I am always encouraging students to think yoga is not just a physical practice where you need a yoga mat in order to practice. We can practice anywhere, anytime. So how can we do this? Over the last term the theme has been learning about the five Niyamas, known as self-observations. Focusing on this offers students time to reflect both on and off the mat. During the course of term one student said ‘It does make you think more’ demonstrating yoga brings more awareness to life’ If we live with more awareness, and especially in the present moment we are more likely to relieve the levels of stress (which can bring numerous health problems) and live with more clarity and vitality.
The Niyamas are an invitation to see how good we can feel about ourselves by not focusing on how much we have and how much we have accomplished but how well we have participated in ordinary routines, as well as the extraordinary surprises. The first Niyama – Saucha (cleanliness) encourages us to cleanse our bodies, our speech and our thoughts. As we purify ourselves physically and mentally we become less cluttered and heavy and may find we have more clarity.
However, Saucha will be different for each of us. This cleansing process might take form of purifying the body by increasing physical exercise or increase water intake or de-cluttering the house. Or maybe choosing to purify the tongue so that you speak no harm or untruth for the entire day. Cleansing the mind may give opportunity to forgive either yourself or another. In week one students were encouraged to reflect upon what they could do to achieve both inner and outer cleanliness. One student and I gave up alcohol for the term and another devoured they would purify the tongue, which she said would be a challenge considering the service they work in!
During week two we focused on the second Niyama, Santosha (Contentment) which can bring awareness to what we have in life and can we be happy with this? In Western society we live in a materialistic world, always striving for more. How many times have you said ‘if only?’ ‘If only’ I had a different job, ‘if only’ I had more money, ‘if only’ I had a partner, or ‘if only’ I could have that glass of wine on a Friday night! Having this outlook on life we may never become content with what we have and therefore always grasp for more. Yet if we practice gratitude we have more opportunity to be content. I asked students to ponder over the words ‘contentment is falling in love with your life’ to see what emotions this would bring up. For some this was a challenge, however it did give more clarity onto what they were not happy with and how they could change.
During the third week of term we did a strong physical practice due to the theme being the third Niyama, Tapas (Self-discipline). Throughout life we have choices, sometimes to take the easy route or to face a challenge head on, hence why we held yoga asanas (postures) for longer. If we choose to vote against the easy option of running and hiding, and therefore face the challenge, then we need to trust we will get through this unpleasant time. This is when we need to stay present and choose to strengthen our inner character. I mentioned to students turning up to a regular yoga practice they are already practicing Tapas as they are willingly burning away any laziness in order to make it to class.
The fourth Niyama, Svadhyaya (self-study) invites us to know the ‘self’. Knowing the self is a complex subject. The simplest way I explained this during class in week four was to think about a diamond ring kept in a small box, which is then wrapped in another box and another, leaving you with one huge box at the end. Now yogis believe we are packaged just like the diamond ring and the core of our being is the diamond ring. So learning about Svadhyaya encourages us to unpack the boxes, which may not be easy but if we live with more awareness and an open mind we may have more opportunity to discover more about who we are and therefore understanding the self. *
To conclude the last week of term we focused on the last Niyama, Isvara Pranidhana (Surrender) which invites us to pay attention to what life is asking of us and believing there is something greater than yourself. There are times in life when we may think life is not going the way we want it to go, leaving us with not being able to think straight. Imagine how many times we think ‘I’m having a bad day because it didn’t go the way we planned’ by thinking this way we often miss a new opportunity life is offering us in that moment. Taking a breath and practicing Isvara Pranidhana encourages us to let go and accept to engage in life as it comes to us.
In class we practice Isvara Pranidhana in every yoga session during Shavasana (corpse pose). Students are encouraged to let go of all the ways they physically, mentally and emotionally fight with life and simply surrender into the mat. As we learn to stop fighting life, we release our rigidity and our need to control and simply surrender into the moment, living more mindfully.
Swami Chetanananda said:
Ultimately there is nothing I can tell you
about surrender except
Having nothing and wanting nothing;
Not keeping score,
Not trying to be richer,
Not being afraid of losing;
Not being particularly interested in our own personalities;
Choosing to be happy,
no matter what happens to us.
These are some of the clues. The rest we learn with practice and grace.
*If you would like to learn more about the ‘self’ a great read is ‘The Untethered Soul the journey beyond yourself. By Micheal A. Singer