When it comes to my children (or my spouse, close friends, family members, or even my pets), I have some pretty strong ideas about how I want them to be treated, how they should treat and care for themselves, and how ultimately valuable, beautiful, and wonderful they are. I will get right up on my mother-tiger high-horse with exclamations of, “you don’t deserve to be treated like that,” “you should have better,” “you need to stand up for your rights,” and so on.
For better or worse, it seems to be more difficult to apply the same standards to myself. When I have the sense that I’m being treated poorly, taken advantage of, etc. (even by myself), my first response is to assume that I somehow deserve it, or that it’s not really as big of a problem as I’m making it, or that I have unreasonable expectations. What’s up with that? And then, I drive the people that I am very close to crazy by whining and complaining about how I’m being treated (or treating myself) instead of doing anything about it.
So, I’m working from a new strategy. When I start to feel like I’m being disrespected or mistreated in a way that is not acceptable, I’m trying to sit down and really examine the situation from the perspective of a parent. I ask myself, “If that was my child, what would I think about her being treated that way? What would I tell her to do about it?”
It’s a new project, so I’m going to have to let you know how it works. Maybe it will be a dismal failure. But, maybe it won’t. Ultimately, I want those I love to be treated with kindness, dignity, and respect, even by me. It’s not too much to want for myself.
I’ve written about this before (here, for example), but I think it’s a topic worth coming back to. I know that I continue to struggle with it on a daily basis, and judging from things like this post from my wonderful Ironwoman friend Maria, I’m not alone.
Sometimes, it’s just not easy to tell what it is your body needs. I woke up this morning with the same stomach ache that I’ve had for almost three weeks (due to iron supplements – long story – I’ve been living on crackers and the occasional toast). My left hip was killing me and I hadn’t slept well. My right shoulder is also being screwy and started giving me pain as soon as I got out of bed and gravity hit. And, for a little extra woohoo, my head hurts. Yeah, I’m a pathetic mess. But, here is the catch, I’m trying to go to yoga on Saturday mornings. I used to be able to go on Friday mornings, but this semester I teach too early to do that. Friday night is an option, but last night I had an event to attend until 11. That leaves Saturday morning. So, I got out the yoga clothes and went downstairs and made a cup of tea and some toast. And then I sat down at my desk to check email and work on convincing myself to go to class. That went on for about an hour. And then I gave it up. I admitted to myself that going to class was not the best choice, and that my body was in no shape to complete a full vinyasa class in any manner that would really bring me closer to peace and union. But, I can’t lie, I was still (am still) not happy about it. A bit later, when I napped for a short period, my dreams were full of what a horrible yogi I am. Clearly, I still have some things to work out.
In some ways, I wonder why this respecting the needs of the body is so hard. But, in other ways, I know. We are taught, so early, to ignore the body. We eat and sleep at prescribed times and not according to the body clock. We feed the body food that has been processed so much that it is without nutrient instead of the foods it naturally needs. We spray it with chemicals to prevent it from smelling even remotely like a human mammal body. We push it to be a certain size because that is socially acceptable, regardless of where the body’s natural set point for size might be. We shut the body up and shut it down in so many ways; it’s no wonder that we have trouble hearing it even when we want to.
Photo: Andrea Parrish - Geyer
My challenge is, and perhaps will always be, to practice ahimsa with my body. To hear what my body has to say without judging it. To take its needs and requests seriously. To give my body a “day off” when it needs it. And to let myself be if my body doesn’t always match up to what I want it to be and do. As I sit here at my desk writing this post, noticing that my work schedule is going to prevent yoga on Monday and trying to avoid letting that put me back into a bad place about not going today, I know that this is likely to be a lifelong practice. Perhaps this journey is my destination.
So, if you watched a lot of Sesame Street in the past, you probably get that little joke. If not, here is a fun video to watch, but it has nothing to do with this post except that it amuses me (and the protagonist and said lama are, in fact, practicing some of what I will discuss below):
In Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga, the first two limbs are yamas and niyamas. Yamas are basically our ethical code, how we should behave in interactions with others. Niyamas are necessary personal observances to maintain the path. Each of these are part of yoga that can be observed in our daily lives, on and off the mat.
Yamas: Universal Moral Code
Ahimsa — Non-harming. This can include avoiding harm to self, others, and the world around us. Harm could mean something physical, psychological, emotional, etc. Some yogis practice vegetarianism or veganism as a part of ahimsa, while others do not.
Satya —Non-lying. Satya is about maintaining an intent to not deceive. This does not always mean we will be correct in information we give, but honest mistakes are a different thing than intentionally misleading someone. Satya does not suggest that we be brutal in our interactions with others, as the principle of ahimsa is primary. Sometimes we may need to present a different truth, or present a truth in a different way to avoid violating satya while also maintaining ahimsa.
Asteya —Non-stealing. This could be about physical objects (i.e. don’t steal from Target), monetary units (don’t cheat on your taxes) or even less concrete things like time (don’t be late for all your meetings, thereby stealing the time of others). In an academic setting, always much on my mind, this also is about not stealing the ideas or words of another (plagiarism).
Bramacharya — Sexual responsibility and restraint. In the most restrictive sense, this yama could be about celibacy. But, for most of us, it’s more about treating each other with sexual respect. Don’t objectify others. Don’t guilt/push/connive others into sexual activity. Behave in such a way that all sexual thoughts and acts are mutually uplifting (thanks for this phrasing, Beth) for all involved.
Aparaigraha — Non-grasping, non-coveting. To some degree, coveting what we don’t have or what others has seems to be a natural part of our animal natures, but it’s not something we have to give into. We can cultivate a sense of contentment with what we have that reduces our greed and allows us to be truly happy for what others have, without feeling the desire to possess it ourselves.
Niyamas: Personal Observances
Sauca — Cleanliness/purity. Sauca refers to the idea that we should maintain physical and emotional cleanliness. We should maintain a clean and healthy body, both inside and out. This can be promoted by eating a healthy diet, utilizing pranayama and asana to remove toxins, engaging in external cleanliness habits, and working toward removing the “ick” of jealousy, anger, greed, pride, etc. from our minds.
Santosa — Contentment. As you can see, the yamas and niyamas are intertwined with one another. Santosa is much related to aparigraha. Can we be content with what we have and where we are? Can we accept this moment for itself and not yearn for something more or different, the past or the future. Can we find ease even in the midst of difficulty, accepting that everything passes?
Tapas — Turning up the heat. It’s easy to get passive in life and in our yoga practice – to fall into patterns and habits and fail to challenge them. Tapas relates to utilizing our energies well to push our practices a little further. This might be through more vigorous or regular asana. It could be through a daily 5 a.m. meditation. It might be a process of fasting that energizes. Establishing what is tapas will be different for each individual, as it is relative to the current pattern.
Svadhyaya — Self-study. For some people, self study comes more easily. For many, however, it is quite difficult. Svadhyaya involves turning a light on the self and engaging in analysis of one’s own patterns in thought, behavior, emotion, etc. Svadhyaya includes examining both our “positive” qualities and our limitations and challenges. Through understanding and accepting where we are, we create room for change.
Isvara pranidhana — Surrender to a higher power. Taken literally, this niyama could be said to mean “laying it all at the feet of God.” That might be a perfect way to see it for you, or maybe it isn’t. But, that’s ok. This niyama does not specify what god or what divine we should be giving up our efforts to. That leaves room for each of us (perhaps in the process of svadhyaya?) to determine what “greater” being/principle/? we see as divine to which we can devote our actions.
So, there you have a very brief summary of the yamas and niyamas of yoga. They can be practiced every day, any time, anywhere. You don’t have to “twist into a pretzel” (my extended family/friend network understanding of yoga) or worship a certain god to do these things. Looking at them, you can see the underlying tenets of behavior for pretty much all religions or moral codes, and it’s hard to find fault with any of these ideas, even if you don’t see yourself as a yogi at all. You can do yoga 24 hours a day! Sweetness!