Thursday, April 6, 2017

Embracing Ethics: The Core of Yoga

Most people may not know that the yoga we hear about or see is just 1/8 of what this tradition is really about. Asana (Sanskrit for "pose") is just the tip of the iceberg. Poses are what the onlooker sees. But below the water's surface the teachings of yoga go even deeper, into the internal workings of the mind and soul. Yoga is beneficial just as movement and stretching; but come closer and you will find that it is much more - it is self-inquiry and a path of wisdom that has been developed for thousands of years, and brings about the unity of mind, body, breath, and faith.

Yoga is more that what is visible to the eye
Yoga is not a faith; but it is a practice that gives real shape to our spiritual and physical wellbeing. As such, it involves all of our life, and gives instruction and discipline in how we live and how we think and how we tap into our own faith in God. As I mentioned in my post on the Atman, Patanjali, author of the Yoga Sutras, is nonsectarian. When he refers in the ancient Yoga Sutras to meditating on God, he wisely uses a term that can be adopted by anyone: Ishvara is a philosophical category rather than a name of God (oh so many in this world). As Edwin Bryant explains, it is a title, not a person; it's like saying "the President" - this could be Clinton or Reagan or Obama. Insert who you like. So if the third limb of yoga, asana - downward dog, Warrior 1, tree pose, etc. - is just one of the many aspects of yoga, what are the others?

Mara Carrico gives a very concise introduction to the 8 limbs of yoga her article in Yoga Journal: "In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, the eightfold path is called ashtanga, which literally means “eight limbs” (ashta=eight, anga=limb).... They serve as a prescription for moral and ethical conduct and self-discipline; they direct attention toward one’s health; and they help us to acknowledge the spiritual aspects of our nature."

Today's post will introduce the yamas and niyamas, just two of the 8 limbs of yoga, which deal with moral, purposeful, and ethical conduct and call upon our self-awareness and discipline. I appreciate how Carrico links the yamas and niyamas to one's health. I recently have been musing on the interconnectedness of our spiritual and physical health, as I am coming up on my one year anniversary of my total colectomy and the six month mark since my j pouch surgery. Being in and out of the hospital so many times over the past year has given me a unique perspective on the difference between physical and spiritual health, and the importance of both. My body is not where I want it to be (doctors say that it could take up to a year from my j-pouch), but yoga is giving me healing to continue my fight toward health. I don't know if I'll get to whatever "normal" feels like without a large intestine and with my genetic disease, and I may feel like I take one step forward two steps back some days. But I know I'm going to keep walking with love and light, gratitude, and discipline (tapas) to live a more centered life.

So, the first two limbs of yoga are are a set of ethical principles regarding our treatment of others, the yamas, and our treatment toward ourselves, the niyamas. In thinking more about them, and becoming more aware of how we can live according to them, we have the benefit (free gift!) of leading a happier, more peaceful and fulfilling life. The frustration that arises from not understanding these principles is really quite detrimental and harmful to ourselves, and to others by extension. Our actions matter so much, and so too do are thoughts. (And then there is karma, a single word for "action" and "reaction" which tells us that ethical principles are real, sometimes by kicking us in the head).

fort fortelezza
A photo of me from a trip to San Juan in 2012. I have always been reflective, but I was too carefree.
In some ways my illness has helped me go deeper into what I actually believe, and who I want to be.

And here is some more wisdom: As Gaura Vani said to me in a recent visit to Yoga Mandali (as his guru once said to him), "It is not so much what we do that God is concerned about, but how we do it." This is so true. Think about it. How someone goes about doing something can leave either a bad taste in your mouth, or a much more palatable one. And likewise for the taste we leave in others' mouths. The effects of how we relate to others (and to self) is palpable. My question to Gaura Vani had been: what if we have been asking God what we should do about a really hard personal decision, and we cannot come to a decision no matter how we struggle. A greater understanding of the principles that yoga teaches is helpful, and then the relationship decisions we need to make will follow. Life is about relationship with others and relationship with self. Thus, in each action or decision, it would be wise to keep in mind the following:

The 5 yamasAhimsa: nonviolence, Satya: truthfulness, Asteya: nonstealing, Brahmacharya: continence, Aparigraha: noncovetousness

The 5 niyamas:
Saucha: cleanliness, Santosha: contentment, Tapas: the fire of discipline; spiritual austerities, Svadhyaya: study of the sacred scriptures and of self, Isvara pranidhana: surrender to God

Sound easy? Yet each one of these could be a lengthy introspective diary entry for each one of us. If you search the web, you will find a lot written about each one. When we reflect on any one of the yamas or niyamas, we see new ways to consider these principles. For example, aparigraha. We may not covet someone's wife or husband, but we may be a hoarder. What's wrong with hoarding? When we look deeper we can see that hoarding, as my teacher, Gopi Kinnicutt, pointed out, is not trusting (God) for what we need. As Yoga Amrit Desai has said, "Once you realize that the source of all solutions that you seek outside yourself are always present within you, asteya naturally happens." If this sounds like my Wizard of Oz analogy of the Atman (Sanksrit for "soul"), where Oz steps out of the projection booth and lets himself be seen as a real person and says, "Everything you were looking for was right with you all along," it must be because we are onto something here! (See post). Anyway, we all have ways in which we can improve on our ethical code (and by extension, true happiness), even if when we first look at the yama or niyama word and think, hey I'm good, I don't do that! As I grow older, I trust that life will reveal to me deeper levels of these principles, deeper ways of being honest, pure, and of studying self or wisdom texts, etc. I am happier already when I realize that peace will come through pursuing such principles, and through self-checking when I/we have lost our way in one of these regards. I find the words of Swami Kripalu to be very encouraging: "In firmly grasping the flower of a single virtue, a person can lift the entire garland of yama and niyama."

In this introductory entry, I will give my take on asteya (nonstealing). At first, I felt like does not apply to me in the strict sense because I do not steal. Then, I read that asteya can also mean not taking that which is not offered. Now that is something to ponder. Also: I came across the notion of wabi-sabi, a Japanese philosophy that teaches beauty in imperfection or impermanence. I found this while reading a blurb on asteya on the yoga international site; the section of the article in Yoga International has the interesting headliner: "Appreciate rather than conceal." This reading got my wheels turning about my own level of contentment with the world around me and how I could appreciate it - and others (and maybe myself too) - more. Wabi-sabi is an alternative perspective to our quest for sleek, mass-produced products or the desire for guarantees that generally don't generate what we want anyway.
Maybe wabi-sabi is in the elegance of decrepit abandoned factories in Detroit, or it is in the seconds of a beautiful sunset that will not stay, perhaps wabi-sabi is in a chipped statue, the old bent wooden floors that creak, the garbage bags strewn along a brick wall showing human life, not just waste. It is the beauty, muted by society's rules and standards, of something that at first appears ugly. Perhaps asteya is not stealing beauty from something that, if you look close enough, still holds beauty. Wabi-sabi is a reassuring perspective: it is not rejecting what is there. It is authenticity. The beauty may be in the how: how it reveals itself to you, and you alone. Perhaps wabi-sabi is the beauty in upstate NY on a week where the sun doesn't peek through the colorless sky, yet the grey somehow cradles us, insulating our thoughts, memories, and actions in its strange way, not to last.

wabi sabi
Further regarding wabi-sabi, and the beauty in impermanence: The author of the aforementioned article on asteya, Michelle Marlahan, writes that yoga is “training yourself to be aware of the sensations, thoughts, and emotions present in any given situation. Rather than running off in the story of those thoughts or feelings, see them as ever changing and watch their fluctuations like clouds in the sky.” That seems to me to be a way to celebrate impermanence, rather than to fear it. I want guarantees and a permanent situation, especially given the huge turn of events in my life given my diagnosis, surgeries, changed body, and continuing disability. But that is neither possible nor in fact, desirable. I must embrace impermanence, and live in the moment – which is exactly what yoga helps me to do.

                w     a      b      i            s       a      b      i
Perhaps wabi-sabi is seeing as Swami Kripalu saw: Everything was alive to him.

On a last anecdotal note about asteya, sometimes I have to admit that I can be greedy about food, especially because I love the unique preparation of food so much. How awful that I am not willing to share a bite! On the other hand, if I am cooking or enjoying a nice moment at a restaurant, I will love to share food with others and will insist that someone try something. I think I better prefer being genuinely generous!

Perhaps I was practicing wabi-sabi during that San Juan trip in 2012
without realizing it when I took this photo?