On Ahimsa: Non-harming in a Harmful World

The first of the yamas is also the most difficult to attain to in many ways.  (For an introduction to the yamas and niyamas, please see our previous blog post.)  Ahimsa means to abstain from causing harm, and besides being difficult to live up to, is also difficult to fully comprehend.  How we understand harm and how we determine fault when harm inevitably arises are both cultural and deeply personal processes.

In order to better understand the concept, let’s look at it in its historical roots.  The concept itself appears in the Rig Veda, the oldest religious text still in use today.  In the Rig Veda, the concept is mentioned in reference to Indra, the god of thunder and warfare, being ‘innocent’ or peaceful towards his worshippers.

Despite being in a context entirely foreign to our modern lives, this idea of innocence is actually very revealing of the character and quality of ahimsa.  From a yogic perspective, ahimsa is not merely an ethical must, but, as with all the yamas and niyamas, a practice in itself designed to catapult the spiritual seeker further along the path.  The innocence of ahimsa is fundamental to its use as a practice, and as a metric for determining what is and is not ahimsa.

In the modern world we currently navigate, innocence is a hard ask.  The systems around us require savvy and the streets cannot abide a fool for long.  Nevertheless, the yogi intent upon self-realisation must maintain a sense of purity and connection with all beings, even should it put them at risk.  To the mind, this may seem insane.  We are taught from a young age to distrust strangers, maintain solid boundaries, read the fine print, and so on.

For the person who is not practicing ahimsa, these are all very important, but for the truly pure yogi (a rare thing indeed), it is understood to be unnecessary.  In the yogic worldview, we are all one being, with the separation between us being the effect of Maya, the illusion caused by the filtering of ultimate reality through the mechanisms of mind.  Being all one, the distinction between the internal and external is quite fuzzy.  It is sometimes said that a yogi who practices ahimsa perfectly will have no violence done to them, even by a hungry tiger.

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The Yamas and Niyamas: A Brief Overview Following a Long Digression

In modern culture, Yoga has largely become a by-word for a certain routine of stretching, exercise and relaxation, and little else.  Those who do Yoga casually may also know of the breathing exercises (pranayam), mudras, and possibly even kriyas (purification rites) and bandhas (energetic locks).  As in most aspects of life, what we know about our world, or the niches within that we’ve explored, has a tremendous amount to do with who our teachers have been.


In the context of a hatha yoga class, these above mentioned topics may or may not come up, depending on the depth to which the student pursues the topic, and the experience of the teacher.  I, for instance, have some limited understanding of bandhas but would not integrate them into my class, because my training didn’t include it, and because the potential for complications increases with the complexity of the tasks being given to the students.

Given that most people who come to a yoga class in the west pursue yoga asanas specifically, and experience it predominantly through the lens of teacher-led asana classes, it is not surprising that there is much that doesn’t fully enter the vocabulary of the new yoga student.  It is here that I will draw the fine line between the yoga student, and the sadhaka (spiritual seeker).  While the yoga student seeks out the more physical aspects of yoga for often quite materialistic reasons (to feel healthier, to lose weight, to cope with pain), the sadhaka approaches yoga from an internal compulsion to reach the heights of spiritual attainment.

Now, let me clear that this is not a value judgment.  One may no more make themselves a sadhaka than they can make themselves a musical virtuoso.  One may learn anything through great effort, but it is impossible to attain to the kind of internal and consistent drives that results from being born to something.  Moreover, whatever reason one comes to seek yoga, the practice has the potential to facilitate transformation regardless.  As in all things, the shape that the transformation will take will be the result of the motivation, intention, and application of disciplined will.

Regardless, only those who’ve inquired into yoga outside of the classroom, or who have particularly chatty and philosophically prone teachers, will have heard of the yamas and niyamas (with exceptions of course).  To sum it up briefly, the yamas and niyamas are the ‘dos’ and ‘do nots’ of classical Raja Yoga.  They represent the ground floor of Patanjali’s ashtanga yoga (not be confused with the trademarked and codified techniques as created by K. Pattabhi Jois).

In following posts, I plan to delve into each of the five yamas and the five niyamas, examining them and how they fit into our modern lives, and to what extent we can attain to doctrinal adherence in our current society.  In each case, I intend to provide the background on the doctrinally pure attainment of each, and how one can find ways to integrate that into a world and a life which rarely makes room for absolutes.

It is almost certain that I will, through the course of my next ten works, say something that someone disagrees with.  It is impossible to please everyone, especially when discussing ancient doctrines and individual lifestyle choices.  As such, I beg that you understand these works as belonging wholly to me, and not being indicative of any truth beyond that of my personal experience and understanding, and to have compassion and remember that we’re all on the path exactly where we are.

Namaste

Michael

3 Reasons We Forget to Get on the Mat

 

  1. We’re too busy.  This one is the most obvious, and in many cases, the most untrue.  Sure, our lives can feel quite full, but unless you have young children, chances are that you have time for some asana, but are just putting other things first.  I do this all the time.  There’s always another distraction or entertaining bit of consumption waiting for us in this modern world.  With services like Youtube putting out more minutes of new video per day than there are minutes in a human life, there is no danger of running out of distractions.

    Ultimately, however, this one comes down to priorities, focus, and remembrance.  Is our health more important to us than the latest viral video?  For me, my body says yes, but my behaviour often tells a different story.  When I’m focused, however, instead of just putting my attention on the next item in my social media feed, there is the possibility that I’ll remember my priorities and change my behaviour.There is a mental parallel as well.  It’s not hard to catch ourselves putting our bodies in postures while our minds are elsewhere.  The business of life can keep us off the mat, or keep us from being present when we’re on the mat.  It is our ability to put the business of life to the side and focus on ourselves which is the supportive core of our practice.

     

  2. Our bodies are sore.  Now, this particular reason can run the gamut from justified reason to justifying our own laziness.  Barring some kind of injury needing actual rest, however, will asana improve your overall physical experience?  Yoga asana has a way of bringing us to the edge of our discomfort, so it’s no surprise that an engaged practice may lead to some physical soreness, but it is also the case that doing regular asana actual helps the body become stronger and more limber, both of which decrease pain over the long term.Ultimately, this one comes down to honouring one’s current condition, and being honest with ourselves about the nature of our pain, and our resistance to pain.  This plays out on the mat as well.  Knowing the difference between the discomfort that can arise when rubbing up against a personal boundary and the pain that arises when attempting to cross a physical boundary is key to establishing a physically supportive practice.

    The mental parallel here is around honouring our mental and emotional pain.  Asana is a wonderful tool, but all tools have both purpose and limitation.  Sometimes that laziness might be something deeper that needs to be brought to light, and to that end, forcing ourselves onto the mat is not a sure-fire approach to our well-being.  The only person capable of knowing the right course of action is you, at that moment.  You can plan to get on the mat, but never put the plans of yesterday above your current reality.

     

  3. It’s too hard to stay motivated.  This is one I experience a lot.  When our motivation is flagging, getting on the mat can seem like too much effort.  Once on the mat, your challenging postures might also seem too much effort.  Holding postures for your normal duration may seem like too much effort. This is really a fair point.  We didn’t evolve to do focused exercise for the sake of it, but to have it physicality integrated in the way we live.  Pushing ourselves to get on the mat when we’re neither busy nor hurt still takes a considerable act of willpower, especially when we’re not grounded in the practice or a routine.This is where asana classes can be helpful.  In a class setting, we can surrender our will to the teacher, and let them be the driving force which motivates us.  With their support, we tend to be more willing to get into challenging postures and to hold postures for longer periods of time.  Even people with a strong home practice can get tremendous benefit from asana classes, as teachers can often give useful feedback on your progress, or even give you variations to improve the efficacy of postures that you’ve stopped finding engaging.

    The mental parallel is subtle.  Asana classes, for all the good they can offer us, aren’t at all useful if we don’t attend them, and attending a class is even more effort than just doing one’s personal practice.  This is where money comes into play.  We’re much more likely to do something if we’d paid for it in advance.  This is part of the reasoning for why we offer 10-class passes and monthly passes.  Having that output of energy is a commitment that we make to our future selves to push through the inertia and fluctuations of willpower and make good on our intentions.  In a way, we’re allowing our past self to exert upon our future self the kind of influence that a teacher in the context of the class does.

     

    Michael

Ask a Yoga Teacher…

Q:  Why would I want to do Yoga?

A: If you suffer from any kind of anxiety, tension or stress in your life, Yoga has been shown, and is in my experience, an effective way of processing stress, leading to an increased sense of well-being and relaxation.

Q:  Aren’t you just saying that because you’re a Yoga teacher?

A:  I’m a Yoga teacher because I believe the things I’ve said.  I was a Yoga student before becoming a teacher.  I chose to become a teacher because I believe in the benefits of the practice.

Q:  Why do you charge for Yoga then?

A:  Hopefully you understand that, as a teacher, I still require the means to meet my expenses, to buy food and pay rent.  We hope that our students value relaxation and everything else that the practice offers such that they are happy to support us in our work by paying the class fees.  Ultimately, our goal with The Be Happy Yoga Project is to meet our own basic needs and offer Yoga to those who cannot pay for it.  Our project isn’t striving for profitability in excess of its running costs.  The money from students that are able to pay enables others without the means to take classes.  As of right now, we are teaching more hours to people who aren’t able to pay than to those that are.  We are happy to offer to Yoga to anyone who is interested in learning and we are hoping that over time we will also be able to sustain ourselves through our work.

Q: Isn’t Yoga for people who are already flexible?

A:  That’s like saying that going to school is only for people who are already knowledgeable.  We don’t send children to school because they already know the answers and want to create a space for them to enjoy already having knowledge.  School is a place for growth.  The Yoga class is no different.

Q:  Won’t I just feel out of place, surrounded by young flexible people?

A:  You may, but therein lies an opportunity to practice not just the Yoga of the body but of the mind as well.  Dealing with emotions and thoughts which make you feel uncomfortable as they arise is part of what we learn on the mat.  Just as we often put our bodies into new and sometimes uncomfortable positions in order to stretch ourselves, so we can also stretch ourselves cognitively and emotionally.  Sitting with discomfort is one of the most fundamentally useful parts of the Yoga practice, and arguably the one that provides the most long-term benefits in terms of stress-management and general quality of life.  As we get older, discomfort tends to become a greater part of our experience.

Q:  Isn’t that a depressing way to look at it?

A:  Acknowledging the truth of ageing is neutral.  Now, how one approaches that truth can be empowering or not.  Taking a proactive stance on developing a positive attitude and in learning to cope with and even benefit from discomfort is the opposite of depressing.  It is ultimately about understanding what you can and can’t control and taking responsibility for the former while surrendering to the latter.

Q:  How is Yoga different from Pilates?

A:  Pilates can be an amazing physical practice, which has a lot of applications for both general and therapeutic use.  Yoga’s primary focus, however, is not with the physical body.  The physical body, and the postures, are a means to approach a deeper understanding of the self, to bring unity to the disparate aspects of our being.  To the extent that we tend to identify with our personality and our problems, we can become quite disconnected from the body.  Many of our day to day concerns in this modern age are quite abstracted, such as economic woes, political issues, questions and concerns around our social standing, etc.  As a physical practice, Yoga is very good at increasing one’s proprioceptive awareness, allowing one to become more deeply present to the body and its various components.  The practice, as we teach it, is designed around bringing one’s awareness to the sensations and experience of the physical body as we take action to improve our general health.

Q:  But how does stretching the body cause changes in the mind?

A:  Like a lot of physical practices, when doing Yoga, you will encounter barriers, points where you cannot easily progress or perform the action you are attempting.  For a lot of women, strength tends to become a blocking point before flexibility, and for a lot of men the opposite is true.  Through repeated practice, however, we eventually develop the needed qualities to progress further in our practice.  This act of breaking through barriers is reflected in the cognitive practice which is going on alongside.  For my own part, unlocking new potentials in the body has definitely unlocked aspects of my mind.  Moreover, as with the mind, the body has hidden depths.  When you do finally progress with whichever posture you’ve been working on, you will still find a barrier.  Perhaps as your strength improves, you are able to move the body into a position where your flexibility becomes the new limiting factor.  Again, this mirrors the process of meditation in which each new insight, or new surrender, reveals new areas to expand awareness into.

Q:  Couldn’t I get the same effect from another exercise or dance class or something else entirely?

A:  Yes.  Of course.  Yoga does not specifically refer to the physical practice of Hatha Yoga.  The process of integrating aspects of oneself previously hidden can be done in a variety of settings and activities.  You don’t have to use a Yoga mat to do Yoga.  If you feel especially drawn to dance, or rock climbing, or whatever, by all means, do those.  In the meantime, there’s no reason not to the give the physical practice of Yoga asana (physical postures) a try.  If you don’t like it, or it doesn’t meet your needs, you aren’t required to do it again.

Q:  What is different about asana (yoga postures) then?

A:  Asana, as a practice, emphasises a balance of relaxation and effort, using set postures to allow the practitioner to develop a stillness that isn’t as emphasised in, say dance.  Through repetition of the same posture, asana gives the practitioner a very still and solid base through which to explore their body, and the inter-relationship of tension and relaxation.  Take shoulderstand.  In shoulderstand, there are very specific muscles that are required to stay tense.  Were you to relax them, you’d immediately fall out of the posture.  At the same time, there are a great number of muscles which don’t need to be tense.  Through repetition, you begin to develop that proprioceptive awareness which enables you to only tense the muscles which the posture requires.  For people who are just developing a sense of proprioceptive awareness, asana is perhaps a safer and slower way to develop that awareness than circus arts, or dance.

Michael

 

If you have a question for Michael add a comment below.  

“But, I’m not flexible enough to do Yoga!”

A lot of people have a particular idea of what yoga is, whether it’s borne of modern yoga fashion with stretchy pants and young bendy people, or the esoteric yoga of ancient India with its renunciates, long hours in meditation and ultimate goal of liberation from the world.  Now, regardless of which of these you might think about when the word ‘yoga’ comes up in conversation, yoga is much bigger and broader than that.

At The Be Happy Yoga Project, we mostly concern ourselves with the physical practice of classical Hatha Yoga.  We do this because that is what we’ve been trained to teach, and because, for most of the people around us, it is the most relevant practice to serve as a jumping in point for yogic self-exploration.  

In the West, a great number of people are either disconnected from their bodies, walking around as floating heads, or connected to an idea of their bodies as strictly mechanical systems.  Our Western fitness regimes reflect this segregated way of looking at physical systems.  We have our ‘leg days’ and our ‘arm days’ and flexibility training, and endurance training.  We look at each physical system almost as an independent whole.  Yoga asks us to begin to look at our physical bodies as interconnected systems, as interdependent entities which can neither be separated from each other nor from our emotions and thoughts.  The physical practice of yoga asana (yogic postures), done with awareness in the present moment, has the potential to increase proprioception, and to increase one’s awareness of the relationship between thoughts, breath, and the habitual patterns of muscular tension which we’ve been practicing and maintaining throughout our lives.

Now, as yoga teachers, we hear the same reasons over and over again from people who are trying to explain why they cannot do yoga.  As our mission is to make yoga accessible to people who aren’t part of the general demographic, one of the most common remarks we hear is, “I’m not flexible enough to do yoga.”  Now, as a yoga teacher, hearing this comment is more than a bit confusing.  Imagine a child saying to their primary school teacher, “I’m too ignorant for school.”  Yoga is not something that flexible people do, but something that increases the flexibility of those who do it.  In that sense, the less flexible you are, or the less strong you are, or the less present and calm you are, the greater the potential for yoga to be a transformative practice in your life.  In our experience as teachers, the beginners tend to get the most dramatic experience of life improvement from the practice.

So, if you put aside the idea that yoga is not for you, and recognise that, unless you’ve done it, you don’t really know what it is, what is stopping you from trying it?  Regardless of what your personal barriers are, if and when you are open to letting them go, get in touch with us and see if we can help you transition into a happier life.

Michael

Deep Roots

 

You have deep roots”, she told me.  I breathed a sigh of relief.  Perhaps there was hope for our fledgling social enterprise after all.  She had asked me how working with homeless people and asylum seekers made me feel and why, and I while I was honestly stumped, I found myself revelling in the feeling too.  Here I was, communicating with someone who wasn’t content with my superficial answers about empowering people…words that I had batted back all too easily…words that I had subconsciously thought would please my questioner.  No this questioner was different.  She wanted more.  “But WHY does that make you feel good?”, she gently insisted.

And so I paused….for more than a moment, because the deeper answer took its time to bubble up.  It meant I had to sit in the discomfort of silence while neither of us said anything.  And though it seemed on the outside that nothing was happening, within my mind was whirring away…”why do I like working with people who are facing incredibly difficult situations?…because they are so often despised, scorned, ignored, left to fend for themselves, blamed for their own circumstances when I personally feel that our ‘system’ is what is really responsible?  Yes, certainly”, but I could sense it ran deeper than that.  I felt like an outsider as a child, as a teenager and often still now.  Of course I am in the world, but I also feel  separate from it; as if I don’t quite fit, as if I’m only observing.  For me this feeling of being an outsider has often brought tremendous pain, so of course I feel the tug at my heart by those cast as outsiders too.

Ten years ago I found yoga, or as yogis like to say, yoga found me.  The practice unexpectedly changed my life, subtly shifting the direction in which I’d been going.  It wasn’t exactly a magic overnight cure, but bit by bit, I would notice little changes: my anxiety was less pronounced and made itself known less often, my relationships seemed closer and more real , my affection for non-human life seemed greater and most notably the depression that had burdened me since my teenage years just faded away.  And then there were the instances of profound joy, the reemergence of play in my life and the moments of being shaken to my knees gratitude.  That all felt wonderful!

I don’t mean to make out that this was a nice gentle process, that if mapped out would look like a gentle upward gradient.  No, that would not reflect the richness of the process, the enormity of some of the struggles, the childhood hurt and existential angst that had to be worked through.  This transition on a graph would have looked more like the scribblings of a toddler….but even amidst the deepest pain there was always a part of me that was so glad that I had found yoga.  How could I not want to pass on to others what it had brought to me?  

And once I told her this she smiled and told me we had deep roots.  ”I see how deep they are when people start to mention their childhoods”, she said.  It was my turn to feel a moment of deep appreciation for my questioner.  She took me to a place, I hadn’t up to that point, noticed.  She is right, this mission of ours does run deep.  The message came when I had been losing faith about whether we can make this social enterprise work.  I’ve spent a lot of my life wondering why certain things have happened, why my life went in this or that direction.  It doesn’t often make sense at the time.  Yet, I have also noticed that if I wait long enough, hindsight does seem to bring clarity, somehow revealing order amidst the chaos.  It turns out there were never really any wrong turns along the way.  It all lead to this point.

And this point is where we are.  I’m not going to pretend that the doubt isn’t still there.  I’m wrestling with it daily.  Michael is too.  Our own little fight between the light and dark.  But I can’t say that life isn’t interesting because of it.  

Danielle