Friday, December 25, 2009

One thing leads to another - Yamas & Niyamas

This inhale leads directly to this exhale, doesn't it? And as long as the heart is beating, it seems this exhale gives way to this inhale...

When I first began studying the underlying principles of yoga practice, I read of the Yamas and Niyamas, and then when I was working on my teaching certification we went over all of this again. It felt totally new to me! Somehow I seem to continue revisiting these concepts endlessly and feel they are vibrant, startling, and inextricable from each other. My mind and heart cannot separate one from another in the sense that "not grasping" (Aparigraha) draws from and provides for "contentment" (Santosha) and "truth" (Satya) releasing the illusions and facing realities leads directly to and from "purity" (Saucha) the clarity of clean living and selflessness. Each one, regardless of whether it represents a social behavior or an internal structure leads directly to and from all the others. The breath reminds me of this in a most visceral way! Oh sure, we can try to hold our breath, and even practice the withholding or holding of breath, but what happens after that is the return of the inhale and the exhale...our human nature, our present moment.

The Yamas and Niyamas are considered to be two steps of the Eight-fold Path of Yoga. Some would say "the first two steps" but, since I have this enmeshed feeling about the practices, I cannot truthfully separate any of the steps into that kind of a sequential order! For now, I'd like to introduce you to these basic delineations without any sense of hierarchy, and encourage you to take any one that strikes you close to heart, and turn it over and around and let yourself play at digesting it for as long as it intrigues you, letting it lead you to another one. Or, like the way yeast stretches the dough into connected living strands, just leave the sponge rising and see how all the parts connect and stretch into and from each other.

The Yamas are considered abstinences, that from which we refrain by deepening our commitments to practices that heal and develop our openness to the grace within us. These practices enable us to meet each other's gaze with full presence, and represent a kind of social contract. They are traditional to most spiritual practices: non-violence/Ahimsa, truth/Satya, non-stealing/Asteya, chastity/Brahmacharya, non-possession/Aparigraha.

The Niyamas are often thought of as observances, that with which we regulate our basic structure in order to meet our own gaze fully and that of the divine with equinimity and ease: purity/Saucha, contentment/santosha, discipline/tapa, self-study/Svadhyaya, devotion to divinity/Ishvara Pradnidhana.

A wonderful attribute of these practices is that there is nothing but the inquiry itself, no dogma that must be overlaid upon them, no finicky archaic quality of language or costume that attends them. In fact, there is truly nothing that stands between you and this exploration. It is fun to look at human musings from all time periods (and all spiritual practices) spanning thousands of human years, but it is not necessary to your experience. Just like comparing a variety of dictionary definitions, this kind of intellectual study can be fun too, and of course you can start with the definition that arises in you from your own experience or original spiritual orientation.

Many of us modern types have issues with the niyamas, just the idea of discipline or chastity, or purity can raise hackles, but when you lean back and just taste and sample, knead and let rise, these concepts are deeply enriching and supportive! I'm not advocating anything having to do with perfection or rules, rather sincere openness and release into your true nature. We tend to standardize and codify ideas about possessiveness or truth, and I encourage you to let all that internalized dogma go so you can really feel the connections of desire and need and illusion and free yourself of the traps that so easily catch us. Not so easily done, I admit. And speaking for myself, even recognizing my own internalized assumptions has been an on-going revelation!

Just inhale and see what happens. Exhale and let it go fully until your body asks for the breath, or until your breath just takes care of itself. There is enormous wisdom within you if you are willing to explore! Let the next breath lead you on the ancient and vibrant path of your own footsteps!

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