The Yamas and Niyamas of Yoga

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The following is a stream of consciousness essay from my yoga teacher training on how the Yamas and Niyamas – the life principles of yoga – apply to my life.

I was born and raised a Catholic.

While I’ve never been particularly observant of the religious rituals that were such an integral part of my upbringing, for most of my life I have had nearly blind faith in a higher power that moves of us all, and binds us all.

And yet I knew next to nothing about other religions until well into adulthood. In fact, I knew very little at all about Eastern philosophy and spirituality until – after reading “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho – I became increasingly intrigued by the power of the Universe, the drivers of my own happiness (and more importantly, unhappiness), and my ability to influence my perception of the world by merely shifting my attitude.

Up until then, control had been a very big theme for me, and I tried hard to exercise control over my loved ones, my surroundings, my feelings, my situation, my destiny, my future.

I drove to be more. To do more. To have more.

It never occurred to me until I read the words “the entire Universe conspires to help you achieve it” that all my plotting and controlling might be futile, and that the only thing I could really control were my choices and my actions. That there might be a more effective way to get to where I wanted to go.

And then I discovered yoga. More specifically, I discovered asana. And when I realized how effective it was at helping me practice going with the flow, I went in search of what this ancient philosophy could have to offer.

What I found was that some of the central tenets of the Yamas and Niyamas resembled my Catholic upbringing very closely. Surrendering the illusion of control to a higher power, trusting Divine Will, treating others with equanimity and compassion, all featured very prominently in my Sunday school lessons. Though shalt not murder. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not covet. Thou shalt not give false testimony.

The Ten Commandments bear a striking resemblance to the Yamas, despite the years and miles that separate those sacred texts in space and time.

Still others, like purification, self-discipline and contentment I found through the Niyama of self-study, in searching for the mental keys that would lead to my own happiness. Therapists, authors, yoga teachers and the Dalai Lama opened my eyes to purging what doesn’t serve me (fear, anxiety, anger, resentment), pushing through discomfort and seeking those unpleasant activities that will help me grow, and accepting that despite what I might be lacking, there’s nothing stopping me from being happy in the here and now.

Despite all this knowledge and despite all this learning, I still don’t apply to Yamas and Niyamas in my life evenly.

While I practice compassion and empathy toward others, I don’t consistently show the same courtesy to myself. I beat myself up for not measuring up to my expectations, berate myself for feelings I can’t control, and regularly tell myself my best is not enough.

I’ve been known to tell a white lie or two, and while I often speak my mind with others, I consistently filter any thoughts and emotions that might leave me feeling vulnerable.

I’ve never stolen anyone’s money or property, but I steal from my own identity by transforming into someone else to make sure I gain others’ acceptance.

I don’t horde my possessions, but I horde the thoughts, feelings and knowledge that have all my life made me feel more powerful. I cling on to a false identify. To a (young) body and to a (brilliant) mind, both of which bear little resemblance to the pure consciousness that is my true self.

I haven’t cleaned my house in weeks.

I run in the opposite direction at the first sign of awkwardness, at the first sign of discomfort, instead of having the self-discipline to stay.

I turn a blind eye to my real self, in favor of the story.

I control. I plan. I resist. Still. I plot, I catch myself, I smile knowingly, and I keep plotting.

And yet I am content. I’m content that I’m exactly where I need to be in my journey, acknowledging my imperfections and the possibility these imperfections offer.  I’m content with where I’ve gone, with where I’ve been, with where I’m going. I realize I can change myself – I can change my situation – but that I am where I am and it is what it is, since stacking my life up against any expectations is the key to lack of contentment.

The Yamas and Niyamas apply to every aspect of my life. They apply to my relationships with myself and others. They ARE the drivers of happiness I was looking for, though not the heady, giddy happiness I thought I would find. Despite being born and raised a Catholic – and not a very good one, at that – they’re a recipe for the purer kind of happiness that only ten lifetimes of practice can help me achieve.

I may not perfect the recipe in this lifetime. But no matter. Now that I know the ingredients, I can work on getting better at mixing them. One ingredient at a time.

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Tight hamstrings and unexpressed emotions

10369867_882883995096507_3644969196834567357_nI ordered my yoga teacher training books from Amazon, and even though our sessions don’t start until late March, I started reading them this week. There will be a lot going on in my life between March 28th and May 30th, what with my teacher training program and the Half Marathon I impulsively signed up for, and for once I wanted to make sure I got a head start on what I needed to do.

Most of the books focus on philosophy and history of yoga, but a couple zero in on human anatomy and how certain poses affect certain muscles. Not having had any exposure whatsoever to biology or any other natural sciences, I am particularly intrigued by that portion of the curriculum.

We talk in yoga about how we (we human beings) carry tension or emotions in our muscles. Some of us carry fear and sorrow in our shoulders, while others store anger and frustration in their hips.

Negative emotions and experiences become trapped in our tissues, and yoga is a method for wringing those emotions out. As you change your body, you also change your outlook and perspective on life, letting go of past experiences that no longer serve you.

I read somewhere that for many people, tight hamstrings Continue reading

Yoga as a source of anxiety

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My first attempt at painting, three weeks ago.

A friend of mine recently brought this blog post to my attention. The author asks a question I’ve explored a little bit myself – does yoga ‘cure’ anxiety, and conversely, can it produce it?

It might help for me to take a small step back and retell how my anxiety began to manifest itself, how I overcame my worst period of anxiety and panic to date, and why yoga helps me keep my anxious thinking from building up.

At the peak of my anxiety Continue reading

Ten horribly unyogic thoughts I’ve had during yoga

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1) Use a block, man!
2) Pshaw. Even I could do that if I turned my hip up like that.
3) Cover up, woman, I can see your nipples.
4) I mean, there’s no point in coming here if you’re just going to lay there.
5) I bet I could do that… but I don’t feel like it right now.
6) I wouldn’t wear that top again if I were you.
7) I wonder how my ass looks in these leggings.
8) Get your dirty foot off my mat!
9) Oh yeah?? Watch this!
10) My friends are going to be so impressed.

Yes, I know. I’m a terrible person.

Struggling with my own inner critic

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I’ve noticed a disturbing trend within myself.

I’ve never been one to hide my imperfections. I’m the first to laugh at myself when I fall, make a mistake, say something stupid or do something embarrassing. I LOVE retelling my embarrassing stories for the amusement of friends, family and strangers.

I started this blog to convince people to try yoga – especially people who, like me, struggle or have struggled with anxiety and depression, and who can benefit from the surge of endorphins and other lovely brain juices that yoga helps you release. My goal is to help people who are unhappy – with their lives, with themselves, with their circumstances – find a positive outlet for their frustrations.

Early on I recognized, though, that trying new things – yoga included – can be intimidating for folks. Ultimately it boils down to a fear of failure – I’m not going to try it, because I’m afraid I won’t be good at it. OR, I’m not going to try it because it’s not for people like me.

Everything I do on here is about showing that you don’t have to be “good” at it, or be flexible, or a hippie vegetarian to experience the benefits. And frankly, I love yoga (obviously) but the real core message I want to transmit is that finding something that keeps you active and out of your own head can go a long way toward creating positive mental health.

Writing here, though, has made it clear to me I’m not as accepting of my imperfections as I would I like to be (or more like, as I would like people to think I am).

I’ve been practicing yoga consistently for two years now, and fortunately or unfortunately, I’ve learned a few things about what the postures should look like. So now when I look at my own pictures (and other people’s, for the record), I can spot my imperfections everywhere, and they drive me absolutely bonkers.

I look at the beautiful collage up top and I think: bend your knee more, straighten your arm more, lift your heels more. I’m photo (24)OK with posting a picture of myself falling off the wagon wheel, but the images of the sloppy poses makes me want to cringe.

The same thing happened to me when looking at the picture on the right. For the record, when I started practicing yoga I couldn’t even lift a TOE in this pose. But despite my progress, I refused to post this image on social media because my foot is turned out, my knee is not positioned properly, my elbows are open too wide and I’m not pushing my head through my biceps enough.

It’s one of the hallmarks of anxiety sufferers, I suppose. It all screams “you’re not as good as you think you are” and it makes me crazy that I’ve become so judgmental of myself.

I don’t know what this means or how to fix it. Maybe it doesn’t mean anything, and maybe I don’t have to fix it at all.

I think I just have to continue posting imperfect pictures of myself until I get over it (or even if I don’t), because perfection is really and truly not what this is all about.

After all, how can I convince you all that it doesn’t matter that you’re inflexible and that yoga is for everyone if all I do is post images of me perfectly nailing really complicated poses?

Boy a Mysore: A Yoga Double Feature

In h10256453_10154939702480437_4194678003813018166_nonor of the big 3-8 yesterday, I got up early in the morning and dragged my aging butt to a Mysore-style yoga class with a really well-known yoga instructor from my area.

I’d met this lady by chance this summer at my beloved Edge, where she teaches a class a week and occasionally subs for the other teachers. There was something about her I immediately liked. She was playful, disarming and intense, all at the same time, and she had the ability to motivate the class without stroking the flames of ego or insecurity.

She teaches at another studio I frequent and when I saw they offered Mysore-style classes, I figured it was my chance to do something different but with an element of familiarity. Continue reading

Open Your Heart (Chakra)

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Why can’t I reeeeaaaach?

For the last couple of years I’ve been working on opening up my Heart Chakra.

Yes, yes, I know most of you don’t really believe this ‘hokey’ Chakra stuff but for a second let’s pretend it’s just a metaphor.

My sister asked me the other day whether yoga has helped me control my emotions. I told her that yoga is not really about control – at least not for me. The kind of yoga I practice is about flow: letting things pass you by, float by you, without controlling or judging them. It’s mostly about making yourself vulnerable enough to let emotions in and let them out, without judgment, even at the risk of feeling hurt.

In other words, learning to recognize that pain is inevitable but suffering is always optional.

Continue reading

Thoughts on being grateful

photo (12)Thanksgiving is an American tradition I’ve grown pretty fond of. Ever since I moved here God knows how many years ago, I’ve had the good fortune of sharing this holiday with wonderful people I’ve had in my life throughout the years.

This year was no exception, but unlike other years I started the day with a special, two-hour yoga class at my new (cheater cheater!) studio.

I’m going to preface all this by saying that I’d been making big strides with the book writing all of last week, but when I got close to the 47,000 word mark, I started to feel a little stuck.

The heroine, Mallory (the twit – although she gets kinda ballsy in the end, so I may have to stop calling her that), is essentially trying to move on from one (non)relationship and to truly open herself up to having feelings for someone else. She gets herself dragged, while digging her heels in slightly, deeper than she would like into a relationship with Mark – the guy you all met in Hong Kong.

Continue reading