The teachings of yoga have ethical principles that help guide us to a more comfortable way of living. Ethical principles need not be strict rules by which we judge the actions of others or something that divides us into “good” vs. “evil”. This guide provides a helpful method to break up the human experience and set us on a path that will provide more comfort in our everyday lives.
I often re-read these teachings, over and over, and seek out other people’s interpretations. I find that revisiting these teachings often highlights new ways I can incorporate them into my day to day life as I change. The following are some of the ways I have found to work for me.
The teachings are broken up into 2 parts, Niyama: how to treat ourselves and Yama: how to treat others. Each has 5 parts. The texts are written in an ancient language and have been through many translations into other languages and modern interpretations. It helps to open our minds to the more general message and how it might fit into our own modern life rather than trying to squeeze ourselves into someone else’s version of perfection or rules. The ancient language in which these texts were written is far more based on sound and vibration, more poetic than current language. Each word has many translations and many do not easily translate into current languages. It can be helpful to not get too caught up in the cognitive desperation for being exact and allow a more overall and deeper sense of the message to be absorbed. Listen with your innermost self and not so much your thinking mind. “Take what you need and leave the rest” but also invite the idea that at some other point in your life there may be new nuggets of wisdom that pop out that you may not have seen before. Look with fresh eyes and an open heart.
Niyama: How to treat the self
Surrender? To God? To life? To the God of Your Understanding? None of this worked for me. I had this constant little nagging voice in my head “If things happen for a reason and there is come benevolent controlling force in the world then WTF is there war, rape, famine???” I cannot tell you how many times I have repeated the Serenity prayer in the hope that it could teach me to have faith.
My understanding of surrender began in my physical body. A slow getting to know all of the places I was guarding and holding constant tension in my body. Our bodies constantly seek homeostasis, a feeling of what is “normal”. For example, I spend all of my life with my thighs and glutes held very tight, my body begins to register this muscle tension as “normal” and I cognitively may spend my entire life completely unaware of this unnecessary tension in my body. In the physical practices in yoga I slowly (VERY slowly in my case) began to reconnect to what was going on in my muscles. I would find tension and then practice techniques for softening the muscles. I began to be more able to enter into savasana completely soft physically. Then along came a teacher that said this too is surrender. That is softening, I was learning to be completely in my physical body at this moment in time and not in my past experiences or running around fearful thoughts in my head. Another teacher said, “Release what is held that is no longer needed”. Surrender became practicing physical surrender, even if I could only hold it for a tiny moment. Surprisingly, as I released that physical tension, I found I had less of a visceral reaction to the words “everything happens for a reason” or to the concept of God and church. In many teachings, there is the saying “when the student is ready the teacher will appear”. This truly has happened in my life. Along came the teacher that simplified the idea of the bliss layer/spirituality in a way that finally clicked for me!
The bliss layer is the part of us that can’t help but giggle when we are face to face with a baby giggling. The part of us that “feels” and responds to a beautiful sunset. The part of us that “melts” when we look into the eyes of a puppy or a kitten. There is something that responds long before our thoughts or our explanation of our sensory world is fully compiled in our thinking mind. This bliss layer is also that part of us that guides us to return to a yoga practice. That inner wisdom.
The bliss layer is also that layer that longs for connection. Particularly to something greater than ourselves. The beautiful part of the teachings of yoga is if you already have a spiritual/religious practice, this allows space for you to strengthen this connection. If you do not have a set religious practice, yoga can teach us ways to understand that part of ourselves and how to increase this connection. There are many ways we can increase a sense of connection.
It helped me to understand that surrender does not mean “accepting” terrible things that happened to me but gradually letting go of the burden of carrying the heavy emotional baggage attached to these events. It is not that they did not happen and I pretend they did not affect me, but that I soften and let go of the familiar thought patterns and emotions attached to these events. I slowly begin to incorporate all of my stories as part of my whole story. Understanding that remaining in fear of recurrence of trauma or frequently revisiting or reliving these events in my head steals from my ability to live in the present moment.
Yoga is not the goal of perfection. Practicing yoga is not the ultimate recipe for becoming perfectly happy and never experiencing pain or sadness. Yoga is a union. To join all of the parts of ourselves. To realize that we are a whole and complete being that is ever-changing, learning and growing, yet not broken. There can be imbalances and disruptions in parts of ourselves, in the thoughts, in the spiritual layer, in the emotions… but this does not make us broken. There are tools we can use to get to know where these imbalances might be and techniques we can use to guide us to a more balanced “wholeness”. Yoga can guide us to a more balanced life, a more comfortable way of being in this human experience.
It can be helpful to see these teachings as helpful guides that we can refer back to over and over. Think about the physical practice of tree pose. It teaches us to balance in our physical body, how balance requires attention not only to our muscles but to our breath, our mind, and our feelings. We balance in tree pose, we wobble, we fall, we try again. Often we learn more about the pose and what is happening in the whole system on the days when we wobble and fall. The object of practicing these concepts in our lives is not to achieve perfection but to notice when we wobble, revisit what we might like to try different, and try again.
These ethical guides need not be harsh rules by which we judge ourselves or others. The general idea is to Bee Kinder to ourselves and Kinder to each other and the world will flow a lot more harmoniously!