Simple ways the modern day yogi can apply these principles to live a happy life.
The eight limbs of yoga
Almost 2,000 years ago an Indian sage, Patanjali, created the Yoga Sutras, a collection of ancient yogic texts. One of the main teachings is the Eight Limbs of Yoga (Ashtanga) which can be described as the foundation of yoga and is commonly practised today by yogis all around the world. The Eight Limbs comprises of eight steps that lead us to enlightenment. If practised regularly they can help us to live a happy and meaningful life.
Patanjali’s Eight limbs are:
1. The Yamas (restraints)
2. The Niyamas (self-disciplines)
3. Asana (yoga poses)
4. Pranayama (breathing techniques)
5. Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses)
6. Dharana (concentration)
7. Dhyana (meditation)
8. Samadhi (absorption)
Last week we discussed the first step in the path to enlightenment, the Yamas which focus on things to avoid or how we behave in relation to the external world. The Niyamas are internal behaviours that contribute to personal growth and character.
1. Shaucha (cleanliness)
Saucha involves practising cleanliness in the mind, body and speech. An obvious interpretation of this Niyama is to ensure that we shower regularly and we keep our environment clean. It seems like common sense however, we experience a feeling of well-being and vitality when our body and environment is clean. Shaucha also relates to changing negative thought patterns or decluttering the mind and cleanliness in the way we talk to and about others.
Practice tip: Focus on decluttering an area of your home. Notice your mood when this is done. Decluttering our physical environment can also help to declutter the mind. When often feel like there is a lot going on inside the mind when we are busy. If we feel that we do not have the time to go to a yoga class, just sit for a few moments with the breath (I have shared some pranayama videos in the Yoga Tribe Facebook group). A few minutes of deep breathing can really calm the mind and improve focus.
2. Santosha (satisfaction)
This Niyama involves being content with the way things are right now. It is the key to overall well-being and happiness. This can be a difficult concept to grasp in our modern day society as many of us are always striving to earn more money or reach that next goal. Relying on external factors to make us happy is not Santosha, true contentment comes from within. This is not to say that we cannot have hopes and dreams but it is best to not rely solely on achieving them to be happy. We can be happy in the process. Life can throw us curve balls and whist we may not be able to change what is going on we do have the power to change our perception and to reduce unnecessary suffering.
Practice tip: Rather than thinking “I will be happy if or when…”, practise gratitude for all of the wonderful things in your life right now. You can do this by writing down 3-5 things that you are thankful for each day. This will shift the focus from those goals that you have not met yet to realising how abundant your life is right now. If we are working towards a goal in our professional or personal life pay attention to the journey that leads you there and everything that you’ve learnt along the way.
3. Tapas (persistence)
Tapas involves discipline and grit. When we practise Santosha we are content with where we are in life. This does not mean that we cannot have goals and try to improve ourselves. However, but we do not want to have tunnel vision where we allow other aspects of life to suffer. Getting out of our comfort zone and learning something new will involves discipline but in the end we grow, which leads us to Svadhyaya (self-study).
Practice Tip: Practising yoga involves discipline. Sometimes we just don’t feel like doing it, even if we know it is what we need. It is often when we are so busy that we feel like we don’t have the time (even though we can still manage to find the time to watch Tiger King or Too Hot to Handle on Netflix… or is that just me?) You don’t have to attend a 60-minute class to feel the benefits of yoga. There are many days where I will set aside 10 – 20 minutes to practise. Depending on how I am feeling it may be mainly breathing, or sun salutations or just a few deep stretches. Even 5 minutes of pranayama is so beneficial to overall health and well-being.
4. Svadhyaya (self-study)
We are always learning. This Niyama involves continual personal growth. Observing our thoughts and behaviour, rather than living life in autopilot. I have mentioned previously about how important it is to notice our thoughts because these thoughts inform our behaviour. For example, it is important to understand that if we are constantly irritated with others it is probably a reflection of our own internal dialogue rather than their behaviour. I am often guilty of losing my temper easily when I am feeling stressed which then has an impact on those around me. Doing the inner work will improve our relationship with others and with ourselves.
Practice Tip: If you are feeling stressed, angry or irritated find a nice quiet place to just sit and observe your emotions. You may start sitting with the legs crossed, spine straight and focus on the breath. Remain still and notice what comes up. We can find moments of clarity when we remain still. We may even notice why we are feeling this way. Once we start to understand our thoughts and behaviours we can begin to change them. Sounds like meditation right? Like all skills, to improve at meditation we need to practise it regularly. Try to meditate (even if for 5 minutes) when you feel calm as well as times of turbulence.
5. Isvara Pranidhana (devotion, surrender to god)
Whether you are religious or an atheist, this Niyama allows us to acknowledge that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, often called the collective consciousness. This can mean surrendering to a higher power and letting go of the outcome. Many of us, including myself, like to feel in control. When something comes up that is out of our control (like a global pandemic) it can start to stir up feelings of anxiety. This Niyama is involves with letting go of expectations. Practising Isvara Pranidhana can allow us to reduce the amount of unnecessary worry that can sometimes plague our minds.
Practice Tip: Are you very rigid in your routine? Does it annoy you when things do not go to plan? Whilst creating routine and good habits are great for our discipline, we need to take a flexible approach. This may involve rethinking that way we react when our expectations are not met. This can include expectations of life, ourselves and even those around us.