Friday, June 25, 2010

Ishvara-pranidhana, or Surrender

Ishvara-pranidhana, or surrender to the divine, is the fifth and final Niyama. There is no specific definition for “the divine” – there is no particular god or “higher power” that yogic philosophy asks you to worship. Some might interpret this as “surrender to what-is,” or surrender to the way of the universe. This isn’t blind adherence to a religion or philosophy, but rather a principle of faith, or trust, in what-will-be.

Ishvara-pranidhana is about trusting the natural flow of things. Letting go of your need to control things, or your desire to force the outcome of a given situation. It’s about cultivating faith, dedication, sincerity and patience – and getting one’s ego out of the way.

One of my favorite illustrations of this principle is all about taming the ego. I teach gentle yoga classes. Sometimes yoga students who are accustomed to a more challenging practice attend my classes, and I can see them struggling against the relative ease of what I’m teaching. We’ll hold a simple downward-facing dog, for example, and they’ll be lifting their legs one at a time and adding chaturangas to make the pose more difficult. Meanwhile, I am encouraging my students to tune into the finer points of the posture – the position of the fingers and toes, the depth of the breath . . . It can be frustrating for me, and distracting to the other students.

There’s something to be said for adapting a pose to meet your own needs (in fact, I encourage it), but there’s also a lot of value in slowing down and approaching a practice with beginner’s mind. Sure, your ego says, “I can do more with this pose, and so I will,” but the other side of that is your ego saying, “I’m too advanced for what’s being taught here, so I’m going to change it,” essentially thumbing your nose at what the teacher is trying to teach.

In those situations, I encourage the students to ask themselves why they need to follow their ego and why they think there’s nothing to learn in the simpler pose. Perhaps – just perhaps -- there is something to gain from going with the flow of a gentler class and having more time for introspection . . .

Of course, my own ego flares up in these situations too, because I’m supposed to be “the leader” and there are people not “following.” Ah, yoga . . . there’s always something to learn!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Svadhyaya, or Self-Study

And now for the Niyama that’s by far the most difficult to pronounce . . . svad-HYA-ya, most broadly defined as self-study.

Svadhyaya is about striving to know oneself. Finding ways to get to know oneself better -- through meditation, journaling, writing, asking for feedback and help. It’s about wanting to know the truth and raising one’s self-awareness – the good and the not-so-good.

For most of us, understanding ourselves better is a natural consequence of a regular yoga practice. The principle of svadhyaya asks us to apply ourselves diligently to this process – actively working to get to know, and understand, oneself better.

Of course, there’s a danger in applying oneself too diligently to this practice – it can make us self-centered and self-absorbed. I think it’s especially important when refining our svadhyaya practice also to cultivate awareness of the other people in our lives.

I used to journal all the time – several times a day. When I suffered my first bout of depression and anxiety, a therapist advised that I cut back on the journaling, as it was probably aggravating my anxiety. She was right. Very likely, I was overanalyzing pretty much everything.

Now I rarely write in a journal. But I find that good conversations with good friends and family help me to get to know myself – and others – better. Especially when discussing the challenges we face, we end up learning a lot about ourselves.

Yoga just seems to show up all over the place in everyday life, doesn’t it?

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Tapas, or Discipline

Another Niyama is Tapas. No, not dinner at Hola Restaurant in Marshfield Center (although I fully endorse that too!) . . . Tapas is defined as discipline.

Tapas is about being focused and working to achieve goals. Determination. Having the willingness to do what is necessary to reach a goal.

In yoga class, you might employ Tapas to keep yourself from being lazy. Having the discipline to focus on your breathing, for example, rather than letting your mind wander off to other, less-immediate topics (such as what you’re going to order for dinner at Hola).

In life, you might use Tapas to help yourself reach a goal. Say you decide to work with a personal trainer to make your back stronger. She gives you a set of exercises to do three times a week. You might be excited about the new routine at first, but then, when it loses its novelty, you could employ Tapas to help yourself stay faithful to your practice and dedicated to the goal of strengthening your back. Willingness, determination, dedication. That’s Tapas.

And when you achieve your goal you can celebrate with a nice dinner at Hola!

Note to the unfamiliar: Hola serves Spanish-inspired tapas cuisine.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Santosha, or Contentment

The niyama Santosha, or contentment, is about being satisfied with – and grateful for – whatever you have and whatever happens. It’s an easy concept to understand, but a challenge to put into practice.

We all have moments of contentment – when everything seems “just right.” But – at least for me – it never seems to last. I can always find something to worry about.

Practicing Santosha asks us to accept what is, and to make the best of everything. This is easy when things are going well. But much more of a challenge in the difficult times.

I think it’s helpful to remember that nothing is permanent. So when life gets tough, remind yourself that things will eventually change, because they always do. And when life is going well, enjoy it. Just enjoy it.

For me, achieving contentment isn’t something I can will into being. Instead, it just seems to happen on its own. But I’ve learned a few tricks over the years to invite contentment to show up more frequently.

1. At the end of the day, make a list of five things for which you are grateful. Be specific – cite things that happened that day, rather than general topics like “my family” and “my job.”

2. Express gratitude in the moment – Having lunch with a friend whom you haven’t seen in awhile. Don’t just think “I’m glad we did this.” Say it! It’ll make you both feel good.

3. Express gratitude for the ordinary. I swear, one of the secrets of a healthy relationship is to appreciate the everyday things your partner does. “Thanks for making a delicious dinner” goes a long way with me, even though my husband says it several times a week. I’m finding that “Thanks for working so hard today” makes him feel appreciated at the end of a long day.

On the yoga mat, practice contentment by accepting yourself for who you are. And be grateful! Rather than berating yourself for letting your thighs get jiggly, be grateful that your legs are strong enough to support you in warrior pose. Rather than cursing your tender wrists, be grateful that you’re coming to class each week to try to strengthen them.

Life is short. Don’t waste a precious minute talking down to yourself. But when you catch yourself doing it, immediately counter it with a positive thought. It isn’t always easy to pay oneself a compliment, but it’s not too hard to find something to be grateful for.