Over the past three years ago, a few events created changes in my life that gave me pause. As life settled back into place, I reflected on the direction I was headed. I also began to toy with the question, “Just how good can I feel?” Instead of accepting the aches and pains of aging and the debilitating effects of stress, I began to wonder, “Is it possible to age and feel better each year while doing so?” In other words, is it possible to gain more vitality and clarity in the coming years instead of the expected decline? In that moment, I decided to put it to the test. I’d start with the choices I made around nutrition, community, and movement. So I turned to my old friend Patanjali.
A long time ago a wise, old yogi named Patanjali wrote a text called the Yoga Sutras. The sutras outlined eight different ways to live in alignment with our highest nature. Like a gentle guiding hand, the Yoga Sutras warn you of the inevitable pitfalls on this journey called life. According to Yoga, we suffer because we are blind to our true Self.
The Yamas and Niyamas, or observances, comprise the first two of the eight limbs of yoga. They are an invitation into a radical exploration of possibility within ourselves. The yoga we know and love in the West comes in third, only after we have been pointed in the best direction by the Yamas and Niyamas.
The Niyamas point us in the direction of something better by planting seeds. They, too, want to know “Just how good can you feel? Just how joyful can your life be?” The beauty of the sutras is that there are no right or wrong ways to do them. They are guidelines. How you interpret them is up to you.
In a nutshell, the Niyama “seeds” are:
- Cleansing our bodies, our speech, our thoughts
- Falling in love with our own life
- Consciously choosing discipline and growth
- Knowing the Self
- Paying attention to what life is asking of us
Each of us has our own moment when life looks us square in the eye and says, “Now what?” The choices we make in those moments determines the quality of our lives. Decisions big and small, we are all engaged in the task of learning to become more fully human. As we look within, we see that every choice we have made (or not made) has brought us to where we are now.
My hope is that we can begin to ask ourselves some basic questions about our unexamined beliefs and behaviors. The Yoga Sutras help get us going. Practicing these guidelines is a practice of letting go of limited beliefs and habits that hold us captive. Much like peeling away the layers of an onion, we are invited to peel away beliefs that no longer serve us in living the fullness of our humanity.
As you let go of the layers of limitations, the ten guidelines within the Yamas and Niyamas will meet you at each level. They will grow with you and reveal new aspects of themselves to you as well as deeper aspects of your Self. The Yoga Sutras are not hard and fast ethical rules. They will not tell you what to believe or what to seek to live a life of contentment. That is for you to decide.
Instead, the guidelines will equip you to meet each situation with flexibility, understanding and wisdom. They will give you tools to live more simply, to create less disturbance in your life, and to clear the clutter. Once you have freed up the space, you can listen to the deep longings within and ponder the significant questions of your life.
In lieu of laying down the law on morality, these guidelines look at life through the eyes of cause and effect. This simply means watching our actions closely and discovering what works and what doesn’t. If we like the results, keep doing it. If we don’t, stop. To live your yoga requires curiosity and an open mind. That’s it. In this way, we are like scientists and life is the laboratory. Except there are no mistakes in this lab. Only learning. What have you got to lose?
Thanks and gratitude to Deborah Adele for her wisdom and inspiration.