On the Right Track?
Yoga offers a powerful blend of physical, spiritual, and lifestyle practices that includes a diverse and adaptable range of exercises and activities. One component of a practice in yoga involves strengthening the capacity to observe ourselves in stillness and in action through various forms of meditation, helping to create more clarity and discernment (and limit reactivity and destructive habits) both on and off the mat.
When we combine the practice of observation with body and breath based activities, we create an additional opportunity to integrate and align our systems, promoting a stronger and more resilient physical container that functions with greater ease and efficacy. Add to this the very potent blend of self-compassion and self-honesty that underlies many forms of yoga and a growing ability to adapt life choices based on our newfound clarity and understanding, and we discover a practice that does indeed have the ability to transform us (and possibly those around us as well).
At the same time (and as any practitioner of physical or spiritual disciplines has likely already discovered) the road can be arduous and laden with obstacles and pitfalls. Even with a steady practice, it can be hard to know when we are on the right track. At such moments, I often turn to Patanjali's Yoga Sutra (a two thousand or so year old text with somewhat mysterious origins) as a guidepost. In particular, the Yamas and Niyamas, or restraints and observances, provide a clarifying lens through which to observe and measure our progress and our challenges.
The Yamas and Niyamas are interpreted by some as guidelines for seated meditation and by others as guiding principles for day-to-day life and relationship. There is, in fact, much debate about this (and the authorship, historical applications, and modern-day relevance of the text as well). While I follow this debate with interest, and continue to refine my understanding and practice of these principles, generations of yoga practitioners, myself included, have found these very simple precepts to be a powerful and illuminating companion to an ongoing practice regardless of origin.
When working with the Yamas and Niyamas, you might choose to focus on one or several of these as an active practice over a period of time, or to revisit the concepts every few weeks (or months, or years) and note your progress. In either case, working with the Yamas and Niyamas can provide some riverbanks for your practice, helping you to stay on track through all of the fluctuations and challenges life may offer.
Ahimsa- protection from harm (self and others)
Aparigraha-creating one's own inner fulfillment
Asteya- not coveting the skills or possessions of others
Bramacharya- management of pleasure seeking
Santosha- contentment with what is
Svadhyaya- self study
Saucha- living in balance
Tapas- endurance & commitment
Ishvara-Pranidhana- surrender to the flow of the universe
Shelburne Falls Yoga Director Kate Pousont Scarborough (E-RYT 500 and B.A. Dance) is a Professional Level Kripalu Yoga instructor with significant additional training in movement, anatomy, kinesiology, meditation, and pranayama. Kate recently completed training for Thai Yoga Bodywork with the Lotus Palm School based in Montreal and is currently completing a nine- month Anatomy and Kinesiology intensive with renowned yoga anatomy instructor Amy Matthews. An avid practitioner in body, breath, mind, and lifestyle, Kate is dedicated to helping students of all ages and levels of ability experience ongoing vibrancy and wellness through an exploration of the many facets of the yoga tradition.
(The translations above have been gathered from many sources, chosen through my own study and personal practice. Interpretations are plentiful and varied. Thanks to Matthew Remski, Stephen Cope, Devarshi Steven Hartman, and Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health for providing some of my favorites.)