Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Principle of Asteya, or Non-Stealing

Continuing our discussion of yogic philosophy, we move on to the third yama, Asteya, or non-stealing.

Asteya has many aspects:
• Honoring what belongs to others
• Never desiring to possess by mind or speech, either outwardly or secretly, the wealth of another (this applies to money, possessions, ideas, space, time . . .)
• Not taking anything (neither valuable nor trifling) that belongs to another
• Not coveting; not being jealous
• Proper time management (not stealing from one aspect of your life to satisfy another)
• Keeping appointments and commitments
• Cultivating a sense of completeness and self-sufficiency; letting go of cravings.

Okay, then.

I think Asteya is a tough one. Most of us don't steal (as in taking things from stores without paying for them). But who doesn't have moments (or years) where they feel incomplete or not-good-enough? Who doesn't envy others for their better salaries or nicer homes, or constant stream of brilliant ideas? It's hard to be content with what one has and not desire to have more or "other." Still these are things for us to work on: because we cannot be truly happy unless we are content with our lives as they are in the present moment.

I used to be really good at time management. Always on time for appointments, deadlines, and other commitments. But then I had a baby. And much to my horror, I discovered that when another human being figures into your process of getting-out-the-door (or onto the computer, or simply to think straight), it's much harder to be reliable and consistent. Still entirely possible, but a heck of a lot more challenging. So I continue to work on that.

And then there are cravings . . . How can we make ourselves NOT have them? Isn't that impossible? It's one thing not to give in to cravings, but another thing entirely to just not-have them. Here's what I think: the more content you are with your life, the more grateful you are for your current situation, the less you will crave what you don't have . . . be it a brownie, or an ice cream sundae, or a cute new pair of yoga pants that make your butt look good.

The yamas and the niyamas are not goals to be attained once and forever. They are principles that we work on, day in and day out, throughout our lives. With any given one, we will have good days and bad days. It's important to remember that it is an ongoing process, and if we keep these principles in mind, we are likely to be happier in the long run. So as you strive to apply the yamas and niyamas to your life and your yoga practice, remember to keep practicing Ahimsa -- to avoid judging yourself poorly when you don't live up to your own standards. In the words of the indomitable Scarlett O'Hara, "Tomorrow is another day!"

Abel's Latest Favorite Yoga Pose

In case you don't recognize it, that's Balancing Half Moon!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

More On Satya

The principle of Satya includes communicating in a loving way, especially while giving criticism. This is not so much about just being truthful, but about being gentle and kind while speaking the truth.

Many times we fall into the trap of being blunt or even rude in the name of truthfulness. We justify it by saying, "I was just being honest!" Which is true. But on the yogic path, kindness and truth go hand in hand. And think about it: wouldn't you rather hear "the truth" in a way that makes you want to listen instead of a way that makes you feel defensive?

This tends to be the most challenging when we're dealing with the people closest to us -- our families. These are the people with whom we censor ourselves the least.

So I'm challenging myself this week to pay attention to how I deliver criticism or air grievances. I'm going to aim to be more compassionate and kind, even when I'm cleaning up pee from the floor (from my three-year-old) or scooping yet another pair of dirty socks from the floor beside my husband's easy chair. We'll see if it makes a difference.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Satya - Truthfulness

Satya, or truthfulness, is another one of the "ten commandments of yoga" (the yamas and the niyamas).

Satya is defined as living in harmony and integrity with all things. Practicing truthfulness of speech, thoughts and deeds. Being honest, owning your feelings, giving constructive feedback -- in a loving, non-judgmental way, letting go of masks. Being careful of self-delusion, denial, and avoidance of telling the whole truth.

I am a terrible liar. I just can't do it convincingly. This is a blessing in that it helps me live up to the ideal of Satya, to be truthful all the time -- because lying is just too much work. So that covers truthfulness of speech.

But what about truthfulness of thoughts? Promising myself, "Tomorrow I will eat better" as I crunch through a bowl of popcorn at 10 PM in a futile attempt to combat stress... Sadly I'm not often very sincere in that vow. Or truthfulness of deeds? ("Oh, has that coupon expired? I didn't realize it.")

Self-delusion? I'm there! Denial? Highly skilled! Not telling the whole truth . . . well, if it will help me to avoid a late-night argument with my husband, then I'm all for it -- except somehow I always seem to end up paying for it later. Is anyone else guilty of these things? It's human nature. But that doesn't mean we can't work on it and try to improve our "truthfulness" skills.

What about Satya as it applies to our yoga practice?

Some of this goes back to what I wrote about Ahimsa. Be careful of self-delusion and denial -- especially where it pertains to what may or may not be good for your body. Are you skipping down down because your shoulder hurts. . . or because you'd just rather rest in child pose? Are you doing the full expression of the posture even though you're really tired, when you suspect you should be taking it easy today? Satya (truthfulness) and Ahimsa (non-harming) go hand in hand. Be HONEST with yourself about whether or not you are HARMING yourself. It may sound easy,but sometimes -- often -- it isn't.

This week I am going to try to pay attention to truthfulness -- to see if I can "bust" myself on some lies I tell myself again and again. We'll see how it goes.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

More on Ahimsa

This week: another perspective on Ahimsa, or non-violence/non-harming.

Many of my students already know the saga of my sore shoulder. Last fall, I put my son, Abel, up on my shoulders for a walk around the Farmers' Market. Bad idea. He had grown just a little bit too heavy for that, and I ended up with a bad muscle spasm in my upper back/neck/shoulder area.

This had happened before, so I did the usual home treatments -- ice, rest, ibuprofen . . . and monthly massage therapy. Plus a daily dose of stretching. Instead of getting better, my shoulder got worse and worse. By December, it hurt so much that I had a hard time falling -- or staying -- asleep at night.

I'm a yoga teacher -- I'm supposed to teach people how to make their bodies and minds feel better -- and yet there I was suffering through my yoga classes, wincing through any posture that involved putting weight on my right arm or shoulder.

As the new year arrived, I made a pledge to take better care of myself. It was going to be challenging, especially if I had new students in class, but I decided that I would flat-out avoid any posture that aggravated my shoulder injury. No Down Dog, no Dog & Cat, nothing in Table position at all. It was a big challenge -- but for the most part, I was able to do it (except for occasional instances where a new student really needed me to demonstrate). I would still teach those poses in my daily classes -- just not do them myself.

I resolved to wait three months before trying Down Dog again. But by the end of the second month, my shoulder was feeling well enough to begin putting weight on it again. And so over the course of the next month, I slowly eased back into my regular practice. And so far, so good!

This is what Ahimsa is all about. Not harming one's body. Giving one's body what it needs and avoiding what might make it feel worse. For me, the challenge was more in "How am I going to effectively teach these poses without actually doing them?" than the actual avoidance of the poses myself (which felt a bit like a vacation for me, truth be told).

You can apply the principle of Ahimsa to your yoga practice, even when you don't have an injury. Perhaps the person seated next to you in class is doing a more advanced variation of a posture. You want to "keep up with" that person so you do it too, even though it makes your body hurt in a way that feels more like a strain than a stretch. Stop! Wait! That's harming yourself! Practice Ahimsa and listen to your body. If you want to do more in a posture, proceed slowly, breathe deeply, and avoid straining. It's not always easy to keep one's ego out of one's yoga practice, but if you see it as a way of caring for yourself actively not-harming your body (or mind, or spirit), you might feel a little bit more "in control."

Be compassionate with yourself.

p.s. In case you're wondering how my shoulder ultimately got "fixed" . . . Amazingly, I changed the way I was sleeping, and it cured itself, practically overnight. I had observed that while I was lying in my son's bed, propped up on pillows while reading to him, my shoulder felt much better. But when I would lie down in my own bed, on my foam contour pillow, the pain would flare up. I had always been a back-to-side sleeper, but the shoulder injury forced me to stay on my back all night. The contour pillow wasn't providing enough support. I switched to a traditional "fluffy" pillow and slept through the night for the first time in months! That way, my shoulder was able to rest and relax throughout the night, and the deep spasm within it finally released itself. Ahhhhhh . . .