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
Practicing contentment is closely linked to all of the other principles. When we practice non-grasping, it is easier to be content. When we practice non-harm it is easier to be content. When we consciously direct our energy, it is easier to be content… It can be easy to fall into the trap of “if I just do these things I will be content” but that pushes contentment into future grasping. It can also be very difficult to practice contentment when we are processing something difficult in our lives.
Yoga teaches us that the peace we seek comes from within. From finding that deep connection to the inner bliss layer. To lead our lives heart-centered is not the practice of believing nothing will ever go wrong in our lives. Rather we lead from our heart with courage, knowing that we have the tools to cope and mend from within when things do not go the way we might expect. It requires courage to face our emotions and mental state with non-judgment. It is challenging to be with our emotions until they are ready to pass. It requires faith that it is possible to hold space for conflicting emotional states. To practice contentment, we do not need to do away with every negative experience. We do not need to pretend that everything in life is sunshine and roses. Contentment is the practice of sitting with the troubling emotion and holding space for the possibility of other emotions to also be present. It is the practice of not clinging to what we see as positive states and not avoiding those we see as negative. We strive for “No pulling or pushing away”. The more we practice being with what is, the less these troubling emotions lead to troubling thoughts, and the less than thoughts lead to actions we regret. We seek to break the continuous cycles of avoidance and clinging.
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!