If you read my last post on How Yoga Changed My Life, you’ll get a sense of the shifts that occurred for me from creating a yoga practice. I really learned a stronger connection with and appreciation for my body – along with a calming of my mind.
I also found myself opening up spiritually and believing more in myself. But yoga is more than just moving from pose to pose with a calm mind – if you want it to, it can also positively impact your spirit.
Spiritual Benefits of Yoga?
While I didn’t go into yoga at first for it’s spiritual benefits, I started to realize them after creating a regular practice. I started to get curious about how to keep my mind more focused and centered on the present moment – first to improve my practice – and later to improve my experience of life. I figured if I could walk into a yoga class depressed and start to feel bliss during my practice, I must be able to get the benefits of a present mind while off my mat as well.
Visible & Invisible Components
There is an internal, invisible component of yoga and the idea is that through our physical practice, we bring more of the invisible benefits into our lives. It’s like if we are able to achieve balance, focus and harmony on the outside – even while things like gravity and distractions surround us – we must be able to do the same on the inside.
If you think about it, the whole idea is to create balance – which so many of us are seeking in our lives. It is when our lives get out of balance – in mind, body and spirit – that addiction, illness or dis-ease sets in. When addiction, illness or dis-ease sets in, many of our body’s systems start to falter in one way or another, creating a vicious cycle.
it’s not about judgment or rigidity, but about how I feel about each of theseThe purpose of yoga is to bring our body’s systems back into balance. As Stephen Cope says in his book, Yoga & The Quest for the True Self, it has benefits for “…, cardiovascular health, musculoskeletal strength and flexibility, without the painful, damaging side effects of high-impact aerobics. It tunes up every organ system – respiratory, digestive, reproductive, endocrine, lymphatic and nervous. It cultivates the body’s capacity to relax and dramatically reduces the negative effects of stress.” (Introduction)
Well, I definitely felt these positive effects on my body – everything from my posture, once so bad from many years of bulimia, to my digestion, started to feel better. Then I went to a class with Rolf Gates, who wrote Meditations from the Mat. Rolf Gates was once an alcoholic and attributes his recovery to healing through meditation and yoga, among other things. During his class, he said something that really struck me – and still sits with me today. He said, “If you have an addiction, you can be sure that you are violating one of the yamas or niyamas.”
Yamas & Niyamas
The yamas and niyamas are part of the eight-fold path of Ashtanga yoga – this is where yoga goes beyond the “asanas” or poses – and becomes a way of life.
Here is an outline of the eightfold path, or 8 limbs of yoga:
- Yama (Principles, guidelines or restraints)
- Niyama (Personal Disciplines)
- Asana (Yoga Positions or Yogic Postures)
- Pranayama (Yogic Breathing)
- Pratyahara (Withdrawal of Senses)
- Dharana (Concentration on Object)
- Dhyan (Meditation)
- Samadhi (Salvation)
There are five sub-components each for the yamas and niyamas, and they tend to be fairly similar to many principles of the world’s religions. While I was never one to look rigidly at rules of religion or conduct in my life, I thought what Rolf said was interesting.
- Ahimsa (non-violence)
- Satya (truthfulness)
- Asteya (non-stealing)
- Brahmacharya (celibacy)
- Aparigraha (non-covetousness)
- Shaucha (purity)
- Santosha (contentment)
- Tapa or (austerity)
- Swadhyaya (self-education)
- Ishwar-Pranidhan (meditation on the Divine)
As I contemplated how I felt about what Rolf said, what I came up with is this: it’s not about judgment or rigidity, but about how I feel about each of these. How I feel about each of them is made up of my past experiences and possibly any religious or spiritual beliefs. All of this comes together to create a belief or value system in my mind. If I firmly believe in my value system and go against it, then I end up in imbalance. If I continue to go against my value system, I may end up needing to numb myself or learn to question my inner voice enough to go against it.
Beliefs & Value Systems vs. Past Conditioning
what “good girls” should and shouldn’t doIf you really think about beliefs and value systems, sometimes we get into danger because we are struggling in fear over the beliefs or values that are not our own. For example, if you had parents that grew up in the 1940’s or 50’s, you may have learned what “good girls” should and shouldn’t do. Today, while many of these lessons we learned from parents may be outdated, we may still struggle with those messages. Every time we go against them, it may trigger a fear that we are not “approved of” or not good. The same is true for religious beliefs that were drilled into our heads as children. We may not be living those beliefs today, but still feel “guilty” about them. Or possibly, we are living those beliefs, but have embraced that we are “sinners” or inherently guilty.
This is when I realized that yes, I was violating several of the yamas and niyamas — in that I hadn’t even become aware of my belief systems enough to realize that how I really WANTED to live my life was in violation to how I thought I SHOULD live my life.
Removing the “Shoulds”
I spent a lot of time coming to grips with all the ways I thought I should live my life vs. how I wanted to. My coach really helped me with this by pointing out the “limiting thoughts” and beliefs that held me back. Once we looked at these limiting thoughts from several angles, I realized how I put myself in this tiny box. I was only able to be, do and have things within that little box in order to feel “good.” And since life cannot be contained in a box – it’s uncontainable, uncontrollable – I spent most of my time feeling bad.
Once I realized that, I started to move the lines of my box – move them inch-by-inch. I went out and experimented with moving these lines, took risks and paid attention to the results. What I found was I felt better – I was clearer about what I wanted. I spoke my voice more and got more of what I wanted. I had more energy to be loving and giving toward others. I started to need this addiction less and less.
Removing The Lines That Stifled Me
As my box got bigger, it started to lose its lines. I had set my own boundaries and became clear on my own values and belief systems. I could see when old experiences and past conditioning was behind a thought or feeling. And life became full of unlimited possibilities. It took 4 years for this to happen. It’s not a quick fix, but maybe I’m a slow learner too 🙂 – everyone is different. In any event, it didn’t take 4 years to start feeling good. The good feelings came almost immediately. I was like a baby learning to walk – with a smile of glee with each small success – and getting up with every fall.
- Get clear on your values.
- Once you are clear on your values, start to really pay attention to your thoughts and feelings throughout your day.
- Be aware of thoughts or feelings that come up, which are based on past conditioning (what your parents taught you, things you learned from past experiences) – sometimes these will be in direct conflict with how your really want to live your life. They may even cause confusion about how to live life based on the values you come up with after doing Michelle’s exercise.
- Consider having an inner dialogue or writing out what’s behind these thoughts or feelings stemming from the conflict. Following this exercise might help.
- This is one way in which you can find out your “mistakes of the intellect” or “automatic thinking” that comes from a belief created from an experience in your past.
- Moving beyond these limiting beliefs allows you to start living life your own way, according to your own voice.
- As you notice these, start to “move the lines” of your own box — experiment with living life as you want it, saying what you want, doing what you want.
- See what happens to your heart, how it grows in love for yourself and others.
For More Reading:
- Yoga and the Quest for the True Self, by Stephen Cope
- A New Earth, by Eckhart Tolle
- Ashtanga Yoga’s Eightfold Path (including more on the yamas and niyamas)
- Yoga Journal Article – Freedom From Addiction