The Niyama

The Niyama

Purity is the foundation of Yoga. All Yogas require perfect ethical and moral purity.

~ Swami Chidananda

शौचात्स्वाङ्गजुगुप्सा परैरसंसर्गः॥४०॥

Śaucātsvāṅgajugupsā parairasaṁsargaḥ

Through purification (śaucāt), one (sva) becomes detached (jugupsā) from bodily pleasures and is not influenced by or needing the company of (asaṁsargaḥ) others (paraiḥ).

~Yoga Sūtra Pada II.40

Śauca (Shaucha) – purity of body, speech, and mind (other yogic texts use the word Shuddhi)

The only work that spiritually purifies us is that which is done without personal motives.

~ Śri Aurobindo

Reducing śauca to hygiene and cleanliness as is so often done misses the complex meaning behind the notion of purification. Of course, external purity comes from daily ablutions like showering or bathing (whether in a sink, a tub, or in a river), as well as āsana practice, which helps in the purification of the body and is also (ideally) a way of taking our attention away from it. Internal purity comes from regular physical exercise, including āsana and prāṇāyāma, as well as eating a healthy diet and avoiding toxins from food, drugs or alcohol and mental toxins from certain types of media, engaging in gossip or emotions like anger, hate, prejudice, greed, pride, fear and anxiety, and any other negative thoughts (kleśa).

Yoga philosophy doesn’t enter into moral judgements. It simply lays out the ethics and their role in our spiritual development and explains how not following these fundamental teachings leads to our own suffering and causes suffering in those around us as a result. It teaches us that certain thoughts and behaviors will lead to peace, and others to mental (and therefore physical) disturbances.

Pada I.5 of the Yoga Sūtra describes the five different types of thoughts: Vṛttayaḥ pañcatayyaḥ kliṣṭā akliṣṭāḥ – Those gross and subtle thought patterns (vrittis) fall into five (pancha) varieties, of which some are colored or tainted (kliṣṭā, meaning troublesome, painful, afflicted, impure) and others are untainted (akliṣṭā, meaning not painful, not afflicted, or pure).

It’s our choice how we behave, and there is no committee to decide what is pure or impure, only karma – the consequences of our actions – will teach us where we are in our process of purification. Satya also plays a role in the purity of our speech, which relates to the Viśuddha cakra at the throat, and determines the impact of our speech and our ability to make clear and healthy choices in life.

For example, we live in a world where many of our social barriers have fallen very quickly, in a matter of a couple of decades, accelerated by our almost non-stop exposure to tv, film and the internet. Nearly everyone used to reserve swearing to the private sphere, only with certain friends, being careful to remain polite and respectful with their speech in public. Many people still do maintain this distinction, and it probably also reflects cultural and social differences to a large extent. Nonetheless, the ground rules for what is socially acceptable are changing fast.

I’m not averse to throwing a few well-placed f-bombs now and then. Swearing can be both a relatively innocuous pressure valve as well as a way of adding humor to a situation. Studies have even shown that swearing can alleviate pain in the moment of an accident and release negative emotions, making us feel better. But as a public person, and especially as a yoga teacher, I try to be much more careful with my language.

Our words carry energy that we transfer to those who hear or read them. What seems humorous to one will be quite jarring to another. This comes back to ahiṃsā – how can we avoid causing harm? Through our calm presence and by offering our classes as a place of elevated energy and behavior, we’re providing a rare sanctuary to our students who get their fill of vulgarity and aggravation from the world outside the studio. The same applies to social media posts.

It’s an important part of our yoga practice to learn how to take care of our emotions so we don’t bring them to our classes and offload our personal issues onto our students (or friends and family, or total strangers, for that matter!). This, of course, is not the same as denying their existence – we’re not trying to suppress emotions and pretend we are highly spiritual souls and therefore above negativity. By processing what arises in real time, or as quickly as possible, we don’t pollute the energy around us and throw others off balance with our mess.

Emotions and difficult thoughts are temporary, fleeting states of mind; this truth is a central part of yoga philosophy, and one of the most useful things we can transmit to students. It’s far more helpful to understand how to balance emotions than to learn how to put a foot behind the head.

Mindfully observing the coloring of our thought patterns is one of the most transformative practices of yoga, and can be done as we go about our day. Whenever a thought arises, or we become aware of a particular emotion, we can silently register whether it is kliṣṭā, or akliṣṭā. Once we recognize the nature of these thoughts and emotions, we can consciously choose how to handle them.

The Yoga Sūtra teaches us how in Pada II. 33, – Vitarka bādhane pratipakṣa bhāvanam: When disturbed by negative thoughts, cultivate the opposite mental attitude. Pratipakṣa bhāvana describes the process of seeking out the opposite quality to balance a negative emotion, what psychologists today call cognitive reframing. In Sanskrit, pratipakṣa means opposite, and bhāvana means to cultivate where we put our attention. If we feel anger, we can cultivate compassion, if we feel sadness, we can cultivate appreciation or gratitude. This is a way of purifying our mind from the obscurity of negative thoughts, as well as cultivating ahiṃsā for ourselves and others.

Although this is also one aspect of New Age thinking known as the Law of Attraction, it is a very clear-minded and rigorous process. Pratipakṣa bhāvanais only the first step in a much deeper exercise – nothing can change if we are only thinking superficial happy thoughts while avoiding looking at the root causes of our upsets. This is where svādhyāya comes in.

Despite common beliefs to the contrary, science has confirmed that our health is not entirely predetermined by our genes, rather it is overwhelmingly influenced by the choices we make every day, including our attitude to life. This is why a healthy lifestyle, minimizing everyday stress and taking good care of ourselves in every way – mentally, physically and spiritually – is so important. Yoga plays a very positive and measurable role in reducing stress and helping people make better choices for their health.

Śauca shouldn’t be thought of the same way many religions use the word purity, imposing moral judgements on people and their behavior. We should avoid labels like pure and impure as a qualitative judgement, because these carry the limited notion of good versus bad which prevents us from seeing clearly in any given situation. This is the stuff of religion, restricting thoughts and behavior according to fixed ideas imposed from on high, instead of integrated from within. This way of thinking also leads to compulsions and obsessions with whatever is considered taboo.

A regular āsana practice offers a radical purifying opportunity. Fascia is the connective tissue network that holds us together, covering all muscles, organs and nerves and forming a complex communications and support network for our entire human experience. Fascia is highly sensitive to our emotions, and especially emotional and physical trauma or shocks.

This is why there can be unexpected emotional releases during postural yoga practice, all the more surprising because we can’t always identify a current situation that might prompt such a release. In my early days of practicing Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga, roughly halfway through a practice session I experienced the most powerful welling up of tears and sobs I had ever felt, yet with no immediate sense of a related sadness. My body-mind was being cleared of old stored emotions and I felt a permanent shift towards a lighter energy afterwards.

Holding too much tension (through the fascia), fat, or water in the body can be an indication of toxicity, most typically from the wrong basic diet but also from mental toxins in the form of stuck emotions like shame, anger, grief and fear, as well as environmental toxins from air, soil and water pollution or toxic compounds from cosmetics, cleaning products, vaccines and medications, and of course, alcohol and psychotropic drugs that the liver and kidneys can’t easily filter out. While we can’t control everything in our environment, we can avoid or minimize certain processed foods or unnecessary medications for headaches and colds, for example, and we can become more aware of what chemicals are in the objects we bring into our homes, like plastics or MDF furniture.

Purifying and simplifying our purchases, daily habits, relationships, as well as our vehicles, homes and gardens and, of course, our diets, will contribute to lowering the toxic burden that confronts us all nowadays, and supports our better overall health and that of our planet.

We unconsciously learn from modeled behavior at least as much as we learn consciously from a person’s words. As yoga teachers we should do more than pay lip service to yoga’s ethical foundations and purify our behavior as a priority over perfecting āsana. Once we have achieved purity of body through a yogic diet and lifestyle, kriyās, āsana and breathing exercises, and find purity of mind through mindfulness or mantra chanting, we’re truly ready for the profound inward journey towards meditation. Practicing this ourselves prepares us – and indeed is a necessary prerequisite – to teach it to others.

 ~   ॐ   ~

सत्त्वशुद्धिसौमनस्यैकाग्र्येन्द्रियजयात्मदर्शनयोग्यत्वानि च॥४१॥

Sattvaśuddhisaumanasyaikāgryendriyajayātmadarśanayogyatvāni ca

Through purification (śuddhi) we cultivate mental clarity (sattva), a cheerful attitude (saumanasya), an ability to focus (ekāgrya), mastery over the senses (indriya-jaya) and a readiness (yogyatvāni) to connect with the Self (ātmadarśana) as well (ca).

~ Yoga Sūtra Pada II.41

Yoga is as much a state of being as a practice or discipline. Purification is a necessary step towards embodying a better and more spiritual life, and the Yoga Sūtra is not alone in pointing this out – it’s the foundation for every spiritual tradition around the world.

~   ॐ   ~

सन्तोषादनुत्तमसुखलाभः॥४२॥

Saṁtoṣādanuttamasukhalābhaḥ

Supreme (anuttamaḥ) joy (sukha) is attained (lābhaḥ) through the practice of contentment (saṁtoṣāt). ~ Yoga Sūtra Pada II.42

Saṁtoṣā – contentment, gratitude

Happiness is your nature. It is not wrong to desire it. What is wrong is seeking it outside when it is inside.

~ Ramana Maharshi

Saṁtoṣā is one of the supreme virtues, because it is so challenging and rewarding to be truly content. Can we open our eyes to see that we already have enough, practicing gratitude for what we have, and wanting what we already have instead of running after more – or better, or newer, or different – things – or relationships, or experiences, etc.?

As teachers we can practice saṁtoṣā by resisting the urge to complicate our yoga practice or the yoga we offer our students. What is the added value of combining yoga with complex and highly distracting offerings? This is a symptom of a bored and discontented (rajasic) mind, and generates more craving for new experiences, sensations and ego challenges that lead us away from contentment. Sense gratification is limited but existential suffering is unlimited. The cure for our dissatisfaction is to understand the self beyond the senses, and realizing that the delights of the sensory world ultimately become yet another cause of our unhappiness.

We must avoid the trap of using yoga as a project to get somewhere – as if we are not already somewhere – or to achieve something. With that mindset there will always be something more to achieve or someplace to get to, leading to endless craving and grasping… and more suffering.

Our modern culture teaches us we can always do better and should strive to improve ourselves to the best of our capabilities. While this is a laudable idea that can lead to real fulfillment and success, it is also one of the causes of a lot of our contemporary malaise. We feel like frauds, failures and interlopers unless we try to attain a certain (socially approved) ideal – as shown to us incessantly and inescapably through various media. Too fat, too thin, too hairy, too pale, too dark, too poor, too whatever. The self-help industry has grown to nearly $10 billion a year in the US alone, preying on our insecurities and fears.

The need to prove oneself comes with a sense that there is something to defend, and this defensiveness stems from the misunderstanding of who we really are. Women and men alike are showing off advanced yoga postures, having unconsciously bought into the masculine energy of competition and defensiveness. Why is this happening in the world of yoga?

I’ve spent around half of my life searching for ways to improve myself, my health, my mood, my finances. I’ve bought countless books – many of them never finished and some barely even started – and attended a lot of workshops, retreats and online courses to work on various aspects of myself and my life. It was all useful somehow but mostly short-lived, and frankly, if I had been able to see through it all from the start I would have saved myself a ton of money and a lot of time. Writing this book has been a real exercise in saṁtoṣā for me, as I constantly wondered if I had included enough, explained enough, or expressed the right thing through adequate words.

This happens in many areas of life for a lot of us. It doesn’t just come down to whether we feel we have done enough, but whether we feel like we are enough. Of course, we are always enough, but some of us need to be reminded more often. After all these years, I discovered I am enough. You are enough. We are all enough, and nothing is broken. This kind of contentment doesn’t mean we should stop growing – we can still be motivated to make a difference and be better than who we were yesterday. We simply go at it from a place of possibility instead of lack, and remain grateful for what is unfolding in the process.

Complaining about the world or life is an example of spiritual bypassing; separating what is happening in the world from what is experienced in our mind is an illusion and another source of suffering. This delays, or even blocks, our awakening, preventing us from truly experiencing the present moment and the deeper practice of spirituality that leads us to the truth of our absolute interconnectivity. Our happiness and comfort exist in the mind, not in the conditions around us. When the mind is calm and steady, we find strength and peace. Āsana practice establishes the mental capacity for stillness, but it won’t last much beyond the yoga mat if we don’t uncover our true nature and support this with a regular practice of gratitude.

Westerners traveling in India often bemoan the conditions of the local population, confusing their pity with compassion. A lack of facilities or Western-standard comforts is presumed to cause misery. While of course there are great challenges for many in countries like India, very often we find people who are extremely happy and light-hearted in what by Western standards appears to be unlivable conditions. Equally, super-rich Indians throwing money around the elegant shops and restaurants of Mumbai or Delhi often appear dissatisfied and even miserable. A yogi knows our external conditions are not the cause of our suffering or our happiness.

Yoga builds resilience. If we have a remarkable āsana practice but fall apart at the slightest challenge or criticism, our notion of practice needs expanding. Our mind has an in-built negativity bias designed to keep us away from danger. But in everyday life, this affects our self-image and relationships, because while there may have been nine wonderful things in our day, we’ll focus on the one bad thing. The stress hormone cortisol can lead us on a downward spiral of focusing in on our insecurities, perceived problems, perceived flaws in our relationships, and even towards catastrophe thinking which turns minor events into major disasters in our mind.

Disassociation and indifference are not an enlightened response to negativity. What an individual deems as negative is something that triggers fear in them. Children dissociate from fearful thoughts or situations as a form of self-protection, but as adults this is not a healthy coping mechanism. We can’t have a full spiritual life without also being able to face fully the events and traumas of the world around us; they are intimately intertwined with our own existence. Acceptance doesn’t mean agreement, of course; it’s just the starting point for dealing with what is.

Presence means processing life as it is happening. A yoga space is not where only happiness and light and positivity reign at all costs; it is one in which whatever is happening – “good” or “bad” – is accepted and processed with the same level of equanimity once the initial emotional impact subsides.

In the same way, posting our emotional state on social media causes it to linger and bleed into others’ lives. A healthy spiritual practice will have us cleaning up our own mess to avoid spreading the energy of our personal experience beyond what is necessary for finding support. We accept and deal with what arises in the moment from a state of mindfulness.

Nor can we truly claim that some states of energy, people or emotions are bad or wrong, it is our relationship to that state that requires attention. This is not to suggest that we have to stay physically present with people we experience as difficult, but that we should very quickly understand why we find the situation so disturbing in the first place.

Maintaining the body and ego with a particular standard in mind is an exhausting endeavor if we focus all our attention in that direction. By understanding our body or personality as partial aspects of ourselves – and temporary ones at that – we can be more playful with them, experiencing the physical and emotional ups and downs along with a sense of the subtle self which sustains them.

In 2016, I was invited to New Delhi along with another yoga teacher from Brussels to represent yoga in Belgium for the second International Day of Yoga. We encountered teachers from over a hundred countries, including unexpected places like Tunisia, Iraq and Afghanistan. We also met people living in the Middle East who could be jailed simply for teaching yoga and so had to meet in clandestine places, finding students only by (cautious) word of mouth.

The thought of teaching yoga amongst the rubble of bombed-out neighborhoods, amidst ongoing violence or faced with the ignorance of intolerance and religious extremism made me realize how deeply grateful I am for my comfortable life and the ease and openness with which I can teach. I also recognized how fortunate we are as teachers able to share this remarkable practice and philosophy to empower people everywhere, including those who might feel alone in difficult circumstances, to tap into their human potential and experience their true nature.

In worldly life, people commonly think of settling down as establishing a family, buying a home or getting a steady job. The yogic concept of settling down means simply being happy within, living in peace regardless of the outer circumstances.

Practicing unconditional contentment and accepting others just as they are also provides us with opportunities for self-compassion, which Kristin Neff defines as “being open to and moved by one’s own suffering, experiencing feelings of caring and kindness toward oneself, taking an understanding, non-judgmental attitude toward one’s inadequacies and failures, and recognizing that one’s own experience is part of the common human experience[i][i].” How could we not be content with that?

~   ॐ   ~

कायेन्द्रियसिद्धिरशुद्धिक्षयात्तपसः॥४३॥

Kāyendriyasiddhiraśuddhikṣayāttapasaḥ

Through devoted practice (tapasaḥ) impurities (aśuddhi) are eliminated (kṣayāt) and the body (kāya) and senses (indriya) function at their highest potential (siddhiḥ).

~ Yoga Sūtra Pada II.43

Tapas – discipline, dedication, effort

No one succeeds without effort. Those who succeed owe their success to perseverance…. Conscious, deliberate effort is needed to attain that effortless state of stillness.

~ Ramana Maharshi

The word tapas encompasses discipline and restraint. It also translates as austerity, which is a word most people don’t appreciate these days, yet austerity brings us a lot of wellbeing, as long as it arises from personal intentions and isn’t imposed by outer conditions or against our will. The austerity of tapas is self-restraint, and doesn’t imply suffering or lack. Although tapas is the root of tāpasin, which is an ascetic, this is not the same as a yogi. Yoga does not teach self-abnegation; yoga promotes the middle way – a balance of effort and ease.

Yoga teachings don’t require asceticism – personal discipline should not be confused with excessive exercising or extreme dietary habits. Equally, the traditional teachings are clear that physical and mental accomplishments are not to be displayed publicly because they are only a means to individual spiritual ends, so we refrain from showing off or humble-bragging about our sacrifices through social media, even though the temptation might be there.

Tapas literally means heat, like the motivating fire in our belly that makes us want to advance in life. The root verb ‘tapa’ – to heat – is found in pitta, and it’s easy to see that pitta types are very fiery and ambitious by nature. Yet pitta dośa also contains the water element, which keeps the fire in check and provides depth and endurance, as long as there is balance.

Tapas is also the deliberate and positive direction of our energy towards our inner self, which is another way of saying self-discipline or restraining the senses, such as practicing moderation in eating and speaking.

Today’s obsessive need to display oneself is unhealthy and leads to narcissism. I was dismayed to find that some people are taking selfies during their yoga classes, which probably makes me sound quite old. But the distraction disrupts the class, if only for the individual, and the idea that what one is doing in a yoga practice should be shown to others clearly demonstrates that it is not being integrated from inner experience, but contrived for outer effect. We do a disservice to both yoga and our students by allowing this to happen in our classes. (Naturally, this does not apply to photos taken as a teaching support.)

Though there are many distractions nowadays, the material quality of life we have now has been improving. The distractions we face are often of our own making! If we choose to find quietness in our homes, we certainly can. Yoga is not about retreating from life as an escape. It is about cultivating stillness wherever we are.

~ A. G. Mohan

Whether it be spiritual and devotional or strictly āsana based, a yoga practice that is consciously or unconsciously developed to achieve admiration, status and power will ultimately have negative consequences. If we excel at sitting in meditation for hours on end or performing challenging postures yet we haven’t purified our heart and mind, we leave ourselves open to causing suffering and abusing power.

Tapas can also mean focusing on a goal. Having a theme or a specific goal or intention for each class can be useful, although I found they quickly go out the window since I take into account the current condition of my students at the start of each class, so new goals tend to come up. I find it easier and more reliable to have a general teaching intention, which for me is that my students will understand their body and mind better, and feel more grounded by the end of the session.

I generally avoid suggesting that each student set an intention for the class, as most people don’t even know what to do with such an idea and anyway there is no way to assess whether they are following it. If you prefer not to set an intention for the entire class, then you could simply remind people of the basic intentions for any āsana practice – breathe, feel, be present and let go of judgement.

Tapas can also be considered forbearance or resilience, accepting and facing the challenges and difficulties that inevitably arise on the path. As a teacher this can mean pursuing what you do even when money is tight, or classes are shrinking. There were times when I simply had to cancel a class or take breaks from teaching just to be able to focus on the most urgent problem at hand, but this was valuable in order to recalibrate and come back to my students with more clarity and purpose.

It’s the discipline keeping us aligned to the practice that ultimately makes us a better teacher. Without the discipline, our personal authority wanes, and our message is lost. In the stages of my teaching career that found me ill or struggling with family or personal challenges, my practice lost focus and regularity and my teaching suffered as a result. I had to re-tread steps I had already taken, both for myself and with regards to attracting students, although no progress in yoga is ever truly lost.

~   ॐ   ~

स्वाध्यायादिष्टदेवतासम्प्रयोगः॥४४॥

svādhyāyadiṣṭadevatāsamprayogaḥ

Self-study (svādhyāyat) leads to a pure connection (saṁprayogaḥ) with one’s cherished (iṣṭa) spiritual guide/deity (devatā). ~ Yoga Sūtra Pada II.44

Svādhyāya – self-study, study of one’s true nature

True knowledge is not attained by thinking. It is what you are; it is what you become.

~ Śri Aurobindo

Svādhyāya is often interpreted to mean the study of scripture, with the main purpose being to understand our true nature as explained by the ancient yogic texts. However, it’s much more than just the study of scripture: svādhyāya is the study of who we truly are, the capital ‘S’ Self, which contributes to understanding our motives, our struggles and our welfare. It helps us keep our practice moving in the right direction.

This kind of self-study is different to any psychological self-analysis we might be familiar with, as we are not trying to understand our personality or any related dysfunctions, we are contemplating our essential connection with the entire universe. Nonetheless, we are also psychological beings, and as teachers it is a good idea to be clear about our motives, hidden agendas and the inevitable shadow aspects of our personality that might prevent us from doing our best and bringing the best of ourselves to our students.

We have been unconsciously programmed by our family, culture, religion, media and advertisements to think and behave in a certain way; svādhyāya gives us an opportunity to examine what we were told growing up in the light of what we discover about life and the true nature of our being as we mature. Knowing that we have our own hidden biases because of this programming, we can remain tolerant and compassionate of the biases held by others, while bringing an awareness of this human tendency to our students in the course of our teaching.

Regular journaling is very useful for this sort of practice and helps clarify emotions and various sources of stress. Writing is a means of processing emotions and Harvard researchers have found that it can even boost immunity and wellbeing in times of loss[ii][ii].

Yoga was teaching emotional resilience centuries before the term was coined by Western psychology. While compassion is a central feature of a yoga practice, this should not be interpreted to mean supporting people in their self-limiting beliefs. A true practice of yoga – what we should be teaching – includes questioning not just the premise but the reality of the thoughts and emotions that lead us to feel or behave a particular way.

Identifying with suffering, such as 12-step programs cause people to do, can eventually lead to more suffering. A self-help group provides the important sangha – community – that can be a wonderful support to get someone back on his or her feet, but it should not be a source of identification from a yogic point of view. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), for example, has very mixed to low success rates overall[iii][iii], partly because they work on the basis of a false identity: “My name is X and I’m an alcoholic.” According to AA this is an incurable and lifelong condition that can only be kept at bay by attending regular meetings, which reinforces this false identity in a vicious circle.

The true underlying cause of the addiction – trauma – is rarely addressed by these programs, and as long as people cling to the label without questioning the true nature of their mind and life, they can’t be free from their suffering, even if the apparent addiction has been sidelined.

Self-awareness and self-assessment are vital to the success and impact of our practice, and even more so as a teacher. The teachers who haven’t done enough of this important work and continue to ignore their shadow side – known as kleśa, or emotional attachments – end up in hot water of some kind or another. A sincere and ongoing examination of motives, attachments and aversions – not just by the teachers concerned but also by those in their inner circle – might have prevented the unfortunate disgrace of teachers such as Swami Rama, Yogi Amrit Desai, John Friend, Bikram Choudhury, Kausthub Desikachar and so many others, and, more importantly, could have avoided the suffering they caused.

The following self-assessment is a way of regularly checking in with ourselves and our personal goals. It can be done as often as every week, or monthly at the New Moon, or just once a year on New Year’s Day. The full yogic self-assessment comes from Abhyāsa Ashram and is available online[iv][iv].

◦     What am I doing well that I need to continue doing?

◦     What am I doing that I need to do more of?

◦     What am I doing that I need to reduce or stop doing entirely?

◦     What am I not doing that I need to start doing?

◦     In what way does this relate to my current situation?

◦     How might I plan with this in relation to my future situation?

Svādhyāya is not the same thing as self-practice (which these days usually means āsana). Nor does self-practice mean attending someone else’s yoga class, because then we are doing their yoga, not ours. Our regular practice of whatever aspects of yoga we choose is very important to our wellbeing, our teaching, and our success on the yogic path, but it’s not svādhyāya.

Svādhyāya involves regularly finding time to sit down and read passages from the source texts that best support your yoga practice. These can be from the original yogic texts, or from scriptures in another tradition that lead you to the same understanding of love, peace and interconnectedness.

It’s also helpful to know the basic principles of āyurveda as an additional teaching support. For example, a key āyurvedic tenet is that people tend to gravitate towards their imbalance. Imbalanced vata types seek out movement, distraction and variety, Pitta-dominant types want more intensity, dogma, striving and competition, and overly kapha types will look for the path of least resistance.

The thing is, very few people – even in the yoga world – are practicing svādhyāya, so they’re unaware of their own tendencies. The teacher’s role is to skillfully point out how an individual’s habit energy is leading to imbalance and teach the yogic principles and practices that can bring them back into balance. This is yet another reason why a one-size-fits-all approach to yoga not only brings mixed results, it can actually lead to harm because well-intentioned people are doing practices that can end up undermining their overall wellbeing.

One popular example is Hot Yoga, which aggravates pitta, as does obsessing over postural alignment. Endless vinyasas and yoga flows can aggravate vata, especially with music playing or when done in the evening, for instance.

Sadly, few teachers or studios would ever turn students away from a class that wouldn’t be suitable for them, either for financial reasons or perhaps because they don’t want to discourage the practitioner, assuming they are even aware of the effects of the practices they offer. That’s sad enough when due to ignorance, and irresponsible when it flies in the face of our training.

In our social media-obsessed world, many yoga teachers crave popularity. But our value as a teacher has no bearing on the number of followers we have, or the number of likes we get for posting photos of our latest workshop. It’s worth exploring why we can’t teach a class or workshop without needing to get acknowledged for it by people who weren’t even there. Also, what is the motivation to post photos during a retreat? Can it even be called a retreat if we remain connected to social media all the while? And why post a sexy image on our website or Instagram, or in a YouTube video that is ostensibly about teaching yoga? What is the message we are sending, and what do we expect to get from it?

The impact of our teaching is impossible to control. We do our best in the moment with the people in front of us, or watching us online, or reading what we have written. These connections create future impacts that are unlikely to even tangentially include us as the teaching itself spreads out in ways that are hard to track. Trust that this is so. We don’t need photographic evidence of a room full of yoga mats to know that every teacher has an impact far beyond the session itself.

We don’t need to be liked by everyone, and just by trying we end up betraying ourselves. Svādhyāya is the first place to look for support: if we rely too much on outside validation without a solid grounding in self-awareness, we become dependent upon gurus or others to tell us what to do. This is not the path of yoga. If the people we rely on for support don’t respect our own choices or agency, this will eventually lead to an abuse of power.

Having a good network – a sangha, or satsang – really supports our practice of self-awareness; svādhyāya shows us our true value. Having a community of like-minded people around us helps us remember who we are and what we aspire to. If at least some of the people around us are on a spiritual path, they will give us the much-needed courage to continue our efforts and support our higher goals in the face of a world which seldom values these things.

Here are some things to consider:

◦       Can I find the support I need from within? If not, what needs to change to make this possible?

◦       How do I tap into my own inner guidance and support? If this is difficult for me, what practices could I develop to do so?

◦       Who are the people I can count on for unconditional support?

◦       In what areas of my life do I want more support?

◦       Can I feel supported without needing guidance?

◦       Do I ever feel angry with or disrespected by the people I look to for support? In what ways would I want their support to be different? What should I do about it?

Early in my practice, a teacher once told me: “How we do yoga is how we do everything in life.” This applies to anything we do, of course – how we wash the dishes is how we do everything else. But in 30 years this insight has never left me, and I come back to it often to recalibrate myself and my goals.

The Taittiriya Upaniṣad tells us that svādhyāya is a daily practice of reading the scriptures, understanding their message and sharing it with others. We must pass on whatever knowledge we acquire before we die; the teachings tell us that if we don’t do this, we are no different to a miser who never lets go of anything.

You cannot transcend what you do not know. To go beyond yourself, you must know yourself.

~ Śri Nisargadatta Maharaj

~   ॐ   ~

समाधिसिद्धिरीश्वरप्रणिधानात्॥४५॥
Samādhisiddhirīśvarapraṇidhānāt

Surrendering to a higher power (īśvara-praṇidhāna) leads to the accomplishment of (siddhiḥ) the highest state of Yoga (samādhi). ~ Yoga Sūtra Pada II.45

Īśvarapraṇidhāna – letting go, trusting in a higher power

By whatever path you go, you will have to lose yourself in the one. Surrender is complete only when you reach the stage `Thou art all’ and `Thy will be done’.

~ Ramana Maharshi

Surrendering to the divine (Īśvara) is possibly one of yoga’s most challenging aspects. Trusting in life – or some kind of higher power – and letting things flow is really hard for most of us.

For some people it’s difficult not to get stuck on the notion of God, or the Lord, or some other name that implies religious beliefs. So many of us had been damaged in some way by religious teachings and people that we consciously or unconsciously sought out yoga as our preferred spiritual path.

Other people reject religion and spirituality outright, and have come to yoga for tight abs and butts and the exhilarating feeling of a strong āsana practice. But it’s incredibly easy to become egocentric through our yoga practice if we aren’t working with the fundamental principles. We can become overly proud of our achievements, and even look down on those who don’t do difficult yoga postures. But aspiring to do the perfect scorpion pose won’t get us as far as the aspiration for Self-awareness.

When we live too much through our attachment to thoughts and things we can easily confuse what is happening ‘out there’ with life itself. By looking deeper, we can see that life is always happening within us and through us: we don’t have a life, we are life. This is a precious teaching: understanding that we are not our thoughts and emotions is freeing and empowering.

Regardless of the turmoil in my life, I have been able to quickly resurface thanks to my deepest, intuitive understanding of life and living. Before fully trusting this understanding, even as a child I felt a vague certainty that things would work themselves out eventually, once the difficulties passed. But in those days that belief had me putting aspects of my life on hold in some fashion, as though life as I wanted it to be would recommence when all the crappy stuff would finally be sorted out, at some point in the future.

After several increasingly hard knocks over the years, I finally realized that the real juice of life was exactly in those difficult moments I had been hoping to eliminate or avoid. Naturally, I felt vibrantly alive around the key highlights of life: falling in love, graduation day, my wedding or the birth of my children… but I have never felt so fully and keenly alive, connected and plugged into the flow of life as when I was on the threshold of death, or saying one final goodbye to my baby son, or waking up to the hot sting of betrayal.

Life comes into stark relief in those moments, and every twitch and breeze is felt and registered without taking away from the crystal clarity of the moment. Pure, present-moment awareness – nothing else matters, all thought falls away, and we fully surrender our puny plans and desires.

In those vibrant moments, there is a knowing that comes from deep within, not yet articulated in words. In fact, it’s always there but the din of our thinking drowns it out and makes us confused about what is being felt. Our heart is our life’s radar. We don’t need anything more than to listen and respond to what the heart is telling us in each moment. The mind will often try to override the wise guidance that our heart is always beaming at us, through us. We have to ignore our thinking for a while – at least long enough to distinguish a passing thought from what is felt in the deepest core of our being, which is our Truth. This is Īśvarapraṇidhāna.

I often remember what a delightfully calm āyurvedic doctor told me when I sat down with him to ponder my exasperation at the insanity of a Kundalini Yoga festival I was attending in Rishikesh a few years ago: “Be like the Ganges” he said. “Let everything flow over you and through you, and you will feel free. Don’t be attached to any of it.” Such good advice!

Rivers are used a lot in spiritual metaphor for good reason. They are constantly changing and flowing onward, over, through and around any obstacle in their midst. River water follows the path of least resistance, showing us how to go with the flow and surrender to the process of transformation.

We become teachable in those moments, because we have let go of expectations and allowed ourselves to be open to something new. In our teaching this can be as mundane as allowing ourselves to be guided to one or another opportunity, or as transformative as realizing it is time to make a big change, even when things seem to be flowing well.

If you lack confidence in your teaching ability, following more yoga teacher training might not be the best answer. There may be an underlying cause for the insecurity that has nothing to do with credentials or success, and a more profound yoga practice could help, especially Īśvarapraṇidhāna.

When I put myself in the role of a teacher or therapist, I recognize everything I’m doing or saying has been done and said before in some form or another, and comes to me from a long line of wise people doing good work. It’s not “little ol’ me” doing this, so I don’t need to feel insecure; I know that if I stay aware and receptive to the knowledge I have accumulated with the invisible guidance of the Guru – in the greatest sense of the word – the right actions and words automatically emerge in the course of the session I’m teaching.

By trying to plan intellectually and organize everything in advance, anticipating what could go wrong or what somebody might need before I even begin, I’m unable to listen to this intuitive guidance. Anxiety and insecurity come from putting too much attention on our personality and history and not enough on our eternal, interconnected nature.

…The Lord of the Universe carries the entire burden of this world. You imagine you do. You can hand all your burdens over to His care. Whatever you have to do, you will be made an instrument for doing it at the right time. Do not think you cannot do it unless you have the desire to do it. Desire does not give you the strength for doing. The entire strength is the Lord’s.

~ Ramana Maharshi

Īśvarapraṇidhāna teaches us to keep our minds open, innocent and willing to take in new information – including that which feels uncomfortable, and especially that which challenges our beliefs. Thinking we know the answers already closes us off from new possibilities. Yet we don’t give up our discernment by surrendering our certainties. On the contrary, letting go of what we thought we knew sharpens our discernment, because we now have to genuinely reflect on what we are experiencing in the moment.

~   ॐ   ~


[i][i]. Kristin Neff at the University of Texas at Austin in 2003 self-compassion defined.

[ii][ii]. https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/writing-to-ease-grief

[iii][iii]. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Effectiveness_of_Alcoholics_Anonymous

[iv][iv]. Yogic Self-assessment questions https://sites.google.com/site/abhyasaashram/home/books-handouts

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