Sunday, March 31, 2013

Santosha: Contentment

John Lennon once said, “Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans.”  A culture raised on the grass-is-greener principal, in a country indoctrinated in the church of hard work dogma, is it any wonder that while we hurriedly prepare for life’s next big event and advertisers magnify this sense of longing in us, the second niyama, santosha or contentment, is constantly just out of reach. Yoga reveals the path to the innate calm and abiding stillness that we are.

Patanjali states in Sutra 2.5, “Lacking self-awareness, one mistakes that which is impermanent, impure, distressing and empty of self for permanence, purity, happiness, and self.”  This ignorance weds us to a perpetual wheel of suffering.  We think we are free but in truth, we spend vast amounts of energy clinging to that which gives us pleasure and avoiding that which puts our pleasure at risk or we see as repulsive.  Further, we expect our preferences to be a source of eternal bliss yet their achievement is often anti-climatic or disappointing and, without much ado, we are off striving after the next “if only” key to supreme happiness. Yoga philosophy tells us that all things are inherently neutral.  The full spectrum of sensation, energy, emotion and thought are simply exquisite feedback mechanisms aiding us in our journey to become sensitive and effective caretakers of our being.  It is our personalized labels that color experiences in a way that makes them appealing or repulsive and keeps us spinning.  All this maneuvering between pleasure and avoidance shows up as the physically feeling of gripping in the body.  The first nine months of my relationship was long distance.  Each time my boyfriend and I would have the chance to see each other there was a simultaneous clinging to the joy of being together and a tense defense against the unpleasantness of our inevitable parting.  Seeking and avoiding are expensive uses of our energy that result in a failure to appreciate the moment.  Yoga Nidra teacher, Richard Miller, offers that in order to set energy free to experience the moment, we not only agree to ride life’s waves but we actively welcome them.  As Bob Marley put it, “Some people feel the rain.  Others just get wet.”  We can always trace our emotional disturbances back to ourselves and thus, we keep ourselves out of the contentment we so desperately seek. 

The 13th century mystic poet Jelaluddin Rumi expresses this coalescence of extremes:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field.  I’ll meet you there. 

When the soul lies down in that grass,
The world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other doesn’t make any sense.

Finding and remaining in this place of equanimity is simple but not easy.  As with most things, it takes consistent practice over a long period of time. Each time we step onto the yoga mat we have an opportunity to cultivate contentment by genuinely listening to the many cues our body/mind offers and choosing to honor that feedback by modifying or intensifying the pose as appropriate.  This is done without comparison to what the pose looked like yesterday or in anticipation of what it will look like tomorrow. The balance of effort and ease in any given yoga posture is a constantly changing dance with the breath. Quoting the late master teacher Pattabhi Jois, “Yoga is an internal practice.  The rest is just a circus.”  An advanced practitioner hovers on the cusp of his or her intelligent edge of sensation - a place that is neither too much nor too little.

Contentment also requires a healthy dose of surrendering to the great many things in life that we cannot control.  There is a paradox to contentment: the more we seek it or need it to look a certain way, the more it eludes us.  It is easy to feel happy when life is going our way but what about when chaos abounds?  Discontentment is the illusion that there can be something else in the moment.  There isn’t.  The moment is complete exactly as it is.  The paradox of contentment allows us to appreciate what we have and to fall in love with our life.  Next time you are feeling bored, depressed or overwhelmed consider making a gratitude list.  Whether mental or hand-written, list everything for which you are grateful.  From the moon and stars to the shoes on your feet nothing is too small.  I have a gratitude jar.  In it are little reminders of life’s fullness that I will review at the year’s end.  Practicing gratitude cultivates the fertile soil for contentment to take root by keeping us centered in the joy and abundance of our life. Contentment is like a tall tree so rooted in the Earth no storm can topple it.   

Friday, March 8, 2013

Saucha: Cleanliness & Purity

Before we begin our study of the second limb of yoga, niyama (personal observances), let us review the five facets of the first limb of yoga, yama (universal observances). The yamas acknowledge that we are social creatures living in a world full of other life forms. The five yamas invite us to see past our individual needs in order to consider the needs of the collective. Ahmisa (non-violence) turns us from harming self and others through the cultivation of kindness and compassion.  Satya (truthfulness) turns us from lies and half-truths to expressing our individuality and authenticity.  Asteya (non-stealing) turns us from theft to developing new skills and abilities.  Brahmacharya (non-excess) turns us from greed to a balanced appreciation of pleasure and joy.  Aparigraha (non-hoarding) turns us from attachment to intimacy without possession. These five universal disciplines form an inner compass that guides us into harmony and right relationship with the universe and its inhabitants.   The niyamas on the other hand develops our relationship with ourselves by shifting attention from a social focus to an internal focus through the study of five personal observances.

The first niyama, is saucha. The saucha is a twofold process that includes cleanliness and purity.  Cleanliness is a process of external scrubbing that affects our outer appearance. Purification cleanses our insides and affects our internal essence.

Often external cleanliness is defined by environment.  Soil outside the yoga studio is Mother Earth’s magic; inside the studio its just plain dirt!  The four walls of the studio create a boundary that defines it as safe and sacred space devoted to self-inquiry and study.  Cleanliness might manifest as studio etiquette that includes anything from a pre-practice hygiene regimen to “propasana,” the mindful replacement of props after class.  

Yogic philosophy places great emphasis on both external cleanliness and internal purification. Saucha is important in the yoga tradition because a great energy lies, mostly dormant, within each one of us.  This is the energy of consciousness or True Self.  We have all felt glimpses of this energy and long to linger in the residue of its movement.  I call them “ah-ha” moments.  My teacher, Richard Freeman, refers to them as aesthetic experiences: moments when beauty captures us in wonder; moments when love and gratitude fills our eyes with tears; moments when a deep sense of knowing guides us from within; moments when life-force electrifies the body; moments when contentment fills us with ease and well-being.  Yoga students spend a lifetime searching for enlightenment when in fact it is always here waiting, slightly obscured, and just beneath the surface of a very dusty awareness. Making ourselves available for these moments of Truth, is the work of saucha.  As we cleanse ourselves from the heaviness and clutter of physical and mental toxins we gain clarity and increase our ability to meet each moment with integrity and freshness.

Yogis have developed many elaborate purification practices many of which seem bizarre and uncomfortable by today’s standards.  Fortunately other, more approachable, purification practices exist. Yoga asana (posture), pranayama (breath techniques), dhyana (meditation) and the following of an ethical system such as the yamas and niyamas purify our vessel physically, mentally, emotionally and energetically. Cleansing need not be weird and extreme.  It can be as simple as drinking more water and setting aside quite time to process unfinished business. Cleansing also means being transparent with ourselves.  It means we neither hide nor cling to our thoughts and feelings so we are able to witness the fullness of the moment by allowing it to be as it is.  In her book "The Yamas & Niyamas: Exploring Yoga's Ethical Practice," Deborah Adele offers, “ (saucha) asks us to subtract the illusions we impose on the moment, it also asks us to gather ourselves together so that our whole Self shows up.” Ultimately, saucha invites us to make full and honest contact with the moment so there is nothing lost and no regrets.