Integrating Yoga philosophy into your practice

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A few weeks ago I made a very short list of possible article topics for my website. That list included “how to start integrating Yoga philosophy into your practice.” And that topic was going to be today’s task. My Facebook feed also happened to show me this article, written by Sandra Anderson and put together by the folks at Yoga International. It’s a beautiful piece with instructional photos that briefly introduces the meaning of the yamas and the niyamas, or “observances” and “restraints” and connects them with the practice of a specific asana, paschimottanasana, or seated forward bend.

In the universe of Yoga philosophy, the yamas and niyamas are part of the “ashtanga” or “eight limbs” system of study that includes postural yoga, breath control (pranayama), and meditation (pratyahara).  The yamas and niyamas (the Sanskrit is just easier to write and say than “observances” and “restraints”, right?) comprise a guide to more mindful and compassionate living outside of your postural or asana practice. I like talking about the y&n with my kids’ yoga class, as a way to help them start thinking about what it means to be an ethical person.

In adult classes, discussion of the y&n can sometimes seem “preachy” to the uninitiated – they carry a sort of “do this”, “don’t do this”, list-of-commandments-type cast. But realistically, anyone who has chosen to practice yoga has probably chosen it over other embodied fitness regimens because it for starters, offers the admonishment to be kinder with yourself. The rationale being that giving yourself a break – even as you challenge yourself physically – will make it easier to give others a break. You consciously take a pass on reflexively falling into judgement. Below are some suggestions for incorporating the first two limbs of the ashtanga system into your postural yoga practice:

The Yamas or Observances

Ahimsa. The word “-himsa” means “violence” or “killing.” Ahimsa is the admonishment not to kill or cause violence. When we apply this to ourselves, we begin to understand where the idea of kindness toward self comes from. B.K.S. Iyengar says the idea goes further and contains a “wider positive meaning: love.” When we apply it to our postural practice, we’re getting specific about our loving or unloving attitude toward our bodies, our physicality.

Satya. Truth. Are you honest with yourself about pain or discomfort in a posture? Do you ignore or push through to potential injury? Do you have a clear sense of your body’s structural limitations and do you embrace the willingness to modify or add props to support them? Honoring the truth about your body and your pain threshold cultivates a safe, stable, honest practice.

Asteya. Non-stealing. Or not coveting. (See? So Ten Commandments!) But this is more the inability to see your own dissatisfaction that can lead to looking outside, to desiring what others have. In your practice, this shows up in trying to mirror others or your “ideal” form of a posture, rather than being true to your own embodiment.

Brahmacharya. Iyengar writes in Light on Yoga, “Brahmacharya is the battery that sparks the torch of wisdom.” In its strictest sense, this yama advises self-restraint and even celibacy. Most students of Yoga understand this rather differently. Sandra Anderson, author of the article referenced above, describes it as “moving toward Brahman” or toward the brahmanic state, toward wisdom, enlightenment. When applied to the pose, she equates the movement inward that we are cultivating in asana practice with the awareness of subtle energy movements, and the “yoking” of mind to body to breath.

Aparigraha. To be free from hoarding or the compulsion to collect. Very similar to asteya, in your postural practice can you free yourself from the pursuit of anything you don’t need right here, in the present moment? Others practitioners’ poses? More difficult (or less difficult) asana? In the wider arena of your life, is your practice in balance with everything else? Are you the master of every style and pose? Are you pushing yourself to practice every day – not to meet your own needs and fulfillment, but to fulfill some illusory ideal about Yogic perfection? In a more literal sense, is your house a collection of acquired and then discarded yoga props, books, apparel and other accoutrements? How much do you really need?

The Niyamas or Restraints

Saucha. Cleanliness or purity. Can there be purity in your pose? Iyengar discusses saucha much in terms of mental/intellectual purity and stresses that asana aids in ridding ourselves of impurity in emotion and thought. You can think of this in terms of the release of toxins, of balancing the internal systems through postural work deliberately calibrated to this end, the material toxin that represents the symbolic toxin. Can you rid your mind of negativity in your asana? Of the tendency to be your harshest critic? Cultivate self-compassion in your body and use your practice to purify and make clear your intention for your practice.

Santosha. Contentment. Not to be confused with laziness or complacency, contentment equates more with “ease.” Iyengar says, “There is contentment and tranquility when the flame of the spirit does not waver in the wind of desire.” We cultivate contentment by practicing asana. We challenge the mind and body to stay at ease while we come up against physical and mental obstacles. Is there ease in your pose even when you find yourself at the edge of physical tolerance? Is there ease in your breath? Does the ease in the your breath reflect tranquility in your mind? Santosha.

Tapas. The root “tap” means “to blaze, burn, shine, suffer pain or consume by heat.” (Iyengar). In Yoga, tapas can refer to the transforming effect of heat, both literal and in terms of the movement of pranic energy (cultivated and directed by the breath) through the body. I love the challenge of feeling where energy locates or is moving in a given pose, on both the obvious and more subtle levels. Where do you feel the most fire, warmth? When you’re instructed to breathe into a specific area of tightness, can you direct your attention to that movement, to that relationship between heat energy and your body and a real shift – be it a release, or a new sense of strength and stability?

Svadhyaya. “Self study.” Iyengar says, “The person practicing svadhyaya reads his own book of life, at the same time that he writes and revises it…he starts to realize that…all creation is divine, that there is divinity within himself and that the energy which moves him is the same that moves the entire universe.” Try looking at your asana work as an opportunity to observe how your mind responds to stress. This is a fundamental exercise we come to in yoga almost without being told. In any particularly challenging or difficult pose, can you observe without getting caught up in the stress? In addition, connect your practice to the sense of universality it brings up: remembering that the movement of energy in the body is the same energy that moves every piece of matter in the cosmos.

Isvara pranidhana. The beginning and end of your asana practice is a good place to explore the idea of “surrender.” Think about where the mind sits in the minutes before you begin the challenge of the work. Do you set an intention for your practice? This is a simple method for getting beyond the distractions inherent in the mind’s tendency to want to get up and go take a nap or to grunt and push through the work. Setting an intention is a devotion and keeps us in mind of all of the other nine yamas and niyamas. Keeping another person or the plight of the less fortunate as the focus of your intention is an act of selflessness that wires our practice to something bigger (if such practices actually activate us in the world, deepening our compassion, so much the better).

Think about the sense of letting go that is the treat of corpse pose (sukhasana). Iyengar describes corpse pose as one of the most – if not the most – difficult of the asana. Let the body surrender fully in corpse pose. Support yourself with any and all necessary props to free the body from any distraction or felt sense of holding or tension. Can you let go of your control of your breath? Can you rest fully in the moment, without thought to past or future? Can you let go of anything you don’t need to hold onto?

But there’s more. In full translation, isvara pranidhana is meant to convey “surrender to God.” What force or energy – whether it be a specific divinity, a cause, your work, your relationships – does your practice prepare to you to serve more heart-fully, more mindfully? Integrating isvara pranidhana can transform your practice on the deepest level, moving it out of the personal into the transpersonal or spiritual.

Hopefully, this (rather cursory) overview of the yamas and niyamas is helpful way to start to open that door for you, and connecting them to your postural practice is an easy way to start to learn and remember them.

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(Shiva Rea offers some beautiful anecdotal background and several other suggestions for incorporating isvara pranidhana into your practice. Read here.)

Source: Iyengar, B.K.S. 1979. Light on Yoga. New York: Schocken Books (one of the best, most concise introductions to the ashtanga philosophy).

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