Living Yoga Off the Mat
Yoga has become an integral part of modern Western society. In an age of increasingly sophisticated technology this centuries old practice has an ever-increasing appeal. Two billion people around the world practice yoga fundamentally because, as Yogi Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev said, "it works".
Yoga’s resurgence of popularity is a reflection of our urge to reconnect with the earth and nature, even more so for those living a busy city life. A lot of us no longer engage in rituals of worship; singing, dancing or praying so we can be left seeking a way to feel whole and find meaning in this world (whether it be consciously or subconsciously).
Although Western Society talks of the physical benefits yoga can bring to us, for me the five thousand year old tradition of yoga is ultimately about two things - freedom and happiness. Explained very simply by Georg Feuerstein “Yoga helps us to remove all obstructing (mental) clouds, so that we may come (free) to enjoy the sunshine within”.
How I strive to live yoga off the mat...
A personal ongoing goal of mine is to live yoga in everyday life, not just on the mat. This is something that I connect with deeply and these values are what I strive to live by.
We might initially come to class for the physical benefits, I know I did, but the reason so many of us stay is because there’s that magical feeling that we at first cannot put our finger on but somehow starts to make us a better human.
Living yoga off the mat is something which the Yamas and Niyamas refers to from the ‘8 Limbs of Yoga’. Having a religious upbringing, for me, it’s interesting to note that these five Yamas and five Niyamas resemble the ten commandments as well as the ten virtues of Buddhism. These practices, these beliefs all ‘different’ yet ‘united’ at the same time - aiming to spread good values, morals and energy.
Below is my take on the Yamas and Niyamas and how I strive to live with yoga in my life off the mat.
The 5 Yamas
Non-violence (Ahimsa) - I am a big believer that positive thinking will allow you to live a happier, healthier life. Loving thoughts cause dopamine, the ‘feel good’, ‘relaxation’ chemical, to be released into the body. This strengthens the immune system, and actually has the power to cure us from illness. When we think negatively, we send messages through our body that cause the fight or flight response, secreting cortisol (the ‘stress hormone’) in to the body. This lowers the immune system, making us more susceptible to illness and physical pain.
The Lao Tzu quote sums this up perfectly for me “Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habit. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.” AKA - Good vibes only!
Truthfulness (Satya) - Being more open and honest about my feelings is something I am constantly striving to do off the mat with the relationships within my life. Yoga has aided my massively in this area. Practicing heart opening asanas and classes around the heart Chakra is something I love to do to help myself to continue to grow in this area.
Non stealing (Asteya) - ‘Non-stealing’ means so much more than not physically taking something from someone else. Asteya is mentioned throughout many Indian texts and there are lots of ways we can practice this off the mat but what resonates with me (and I feel I am starting to get better at this) is not robbing yourself of experiencing life as it is.
‘Dvesa’, which translates as ‘aversion’, is that feeling we get when we try really hard not to feel a painful physical or emotional feeling when it arises. By attempting to feel only the ‘good’, we ignore the other half of life completely. By going into the dark places we fear of treading the most, the lighter experiences shine even brighter, and we’re made whole by allowing ourselves to experience every emotion there is to offer.
The opposite of this would be clinging a little too tightly to pleasurable experiences, known as ‘raga’, and although the experience itself may be one of joy of happiness, the action of trying to hold onto it out of desire ultimately creates more suffering.
Right use of energy (Brahmacharya) - Although Asteya is important I also believe that being aware of how our bodies and minds respond to certain situations, can help us begin to cultivate a life that makes the best use of our energy so we can share and spread that energy with others. In order to be the best version of ourselves and to use our energy in the right way, we need first of all to listen to what our body needs. Yoga has helped me to stop and listen to my body and respond accordingly.
Non greed or non hoarding (Aparigraha) - Something I still strive to do but which I can find difficult living a busy city life. The freedom to rely less on external and material possessions to bring us happiness, and the freedom to experience everything life has to offer, whatever that may be.
The 5 Niyamas
Cleanliness (Saucha) - In my life I take and give importance to clean eating and clean thoughts.
Clean eating - I choose and I am an advocate of eating organic wholefoods whenever possible; I truly believe you are what you eat.
Clean thoughts - I believe that if there’s a problem in the world that you genuinely can do nothing about, then worrying and getting angry isn’t going to help; instead, choose to meditate and send positive, pure thoughts towards the situation and add some goodness to the world.
Contentment (Santosha) - Accepting life as it is! It’s important to be happy with where you are right now and not rely on others and things to make you happy. This does not mean that you shouldn’t have goals and motivation to progress and grow but you shouldn’t have to wait for something or someone to happen in your life to be happy.
Discipline, burning of desire (Tapas) - Tapas can mean cultivating a sense of self-discipline, passion and courage in order to burn away ‘impurities’ physically, mentally and emotionally, and paving the way to our true greatness. The discipline we learn on the mat is a fantastic lesson to take off the mat and into everyday life. When we breathe through challenging situations in a yoga practice, such as a difficult balancing pose, or when we find the strength to lift up in to an arm balance we previously thought was ‘impossible’, we can take these lessons with us and learn to be strong when facing challenging life situations. For me it’s about having the courage NOT to listen to the voices in our head that tell us we’re ‘not strong enough’ or ‘not good enough’.
Self-study or self-reflection (Svadhyaya) - I love to progress and learn new things and this is something I am a big believer in. Self studying, always reading and learning to move closer towards ‘Self-realisation’ and growth. That of course is one of the reasons why I wanted to become a yoga teacher.
Surrender to a higher power (Isvara Pranidhana) - Again being open! This time being open to possibilities, something which I try and live by, although as with everything sometimes need reminding of, (helped by my yoga practice). ‘Opening up to what is’, and instead of fighting against life’s twists and turns, remaining open to experiencing life as it unfolds