The fruit of ahimsa and tapas will continue to unfold for me. This experiment has been a good starting point. There is a lot of work to do. I have not done sadhana every single day which is a problem, but it is also a problem to beat myself up over it. I think the discipline that I have gained from my tapas experiment has begun and will continue to flow into my sadhana practice. The first week of the experiment one of my team mates said “be gentle with yourself.” I think this simple statement sums up a large part of what I am taking away from this process. I am trying to be gentle with myself in all aspects as well as trying to be gentle with others.
Each Axis Yoga Teacher Training student writes a paper describing their experiment with a yama (restraint) and niyama (observance). Applying these yogic principles to their lives allows them to better understand their meaning. This student’s reflection on the Yoga Sutras resulted in practical application of aparigraha (non-hoarding) as well as new contemplation on Ishvara Pranidhana (surrender to God).
My home is filled with light, space and windows opening to the trees outside. On the surface, there is not a lot of stuff, and you might even think my home is a bit empty. But, in the spirit of satya, Sanskrit for truth, let me describe what is really going on beneath the surface – hoarding. The term brings up such negative images. In my mind’s eye, there is this little person, namely me, surrounded by a mountain of papers – often electronic – climbing high overhead into a canopy that blocks out the light and air. On a feeling level, just the word, hoarding, makes my throat constrict, my chest hurt, and my stomach flip flop. And then the internal voice steps in with more satya – hmmm, what about all the pictures, clothes, the camping equipment, the “stuff” just sitting around waiting to be dealt with — until it becomes much easier not to deal with any of it. After all, the “stuff” is neatly placed out of sight. But, the fact is that there has been a fairly constant shadow lurking in the background, taunting me about this accumulation.
With this backdrop, it was easy to adopt aparigraha, a restraint on nonhoarding, as my focus for our yama experiment in the Axis Yoga Teacher Training Program (YTTP). My approach was to start by reviewing the main sutra on aparigraha in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, Sutra II.39, and follow through with the following experiment:
Daily 5 minute reading/reflection on Yoga Sutra II.39
Daily clean out of ‘something’ for 15-30 minutes
Daily recording of attention and insights around each activity
Q: whether more balance and acceptance results from the Experiment.
There were some surprises from reviewing Sutra II.39 Aparigrahasthairye janmakathamta sambodah, the main sutra describing aparigraha (emphasis added via italics).
Iyengar’s interpretation is that: “When one is steady in living without surplus possessions and without greed, one realizes the true meaning of one’s life, and all life unfolds before one.” He also comments that aparigraha means not only non-possession and non-acceptance of gifts, but also freedom from rigidity of thought. Prabhavananda/Isherwood comment that “[a]ttachment, and the anxiety which accompanies attachment, are obstacles to knowledge.” Desikachar observes: “The time and energy spent on acquiring more things, protecting them, and worrying about them cannot be spent on the basic questions of life.” And there is an additional point of emphasis in Sutra II.39 that Prabhavananda/Isherwood capture most succinctly: “[f]reedom from attachment will result in knowledge of the whole course of our human journey, through past and future existences”.
Anxiety accompanying attachment, rigidity of thought, and the loss of time and energy needed to delve into the basic questions of life – each clanged with familiarity. What was the attachment all about? At least in part, my depression-era parents struggled with providing, and their dream was to ensure their children went to college and succeeded—often in material terms. Rigidity of thought – for me, this had a great deal to do with misplaced notions of perfectionism – not being good enough without very intense effort, which meant keeping resources ‘just in case’ and working something to the Nth degree. And the loss of time and energy needed to delve into the basic questions of life – well, this was at the root of the anxiety from hoarding. Without delving into the basic questions of life on a consistent basis (and making regular choices based on this inquiry), I have been left at times feeling the anxiety of leading a superficial life.
Results of Yama Experiment
Initially, I was aggravated while thinking about the range of stuff to deal with in the course of this Experiment. So much stuff. Having been down this path before, it was clear the clean out portion of the Experiment needed focus. Otherwise, my tendency would be to spin around like a top trying to tackle everything at once. And, as we know, a spinning top eventually falls over. So I tackled my emails, numbering over 600 (in one account). After some initial angst, it became relatively easy to deal with the emails on a daily basis. This meant giving up the illusion that I needed to keep emails in my Inbox to make sure I read them or organized them into the ‘right’ folders. Given the daily focus on this yama, eventually I reached (and have maintained) all accounts at essentially a zero balance. On a purely practical level, the Experiment has produced results. And there have been some other practical realizations. I rarely add to the “stuff” on a material level – in fact, this shift was happening even when I was earning a good living. Currently developing a private legal practice (and without a full slate of clients), it has been very easy – actually freeing — to pass on more “stuff”. And, I consciously accept that the rest of the “stuff” in my home will be dealt with in good time – just like the emails. Bottom line: more balance and acceptance arose in the course of completing the Experiment. A side note: being rather ‘this-worldly’ and practical, I did not feel a personal charge from Sutra II.39’s emphasis on learning about one’s past, present and future lives from mastering this yama. But, it came up for reconsideration later as we expanded the Experiment.
Addition of Niyama to Experiment
A week or so into the yama Experiment, we were invited to begin another Experiment with one of the niyamas, the individual observances, outlined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Ishvara Pranidhana is one of these niyamas and is often translated as surrender (or devotion) to Ishvara or God. At a very early age, I opted out of organized religion due to its exclusionary nature and history of abuses. It also seemed that God could easily be a human construct that gives us the certainty, permanence and ‘truth’ that we crave. Again, being rather practical, this background made it easy for me to step onto the nonreligious (albeit spiritual) path of yoga. However, according to Patanjali’s Sutras, Ishvara Pranidhana brings perfection in samadhi or freedom (II.45). With my rejection that the Gods of Western religions were the exclusive be all and end all of ‘God’, where was I left in terms of the yogic path? To probe deeper into this question, it made sense to add Ishvara Pranidhana to my Experiment. And, I decided it made most sense to start with an inquiry into how the applicable Sutras defined Ishvara, God, and find out where that would lead in terms of insights and practices.
In the Sutras, Patanjali provides a different description of Ishvara, God, from the anthropomorphized images of my Catholic upbringing. In Chapter I of the Sutras, as elucidated by Baba Hari Dass, Ishvara is depicted as a special purusha (I.24), not touched by afflictions, and in that there is the seed of limitless omniscience (I.25), which is not limited by time and is the teacher of all teachers (I.26), with Om being the word denoting Ishvara (I.27). Then we are told that constant repetition of Om and meditation on its meaning [are surrender to God] (I.28), and from this practice, Ishvara Pranidhana, consciousness turns inward, realization [of the Self] occurs, and obstacles are overcome. Zeal in practice and self study are the other acts of Yoga that reduce afflictions and, with Ishvara Pranidhana, lead to samadhi (II.1 and 2).
Reflection and Insights
Certainly I have felt the beautiful stillness and sense of oneness arising from chanting Om and meditating. Given this experience, it is inviting to adopt Patanjali’s form of Ishvara as ‘God’. But could this stillness merely be a consequence of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems coming into a balanced state – or some other very predictable physical cause and effect- without more i.e., Ishvara? After all, brain scans are now capable of tracking the physical changes occurring in the brains of meditators. Yet, these intellectual debates produce no answers, just more questions since we are inherently limited by the human form from which we are analyzing the questions. Instead, using Patanjali’s definition of Ishvara Pranidhana, namely, surrender to God through meditation and chanting Om, I experience something which brings my mind to stillness and in that stillness, my being opens to something greater than this individual wave of humanness. And, with ease, I am able to set aside the brain games and surrender to this oneness. Certainly, there will be times when I wrestle with ideas around God and surrender, but the experiment produced a surprisingly gentle shift in my perspective. As to reincarnation, while I am not convinced reincarnation is anything other than a creation to justify caste systems, merely pondering the possibility of reincarnation takes me to a broader view than this one form and one moment of existence, and for that I am both grateful and intrigued.
It is sweet to have zero balances on my email accounts. And, these two precepts, aparigraha and Ishvara Pranidhana, led me to reflect on the loftier concepts of reincarnation, the yogic path, and naturally, Ishvara or God. Knowing my tendencies, there will be tension between dealing with day to day pressures and keeping the basic questions of life (or lives) and Ishvara Pranidhana in the forefront of my choices. With conviction to live with consciousness and adherence to yogic practices, hopefully, I will hold this tension with awareness and detachment. As Pattabi Jois said so often, “Practice and All Will Come”.
Each teacher training student at Axis Yoga completes an experiment with a specific yama (restraint) and niyama (observance). Applying aparigraha (non-hoarding) and sauca (cleanliness) to this student’s life allowed her the space to heal. And a new sense of action moving forward.
What started off as a simple experiment for a class has turned into healing. When presented with this idea of choosing a “yama” and “niyama” to see if I’d notice any changes/differences/movement the concept was exciting, mostly because I like projects and enjoy a challenge. Ultimately, I chose to take on aparigraha (non-hoarding) as my yama and sauca (cleanliness) as my niyama. I recall choosing aparigraha because I immediately identified non-hoarding as something tangible, as in having a garage or closets full of unused stuff. Of course it made the most sense to choose this for me because, well, spring cleaning was right around the corner anyhow and what a fabulous way to get a jump start, right? Then it came time to choose a niyama and while I like a challenge, the crunch with work and taking this course was a challenge in and of itself through time alone, so I chose what seemed to go hand in hand – non-hoarding and cleanliness. Initially, I thought aparigraha would help me rid of crap in my closets and by choosing sauca, I’d keep them clean; and I would feel better, my home would be cleaner, I would be happier, and so would my family. I found journaling to be the most useful to record any changes, differences, or movement. The journey:
During week one I turned grumpy and I suspect it was due to the fact that I was going to need to make movement in a way that I knew would nudge me to think of stuff I’ve hoarded physically and/or emotionally. I had planned to do the smaller closets with all the coats and towels. However, what I wound up doing was finish painting the trim in the house because in November of 2010 we did some renovations to our home and the trim was the very last of that long overdue list of things to complete and these “to do items” had been gnawing at me since and also because once I chose to clean out the big closet with all the old college papers and stuff that I had accumulated throughout the years I began to feel anxious. What it all boiled down to: I was avoiding.
In week two I mustered up enough energy to tackle the closet. I wound up having two great big bins and two rather large boxes full of old college papers and notebooks. I held on to every single piece of paper through bachelor’s and master’s degrees. I found the task to be tedious and daunting. It was an all day project and by day’s end I was exhausted and relieved. I had done plenty of reflection in my life to know that the reason I held on to all those papers was because I had a profound incident occur when I was a fifth grader. Ms. Elder, who was my teacher at the time, had told me that college was “not a place for young ladies like [me].” This response followed a question I had for her which was, “What is college?” At the time I was growing up in a ghetto in southern California and she was working in it so perhaps it was the only response she knew to give. It was the height of the gang wars and not a lot of hope was had in the community as drugging and thieving were the norm. In retrospect, I see why she said what she said but I held onto it for so long (in a negative way). She was the first person I thought of the first time I ever stepped foot on a college campus and for many years her words were part of my impetus to “get out.” After the ridding of the bins and boxes, I thank her.
In week three and week four, I’ve made a complete spring cleaning check list and have chipped away at it. Now granted I’ve hired someone (a young mother with a baby and a need for diaper money) to help with some of it and it seems like movement in a good way is happening. I’m able to sit content with the way our home looks and knowing that when I open my closets I will no longer find myself in a rush to close them. More importantly my body does not get heated when I think of Ms. Elder. I’ve forgiven her and myself. I think it was time, twenty-six years of holding onto all of that energy was long.
Since the cleaning out of things it my world seems a bit less stuffy. My body feels lighter. My energy is greater and my outlook is positive. While it has not been a complete transformation of any kind, it has certainly challenged me to look at some things that needed not linger any longer. My heart doesn’t feel so compressed and my space is clean!
Sauca continues to be that idea that encourages me to maintain my space, my body, and my heart. The other day I realized that my car was a disaster and so I made it a point to clean it out because my normal and natural is to put things off until the eleventh hour. However, that is my whole point of this experiment and the manner in which it has impacted me: what was once a mere thought of doing something or making movement in one direction has turned into action. This path of yoga is an awesome way of life. I’ve always been a gentle spirit; I just didn’t always conduct myself in a way that exemplified that. Sometimes my roots have a tendency to make their appearance known and yoga has been a great guide to remind me that as a human being, I’m responsible for what shines through in my canopy; this week it’s forgiveness.
Axis Yoga Teacher Training students strengthen their knowledge of the yamas (restraints) and niyamas (observances) by choosing one of each to experiment with in their own lives. By focusing satya (truthfulness) and tapas (austerity) to a very specific area of his life, this student found the benefits of taking control of how other people’s actions affect him.
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