One of the enriching elements of the Axis Yoga Teacher Training program is the experimentation with yamas and niyamas. This student applied the niyama of Santosa to daily life and, through this experiment, found a piece of easily attainable enlightenment. Simply feeling content with life as it is and realizing all that is, is enough. And best of all, anyone can follow similar steps to achieve the same contentment.
“I am here for a reason, to simply exist.” As penetrating as that statement might seem, it was very humbling to realize for myself. During this existence I have encountered so many others on paths of their own and many relationships have formed as a result. I know that it is not just me who is guilty of reaching out to these other people along the way for support, advice, a helping hand and even happiness and company. There can be a tendency for us as human beings to reach out to others more often then we go looking to ourselves for answers and comfort. However, it can be a harmful and damaging way to live if one is not able to find happiness when alone. Most outside resources have only been able to ever provide me with that “fleeting” sense of joy which is as transitory as some of the sources are themselves. We have been raised and conditioned in a society that is constantly searching for new ways to be on top, to be the best, to have to greatest and most powerful technology, smarter phones, smarter kids, smarter cars. It can be overwhelming and hard to avoid the same pressure to be the best as well, to excel and exceed above the rest so sometimes we are not content just because we are always trying to improve. What comes from being on top really is satisfaction and that is much different than Santosa, a practice of true contentment, which was what I was hoping to bring more of into my daily life with this Yama and Niyama experiment.
It is an important lesson to learn; how to accept and live with ourselves. We must find how to do this before we can live with others in true harmony. Our lives are filled with surprise encounters and new acquaintances which means we have to be aware of ourselves and “who” we are projecting before we can create relationships of true value. Yoga is very much focused on teaching skills which help to cultivate the best relationships we can with ourselves and others around us. Within the Ashtanga Yoga system there are two limbs along the “Eight-fold path” which focus on these very relationships: Yamas and Niyamas. Yamas or “restraints” are meant to help one re-evaluate the value of their social relationships and help to improve them. While Niyamas on the other hand, are observances of the self. It was profound for me, to admit that I needed to work on my inner self and the relationship I had with that very self. I needed to step out and witness my ego in order to find the real lasting kind of contentment that Pantajeli speaks about in the second observance of five, Santosa. “By contentment, supreme joy is gained,” (Sutra 2.33) this statement insinuates to me that before you can obtain the supreme and ultimate kind of joy every human being would like to experience, you must discover contentment first, joy is only a product of this Santosa (contentment). Many different kinds of joy can be felt throughout life but, most of those feelings are as temporary as the objects or circumstances that they develop from; life events like a marriage or births, sex, drugs, entertainment, new clothes, new cars and so on there are so many different ways to acquire this false sense of supreme joy. This “supreme joy” Pantajeli describes is much more esoteric, it comes as a product of acknowledging and accepting the ordinary things in life just as they are, with out any selfish desire to modify or manipulate them. I have begun to realize that we must gaze inward to find true peace not outwards at the material world which promotes the vicious cycle of greed and desire; we can never be at peace with the material things in our lives the way we can with ourselves. The experiment I conducted was meant to monitor and measure my own sense of contentment. I decided that I was going to keep a journal in order to open up with myself and try exploring how to uncover that sense of true contentment without the need for anything, or anybody else. Self awareness became the most crucial tool to use, it helped to shine the light on the simple and enlightening fact that, I had everything I needed to be perfectly content right where I was at the very beginning.
During the past few weeks, while I attempted to measure my progress and become a witness to who I was projecting it became clear that much of my problem that was hindering me from that true joy was my own restlessness and high expectations. The sense of restlessness has always been present in my life. I tend to become bored easily, I wake up with a plan for my day and how it should go before I am ready to even leave the house and I get easily anxious when things are out of my control. Even when I am in situations as ordinary as; traffic, running late, waiting in line, waiting on people, being broke, getting a flat, having a bad night at work and so forth I let my apprehension and anticipation get the best of me. I was starting to maturely comprehend that these silly situations were unavoidable in life and if I was going to transform myself in a positive way, I would need to learn how to deal with those kinds of circumstances better. I started mini-Pranayama sessions for myself in some of these scenarios and found that focusing on my breathing helped a great deal to pull my attention inward which of course distracted me from paying any attention at all to the outside influences that were irritating to me. I was also making great progress guiding myself out of bad moods or upsetting states of mind just by thinking of more positive thoughts a concept mentioned also by Pantajeli he calls “Pratipaksa Bhavana”. I was learning how to be more at ease with things that were out of my control just by reminding myself that not ever thing can be how I want it to be. It was a great feeling to say to myself “I am okay when things do not go my way,” and I meant every word of that. Letting go of control does not mean that I had to become a more passive and completely carefree person; I was only coming closer to the conclusion each day that most situations would never be mine to control (nor did I really want to have control all the time). I was more concerned all the while with feeling responsible for things being done right, or on time, or in the right order, with very few hiccups on the way. I did not necessarily desire the control but was bringing it upon myself by grasping the expectations I had of myself and other people. Slowing my mind down and taking time to observe these kinds of situations was a very valuable skill I was learning to use well and to my advantage. I found how easy and gratifying it was to slow down and make better decisions and ultimately choosing better moods, making every day life and my interactions at work as well much smoother and more pleasant.
Another part of my experiment I was very eager to keep up with besides the journal was meditating. I needed to work on my inner self with this niyama and the best way to look inward is to try meditating more regularly. I had been conditioning myself for years to wake up and get as much done with my days as I could, which honestly was wearing me out emotionally and mentally. I never thought that I had trouble spending time alone, at home, by myself…but I was wrong. I had a bad problem of constantly expecting too much out of myself and the short days I had. I could become so easily disappointed when days did not go as planned or when I would feel ditched by those I relied on. You cannot find contentment and joy in life when you are allowing yourself to be disappointed all of the time. Life just is not that bad. I made it a point to take my time in the mornings since that was the most guaranteed time alone to bring some peace and clarity to my mind more often. I made a nice routine, a form of Sadhana (preparatory rituals/routines) that involved; bathing (near the end I was using some easy forms of Shat Karma such as Kapalabhati and Jadi Neti), practicing some Sanskrit mantras and finding some newer ones occasionally pranayama (breathing) techniques before making time to practice some asana (postures). Almost every morning I would end with some short meditation sessions. I did manage to stretch out the times and get better at sitting for longer periods less anxiously which was beneficial to say the least. I was very content with how the experiment was unfolding. A great deal of this meditation helped me with my journal entries which were reflecting that I was becoming more open and honest with myself (a nice touch of Satya- truthfulness). The mornings started to teach me a valuable lesson, “I am enough”, I am all the company I need to feel comfortable and at ease. Also, I found an awesome sense of joy and complacency being one with the mornings and enjoying the time with myself. Another great way that I discovered just how great it can be to slow life down and embrace it all for what it is. We are here and this is just where we are meant to be. I am everything I am meant to be no matter where I expected to see myself five years ago. Expectations can cause much more stress and disappoint than life would ever naturally have in store for us but those as well as our own flaws and failures are meant to challenge us so that we can learn to remain happy and content no matter what direction the day goes in, up or down.
I got a whole lot more out of this experience than I could have predicted in the beginning. I had no idea how much better it could feel to treat myself kindly while accepting everything this life has offered me already is perfect just the way it is. I have learned to genuinely be happy and comfortable with myself and as that self, I feel I am projecting myself more truly and appropriately finding a good deal of confidence and courage in the search for contentment. I have accepted so many people for just who they are, even the ones that I had issues getting along with at work and in my every day life. The more I accepted each day that this, was exactly the place I was meant to be in, at this time in my life, the easier life seemed to me suddenly. So many foolish and petty ideas disappeared and do not seem to matter the way they did before. My appreciation towards myself and my family has become much more apparent as well as my affection towards those special people in my life. It is not necessary that you let go of your human emotions which we are all victim to, anger, envy and desire for example, in order to find this “supreme joy” that Pantajeli speaks of; but rather that you embrace yourself and those around you for their flaws and their qualities without letting anger, envy or desire get the better of you. Remembering to always be transforming and evolving as an individual. Our minds are powerful tools that can offer happiness in a split second, but even the mind needs to be content, still, and at peace with the thoughts and actions being product of it. Once you wake up and you do not even need to bring awareness to your sense of contentment because it is already present in your daily life, once you do not need to remind yourself, and condition yourself, to think about the things in your life worth being grateful and thankful for, you have reached Santosa, you have gained ultimate and everlasting joy. I hope for all of the World that they can realize You are everything you were meant to be and that is enough, to just BE.
Each Axis Yoga Teacher Training student writes a paper describing their personal experience with the yogic principles of Yamas (restraints) and Niyamas (observances). This student reflected on how the Yama, Brahmacharya (continence) and the Niyama, Santosa (contentment) are already present and working in his current lifestyle.
Yama/Brahmacharya: To consist of (not totally limited to): Life of celibacy, religious study & self restraint—continence, abstinence, self-containment & moderation.
Niyama/Santosa: Contentment has to be cultivated. A mind that is not content cannot concentrate. Contentment and tranquility are states of mind—these are present when the flame of the spirit does not waver in the wind of desire. Feeling of being content with what we have—“contentment counts for more than all sixteen heavens together.” (Sutra commentary).
Realization: I live my life with Brahmacharya and Santosa present. This experiment is very compelling on a number of different levels—self reflection being the cornerstone. This is akin to peeling back the layers of the onion for greater self examination.
Facts: These Yamas & Niyamas continue to occur and present themselves without any dramatic lifestyle modifications, changes or adjustments—the following observations and discussion points were not intentional lifestyle modifications, they are actually how I live my life on a daily basis. I had no knowledge of the concepts of Brahmacharya or Santosa prior to this Axis Yoga YTT course. With this newly acquired knowledge, it is evident that I have practiced the primary component of Brahmacharya (abstinence—Life of celibacy) since April 2008. This is a function of my personal situation, decisions and relationship with my life partner. I am comfortable with what is currently happening inside me. I continue to work with my life partner on our personal situation(s) and all components of the very complicated relationship equation (currently we are in relationship counseling through the Graduate School of Psychology at the University of Denver). Not to be overlooked, at the age 18 (as my memory best serves me) I made a conscious decision that I wanted no children—no desire to procreate. As a total aside, it is my humble opinion that age needs to be considered when evaluating and understanding Brahmacharaya –as we age (I am 55 and my life partner is 57) the sex drive diminishes and becomes less of a priority, generally speaking.
The religious study component presents some very interesting areas for self-reflection. I consider myself to be an Agnostic (one who holds the view that any ultimate reality-as God-is unknown and probably unknowable). I would probably be best served to have some real in-depth discussions concerning the agnostic and atheist (one who denies the existence of God) definitions. At any rate I have some very strong beliefs regarding the concept of God. Organized religion is a concept that I don’t believe in and do not support. I have no faith based system (belief and trust in and loyalty to God; belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion; firm belief in something for which there is no proof). I consider myself to have a belief system (a state or habit of mind in which trust or confidence is placed in some person or thing; conviction of the truth or some statement or the reality of some being or phenomenon, when based upon examination or evidence). Additionally, I consider myself to have a spiritual outlook (Spirit: akin to blow, breathe; an animating or vital principle held to give life to physical organisms; supernatural being or essence). With this said, areas for further discussion and evaluation are: religion, faith, belief & spirit. With respect to God, I look at the Sun as fulfilling this ‘category’. Without the Sun (God) there is nothing else on our planet, Earth. The Sun (God) makes everything possible—without the Sun (God) there is no Prana (lifeforce/breath). This relationship (faith, religion & spirit) and associated challenge(s) was recently discussed in the Denver Post-April 4, 2011, Fitness Section, shedding additional light on a very personal and emotionally charged topic. Question: Who/what keeps the Earth, Solar System, Universe functioning? With this said, we move to another area of the religious, faith, belief & spirit discussion—Evolution, Creation and Intelligent Design. I am a firm believer of evolution. Not to be over-looked and a topic for another paper is the big-bang theory—how was the universe and our solar system created? What additional forms of life exist “out there?”
The self restraint component of Brahmacharya continues to be a very interesting personal study: Primarily my diet and lifestyle (if I remember correctly, it has been said, ‘we are what we digest’). By choice, I have a very simple lifestyle and a clean diet. By simple definition I am a vegetarian (have been strict for the past four years & hypocritical-ate fish-since 2001–then a number of years ‘on and off’ since 1976). Other areas of self restraint/abstaining from as it relates to lifestyle, includes but not limited to: alcohol of any kind (Jan. 2000), gluten (Jan. 2009), sugar/high fructose corn syrup, soda, fast food, tobacco and most forms of strict western medicine. These are several of the very important components of my lifestyle/diet that I am of aware of on a daily basis. By my own admission I am very strict, rigid and focused with regards to my diet and ingestion of nutrition. I leave room for moderation and self-evaluation based upon each individual situation. Equally relevant, in my opinion, is the concept of moderation (vs. abstaining from)—I am continually striving for more moderation (balance) as it relates to my pursuit of a ‘quality’ life.
The Niyama discussion relates to the concept of Santosa (contentment). I am generally very content and satisfied with what I have (and/or don’t have). Recently this was brought to light in two separate situations both relative to my passion for bicycling. FACT: I was not accepted into the 2011 Leadville Trail 100 MTB race. This process involved a lottery. I have numerous ‘connections’ in the cycling community that I could have called upon to get me into the Leadville race, however, I decided not to lean on those connections. I have totally accepted this situation—I am content, able to concentrate and tranquil. FACT: Shortly after this event I had an opportunity to purchase a fully-loaded MTB—a dream bike, but way too much bike. The price was right, however, the timing was not due to personal financial circumstances. After a significant amount of self reflection I discovered I was content with my current MTB—an adequate MTB, that gets the job done and will continue to provide me with the ability to ride and race. I am content with my decision—I cultivated Santosa relative to this specific situation. As I grow older I am more content with my business (a pizza concept)—focused on what we have vs. continually looking for ‘what might be.’ With an appreciation of Santosa I challenged myself to start the re-invention process. Embarking on this YTT process along with my Aroma Touch therapy training I have fulfilled two components of the very challenging and dynamic re-invention process. This re-invention is a function of the overall economic environment, aging process and a general desire to introduce athletes and ‘agers’ to the wonderful benefits of yoga.
This was a very interesting exercise in self examination.
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