A New Way of Being: Reflecting on Yoga Teachings & Mindful Action
It is fair to say 2020 has been a year of awakening, "shaking things up" on many levels. With a global pandemic that disrupted our day-to-day experience to further exposure of systemic injustices with the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, we have all been given the opportunity to examine our own lives, actions, and beliefs and to consider how we impact not only ourselves, but also our outer world and our connection with Truth. In this process, we may find ourselves pulled into our own darkness, unpacking and processing our experiences, our tendencies, our patterns. Or, maybe not. If you have found yourself called to dig a bit deeper these days and feel the friction of transformation, then perhaps the teachings of yoga may further guide you into this work and understanding.
If you pay attention to astrology and the cycles of the moon and the planets, you likely already know that 2020 is a year of major transformation. And, transformation is by no means "easy." You may be finding yourself uneasy, stressed, heavy with emotions, and challenged in ways you may have never been challenged before. We are being given a greater call -- a call to step into the fire of transformation, because when we face our shadow selves and we do the work, we can step forward with new eyes and realize the truth. We can lift the veils that have clouded our vision for so long.
This time in our history is calling for a new way of being. We have likely learned some lessons, providing the opportunity to step forward mindfully and into Truth.
The events of the last several months have exposed systemic issues in our society, including broken systems, inequality, and oppression. For example, we have seen disrupted supply chains which have impacted access to food and supplies. We have witnessed how COVID-19 has impacted some populations and areas more than others due to access to healthcare, including the impact of pre-existing conditions, and more. While these longstanding issues are ingrained in the structure of our society, they are being brought to light in new ways now. The purpose of this writing is not to unpack and explain these issues, but rather to bring in the perspective of yoga philosophy and what yoga teaches us. I invite you to consider these principles and encourage you immerse further into self-exploration and self-awareness. How are you "showing up" right now?
Yoga means "union." As one of my teachers, Dani McGuire, puts it: yoga is relationship --relationship with oneself and the outer world as well as relationship with oneself and the Absolute (God, Divine, Light, whatever you believe). So, with that in mind, we must understand that our own perceptions, beliefs, samskaras (patterns, impressions) do impact our experience and in choosing "right action," especially in challenging times. The Yamas and Niyamas, the first and second limbs of the 8-limbed path Patanjali (writer of the Yoga Sutras) outlines, help guide us. The yamas are attitudes for us to bear in situations and applicable for everyone in all circumstances and stages of life; the niyamas govern our spiritual growth and help prepare us for Self-realization (Carrera, 138).
As I have personally reflected throughout this time, considering our collective experience as well as my own, I have found that the yamas and niyamas have helped provide a framework in which I can process and understand my own perspectives and experiences. The way I see it, it is important that we all do that work first (and continue to...it's never-ending work, truly!), so that we can show up and take action in the world from a productive space that contributes to the Highest Good.
Ahimsa - Nonviolence, nonharming - To hold compassion and respect for all living beings, including ourselves and to consider whether our thoughts, words, and/or actions are helpful or harmful.
Satya - Truthfulness - To recognize our own truth and inner wisdom, looking at our ideas and discerning our motivations (i.e. Are these ideas or beliefs part of our need for belonging, or part of our own expression and growth? Can you be honest with yourself and recognize when you need things like rest, to express your feelings, etc.?).
Asteya - Nonstealing - When we take more than we need (like hoarding toilet paper and leaving others without access), or when we steal time from ourselves by doing too much, when rest is needed --these are examples of stealing. Asteya calls us to recognize our connection, to recognize we do have what we need, and to not steal from others or ourselves.
Brahmacharya - Nonexcess - This Yama encourages us to consider right use of energy, how we use and direct our energy. It is often referred to as the "middle path" of restraint, moderation of the senses. For example, has your pattern as of late involved too much screen time as you try to keep up with the news and current events? Perhaps it's time to consider rest.
Aparigraha - Nongrasping - The innermost Yama, aparigraha is a spiritual process of letting go. It is nongrasping, nonattachment, nonpossessiveness, nonclinging, nongreed, noncoveting. What are you clinging to? Perhaps it's hard to "let go" of old ways of being, perhaps it's hard to accept change. What we cling to becomes another load we carry on our journey. When we let go, we choose freedom and we lighten our load.
When applying these principles to our current times, I appreciate the perspective of Reverend Jaganath Carrera in his book Inside the Yoga Sutras: A Comprehensive Sourcebook for the Study and Practice of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras when considering the yamas of ahimsa (nonviolence) and satya (truthfulness):
Truthfulness measured against nonviolence. Ahimsa is the first yama Sri Patanjali lists and so is the touchstone for determining behavior. Even truthful words, if they cause harm to another, should not be spoken. However, before giving up our course of action, we could consider is there is a more auspicious moment for doing what is needed, or a more appropriate approach. In any case, it is always advisable to do some soul-searching to determine if the desire to act is motivated by an interest in the welfare of others or by a need to vent our frustrations or punish someone with whom we have problems...Discomfort indicates the struggle of the individual to adapt and adjust...
We know there are times (such as when teachers discipline misbehaving students) when words can cause pain but the intent ultimately brings benefit. The opposite is also true. There are times when people use sweet words (as in con games) in order to deceive others. Their behavior may feel good at first but will cause harm later.
We may not experience the consequences of our actions until much later. If we do not know the nature of the tree, we need to wait until it bears fruit. In order to perfect truthfulness, yogis need patience to observe the ultimate outcome of acts, clarity to make the proper assessment of their outcome, and accurate recall not to forget the lessons of experience (Carrera, 132).
Saucha - Purity - This niyama asks us to examine what we take in, both on the mental and physical levels, considering the purity of that input. The intent here isn't to shelter ourselves from or to avoid "toxic" experiences, but rather to monitor the input and use the practices of yoga, for example, to help us process and digest so that we may find balance. This also involves "doing the work" to process our past experiences and samskaras (patterns, impressions).
Santosha - Contentment - Santosha helps us live in the present moment, finding gratitude. When we root ourselves in the present moment, we come closer to the Divine. We trust that we are provided for.
When considering the Niyamas, I sometimes like to look more closely at the niyamas that are referred to as "Kriya Yoga." These are final three of the niyamas, the yoga of "action" These give us a path for how we act in the world, engaging in enlightened action:
Tapas - Discipline - When we feel the friction of transformation, that is tapas. We accept that there is pain and suffering (after all, that is part of the human condition), but we recognize that this pain is a great teacher. As my teacher Dani McGuire explains in her book The Path of Joyful Living: Cultivating Mindful Action Through Yoga, tapas involves embodiment; by engaging in the yogic practices as well as our own thoughts, emotions, etc., we are able to establish habits in line with our higher nature, Truth.
Svadhyaya - Self-Study - With self-study, we practice self-awareness and self-inquiry. We face our discomfort. We assess our belief systems, our habits, the messages our bodies share with us. For example, this may involve taking a truthful look at your own biases and understanding how these biases were shaped by your own experiences.
Ishvara Pranidhana - Surrender - This surrender enables us to let go, to trust in something greater than ourselves. This guides us toward remembrance of who we really are. We are able to give ourselves completely, letting go of selfishness; this can come forward through the action of service (Karma Yoga), for example.
When we think of "action," I'd like to note that action doesn't necessarily mean "doing." Action can be an "undoing," a balancing of giving and receiving. Action can involve going inward, retreating, reflecting. It can be rest. I encourage you to keep that in mind too, noting what form is appropriate when and how.
While we can no doubt dig deeper into yoga philosophy and how it applies to our current experience, the Yamas and Niyamas offer a foundational pathway into how we personally reflect and move forward. With these principles in mind, and with awareness of the call we may hear during this time in our history to "do the work" we feel necessary, I invite you to set aside some time to journal, to reflect, to have conversations, or to simply listen.
As you make your way through these reflections, please be gentle with yourself. This exercise is meant to encourage you toward self-study, with truthfulness. Yes, it may be challenging. Yes, it may be hard. There isn't a "right" or "wrong" way. Simply take a step.
And, you don't have to answer all of these questions in one sitting either! Perhaps examine one each day. Take the time you need, while also considering your personal motivations, priorities, and goals.
I've included some reflection questions below to help you get started:
What has personally been most challenging for me recently? Why is this a challenge? Is this a recurring challenge in my life? If I sit with this challenge, am I able to understand why this is a pattern for me?
When I do feel "friction" in any way, what seems to be the rub? Does it have to do with control? Am I grasping, not willing to let go?
Reflect on each of the Yamas (ahimsa, satya, asteya, brahmacharya, aparigraha). How do these principles apply to my life right now? Is it evident that there are some areas I could possibly explore more thoroughly?
How do I feel when considering the niyamas of saucha (purity) and santosha (contentment)? In what ways do I/can I process and digest my experiences? How can I practice being in the present moment?
What am I grateful for?
Reflect on Kriya Yoga, the yoga of action. What are my reactions to these concepts?
What do I feel pulled or called toward right now? Why is that? Or, if I don't feel pulled toward change, why do I think that is?
What pain or suffering do I notice in your own life right now? What pain and suffering do I observe in the greater world, the collective? From my perspective, what action can I take to contribute to my own healing and freedom? What about the healing and freedom of others?
How am I "showing up" right now --with myself, within my home, with family and friends, at work, with those I don't know, within my community? Is there anything I wish to do differently? Am I yearning for a different way of being? Why or why not?
What do I consider my greatest gifts? How might I share these gifts with others? Am I ready to do that? Or, is it time that I instead make more time for myself?
Do I feel more called to rest and reflection? Or doing? Is this a consistent reaction for me? Why do I think that is? How can I find a balance between giving and receiving?
How can I love and care for myself more? How do I feel this can help me in how I interact in the world?
If you choose to explore these reflections, comment below. I'd love to learn more about your experience and perspectives. It is my hope that this is useful and thought-provoking as you continue on your journey in whichever direction you feel drawn.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Natascha Bohmann, MBA, E-RYT, Founder of Udana Yoga and Wellness, is a Yoga Therapist and Ayurveda Wellness Counselor. She has been teaching yoga since 2009. She is a Relax and Renew® Trainer, Yoga4Cancer (y4c) instructor, and has studied yoga for breast cancer recovery, yoga for heart disease and cardiac rehabilitation, prenatal yoga, yoga for anxiety and depression, yoga for traumatic brain injury, and more. Her teaching is influenced by Classical Hatha, Restorative, Iyengar and Vinyasa styles, as well as yoga's sister science of Ayurveda. Natascha is drawn to the transformative power of yoga and the continuous growth one finds in the practice, on all levels --mind, body, and spirit. Her personal mission is to guide and empower her students in improving their overall well-being, creating space for Self Care and finding balance. She believes in making yoga accessible through a welcoming, non-intimidating atmosphere. Yoga is for every body. Natascha is a Third Degree Reiki Master Practitioner and End-of-Life Doula for both humans and animal companions. In addition to her yoga background, Natascha has an MBA in Management and has nearly two decades of experience in marketing and communications within both nonprofit and employee-owned organizations including social services, associations, senior living, and financial services.