re driving yourself crazy, or following an impossibly hard diet, or being too hard on yourself, think “I’m generating a stress response and short-changing the very healing experience that I’m working so hard for.” Consider this prescription: do the best you can to relax into your healing journey.

Niyama #1 Saucha

May 20, 2013

By now you have learned the five Yama, the ethical disciplines, and Yama is the first of the eight limbs of Yoga. The second limb of Yoga is called Niyama. There are also five Niyama, which are the rules of conduct in regards to self discipline for self-purification.

The first of the five Niyama is Saucha which translates as cleanliness, and purity of body for good health and well-being. This is more than just bathing your body and brushing your teeth, and even more than washing the fruit you eat and keeping a clean house. It includes the work you do to purify the cells of the body, such as with healthy exercise and breathing clean air.

I love Iyengar’s statement on asana practice:  it is like power-washing the cells of the body. Asana (yoga poses) cleans out the sticky goo of toxins stuck in our bodies, clearing out the adhesions in the muscles and soft tissue that is literally preventing the flow of prana (life force). Then pranayama (breath practice) infuses the body with prana, permeating the body with oxygen and the energy needed to heal and perform at optimum.

Saucha is that nice feeling you get after cleaning your house. Saucha is mental too, when you decide to read an uplifting book instead of watch a violent or negative TV show. Saucha in your speech is watching your tongue, avoiding gossip or profanity, and the warm, fuzzy feeling of giving a compliment instead of a harsh criticism.

Yes. Clean your body and eat clean food, free of pesticides and hormones and hydrogenated fats and genetically modified fake foodstuffs. Keep a clean environment in which to live, and a clean mouth that has a filter on your speech. Then notice the effect all of that clean living has on your inner peace and your sense of serenity. This is the practice of Saucha.

Yama #5 Aparigraha

May 13, 2013

Aparigraha is the fifth and final Yama. It translates as non-greed, to be free from hoarding and collecting. 

The interesting thing about this Yama is that when you really think about it, you can find not-so-obvious ways to practice non-greed. For example, applying Aparigraha to my yogasana practice means not grasping at perfection in a pose when my body is not yet ready. Iyengar Yoga actually teaches the student Aparigraha by using appropriate props, and accepting the current ability of the body of that day in a pose, and asking for no more. 

How else can you practice Aparigraha? Most importantly, can you notice your personal habits in covetousness, and admit them to yourself so that you can make a positive change? We are all greedy, and this Yama challenges us to look for it, face it, and change. 

Consider also that being ungrateful is actually a state of greed. Having things and taking things without sincere and constant thankfulness is just your inner hoarding monster collecting more stuff. 

Be aware when greed becomes an emotional reaction to a situation. This is what helps us find the obscure ways we are greedy. Go one day on high alert for this one Yama, and see if you are surprised by how often greed controls your actions. 

Not only stuff, but experiences can be hoarded. The question is, what do you take or collect that you do not really need immediately? In this way, this Yama is similar to Asteya, non-stealing. How about this:  Do you ever describe yourself as insatiable, even if it is for something you consider to be of high value? Watch out… 

The whole point of this Yama is to prevent us from acting from a feeling of lack, and instead act from a feeling of abundance and gratitude. Practicing generosity helps to alleviate greed, as does clutter-clearing your house of unnecessary things. This Yama, like all of them, frees your spirit and allows your heart to soar. Image

Yama #4 Brahmacharya

May 6, 2013

Brahmacharya is the fourth Yama, which translates as chastity, celibacy and continence. I remember when I was learning about each yama:  non-harming, truthfulness, non-stealing… but when I learned about celibacy? Uh-oh. I knew I didn’t like the idea, and I knew my husband wouldn’t like it either!

And that’s exactly how people can misunderstand this yama. Although the translation is chastity, you have to remember the entire reason for practicing yama and niyama, and for practicing all the eight limbs of yoga:  for spiritual enlightenment, for emancipation of the mind, for freedom.

So how would chastity help you with spiritual enlightenment? Before you stop reading, worrying that I’m going to tell you never to have sex again, let me explain the history first:  the ancients believed that the loss of semen was a loss of energy and of life. Since our purpose of life is to attain spiritual enlightenment, losing any energy that would otherwise help us to attain that goal should be avoided.

This is where you can actually apply this yama:  it is not demanding celibacy, “not one of negation, forced austerity and prohibition” as per B.K.S. Iyengar, but of conservation of vital energy for the benefit of spiritual attainment. When you realize this, it makes a lot more sense and is more approachable.

Mukhunda Stiles translates the sutra as, “By abiding in behavior that respects the Divine as omnipresent, one acquires an inspired passion for life”.

Not only is it recognizing and respecting the deep value of your own vital energy, it is seeing the beauty and vital energy in all beings. It is not wasting that vital energy, not wasting your life or taking for granted the lives of others! This! This is something I can follow, something I can believe in, and something beautiful to lead me down the right path.

Yama #3 Asteya

April 29, 2013

In continuing the review of Yama, the moral injunctions/the culture of self-restraint, we review Yama #3, Asteya. 

Asteya translates as non-stealing. Let me begin by saying this is not going to be a preachy blog on how you should not steal. I’m not going to write about something you already know. What I want to write about is a concept perhaps you haven’t thought about before:  how do we steal from ourselves? How do you cheat yourself? Do you steal your own productivity with time-wasting activities? Do you steal your own accomplishments by robbing your efforts instead of supporting your efforts? Think about this for a moment:  what would you have accomplished if your stealing self had not stolen from you? Now you know what I mean.

The actual sutra is II.37 Asteya-pratisthayam sarva-ratnopasthanam. “When one is established in refrainment from stealing, all jewels manifest”. Edwin F. Bryant writes in his commentary of this sutra, “Established in non-stealing, a glow of detachment and indifference radiates from the face of the yogi.”  Suppose you are trying to lose weight:  established in non-stealing, you build indifference to temptations that otherwise prevent you from accomplishing your weight goal. Suppose you are trying to get out of debt:  steeped in non-stealing, detachment from possessions helps you to avoid wasting your money on unnecessary things.

Then there is the mind. The mind invented a fabulous tool so that it doesn’t have to admit to stealing:  rationalization. Rationalization is a perfect way to steal while fooling yourself that what you are doing is okay. Are you taking more than your share? You may rationalize that because you got there first, you can take as much as you can carry. Are you hoarding? Here, besides being greedy, you are stealing your own self-respect.

If you practice non-stealing, you become known as one who can be trusted, one who has integrity, and virtue, and you also have self trust. These jewels are invaluable indeed.

Yama #2 Satya

April 22, 2013

Satya is the second Yama, which translates as truthful, honest, virtuous and genuine. Last week I wrote about the first Yama, Ahimsa which is non-violence, harmlessness.

Although the first in a list of the ancient texts always holds the greatest importance, these first two principals of Yama perfected together can change the world. Mahatma Gandhi sought to practice Ahimsa and Satya, non-violence and truth, and in doing so, freed India.

B.K.S. Iyengar writes in Light on Life, “The shame of violence, of harming others, is simply that it is an offence against underlying unity and therefore a crime against truth”.

In our daily life, Satya is more than just telling the truth to others. Self-deception is a favorite past-time of the mind, and it takes courage to face it and be truthful with ourselves.

In our yoga practice, we are truthful when we perform poses honoring the body’s current limitations and genuine when our poses arise from our true source, not from the ego.

In telling the truth to others, being truthful must always respect non-harming. Edwin F. Bryant explains in his book on the Yoga Sutras, “If observing one Yama results in the compromise of another, then Ahimsa (non-harming) must always be respected first”. If there is a truth to be spoken, it should not be spoken unkindly. To help with this, it is wise to use the four filters of speech:  “Before you speak, ask yourself: Is it kind, is it true, is it necessary, does it improve upon the silence?”

Imagine a world where everyone honored Truthfulness and Non-harming. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world”.



Yama #1 Ahimsa

April 16, 2013

In my previous blog on the Eight Limbs of Yoga, you read that Yama and Niyama are the first two limbs. Yama are the general ethical principles, self-restraints for social harmony, and vows of abstention. Niyama are the codes of conduct molding individual morality and behavior, and personal disciplines.

There are five principals of Yama and five observances of Niyama listed in the Yoga Sutras II.30 and II.32 respectively.

Ahimsa is the first Yama, and as the ancient texts are designed, in a list, the first one is always the most important one. In fact, of the Eight Limbs of Yoga, Yama is listed as the first, and therefore holds the greatest importance. The most important Yama is Ahimsa, which translates as non-harming and non-violence.

We practice Ahimsa during our yoga practice by using props appropriately to create peace, to remove strain and stress, and to prevent harm while creating space and life in the body. But we can practice Ahimsa off the mat too.

B.K.S. Iyengar writes in Light on Yoga, “It is more than a negative command not to kill, for it has a wider positive meaning, love. This love embraces all creation for we are all children of the same Father – the Lord. The yogi believes that to kill or to destroy a thing or being is to insult its Creator”.

I love that. And take note, this is in regards to every thought, word and action you take. Just being a vegetarian doesn’t mean you’ve got your bases covered. Ahimsa requires being non-violent by temperament, by thought, word and deed, and not only towards others, but towards ourselves too.

Love is what it’s all about. Love is #1. Love is the most important. When B.K.S. Iyengar spoke in China two years ago, during a Q/A session a man asked, “Why sir, do we do yoga?” Guruji answered, “So that we may love one another”.

Yoga to Overcome Insomnia

November 16, 2012

Many people suffer from insomnia at different times, for different reasons. Perhaps you are worried about something. Other times you may just not seem to be able to “shut the mind off”. Either way, there is a solution.

The purpose of yoga is for stilling the mind so that the true Self within can become apparent without anything blocking it. “Yogah cittavrtti nirodhah”, says Yoga Sutra 1.2, translated as “Yoga is the cessation of movements in the consciousness”. These “movements in the consciousness” are the swirling thoughts in your mind, keeping you awake. “Tada drastuh svarupe avasthanam”, says Yoga Sutra 1.3, translated as “Then, the Seer dwells in his own true splendor”. This is the blissful contentment of being present in the most extraordinary way.

Step one get out of bed. Don’t just lie there, thinking to yourself that you’ll be able to force yourself to sleep. If you’ve been lying awake for more than 15 minutes, get up and do something about it.

Step two:  Come into a supported version of Adho Mukha Svanasana, (Downward Facing Dog pose). The support is the wall. Place your hands on the floor at the base of the wall, thumb and index finger touching the wall, and keep your fingers together. Press back into Adho Mukha Svanasana, and stay as long as you can. All the while you are in the pose, feel your body in the pose.

Step three:  Move out of Adho Mukha Svanasana and into Child’s pose. Rest completely. Feel the weight of your head release into the floor. Feel your spine lengthen with every moment you stay in the pose. Stay in the pose as long as you can.

Step four:  Move into Viparita Dandasana, (Inverted Staff pose, also known as “Legs up the Wall”). Simply rest the torso on the floor, with your straight legs resting vertically up the wall. This pose is key. Pay attention. Feel what is happening as you lie in the pose. Notice the effects of gravity not only in the legs, but also in the chest, throat, and head. Stay in the pose as long as you can.

Step five:  Roll out of the pose, and go back to bed, lie comfortably, and feel your body. These simple poses remove obstacles of all kinds, allowing you to feel free again, and slip off into a contented slumber.

“Then, the Seer dwells in his own true splendor”.

How much Yoga is enough? Consistency is key.

June 19, 2012

One day, a student of mine was surprised to hear that coming to a Yoga class once a week was not sufficient for progress. It occurred to me that what is sufficient might be a nice topic for a blog.

Consistency is key. Patañjali spoke about consistency of practice in his Yoga Sutra 1:14:  Sa tu dirgha kala nairantarya satkarasevito drdhabhumih

Practice becomes firmly established when it has been cultivated uninterruptedly and with devotion over a prolonged period of time. – Translation by Edwin F. Bryant

How much Yoga is enough? Yoga was designed to be practiced every day to receive all the many benefits it offers; however, this doesn’t mean the same Yoga poses every day. But it may mean attending more Yoga Classes during the week.

  • Try mixing it up by attending different classes that have a different focus, such as Restoratives, or classes with a special focus such as Low Back and Hips, attend a Flow class, or learn something new by returning to the Fundamentals or trying a different teacher.

A consistent Yoga practice also means adding a few days of Home practice. If a Home Practice seems daunting, let me describe my own experience. At home, I can listen to my own desires and address my personal needs in my practice. Taking care of my body in this way is rewarding, and fulfilling.

Yoga Class time is essential, but a Home practice is satisfying and inspiring. It hones your ability to identify your state of being each day:  are you stressed and anxious, full of energy and excitement, lethargic or irritable? By getting better at acknowledging our current state, our compassion for ourselves increase, and we learn how to care for ourselves with a Home Yoga practice.

Aids to support a Home practice:

  • Try journaling, simply writing down the poses you perform at home, every time you practice. Include in your journal how you feel prior to your practice, and how you feel after your practice.
  • Schedule yourself for a private lesson with a Yoga teacher, to get a personalized Yoga sequence that is designed specifically for you. The hour lesson provides you with a sequence you can take home to practice. Rescheduling a private lesson regularly keeps your home practice fresh and moving forward.
  • Begin. Remember what Iyengar says, “take action, no matter how small”. Iyengar himself says that his practice changes each day, according to how he feels. Some days he doesn’t feel much like practicing, but he always begins. Once he has begun, his practice might continue and blossom, and it might not, but he won’t know until he begins.

With all of that in mind, if attending a Yoga Class only once a week is all your schedule allows, that will have to be enough. Yoga will meet you wherever you are. Your flexibility and strength will be helped, just much more slowly. Bottom line is, find more time for your Yoga practice, and enjoy more results.

Santosha Yoga is encouraging our students to attend more classes during the month by offering The Rest of the Month Free, after attending 12 classes! This is a great offer, and one that shouldn’t be missed. Try committing to a regular, daily practice and see for yourself the benefits of Yoga that are quickly and exponentially noticeable.

Also, Gary’s next workshop just happens to be “How to Practice Yoga” and will be held on Saturday, August 25th from 2:00 – 4:00 PM.

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