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).
Tag Archive for: Sutras
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”.
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