One of the first aspects of meditation I was introduced to is that it can be taken anywhere and practiced at any moment. But over my first few months of consistent practice, I developed an increasing aversion to finding new spaces in which to meditate. I had my ideal space at home dedicated to my practice, which felt like enough when I considered...Read more
The following post was written by Katherine Moore. Katherine has been teaching for The Perri Institute for Mind and Body since 2013. You can find her running all over New York City, working as a teacher, choreographer, freelance dancer, and writer. Relax with her at Steps on Broadway on Friday nights at 6:30pm for restorative yoga.
The start of a new year is always a reflective time for me, and it’s a time that I enjoy immensely. There’s a sense of quiet and simplicity after the holiday rush, and I relish the slower, wintery pace of this new season. At the same time, there’s also a sense of freshness to this time of year, a desire for things to come that’s hidden inside the chilly air.
At a time of year when many people are setting resolutions and goals, I’ve been thinking a lot about santosa, one of Patanjali’s niyamas, or rules of conduct, in the Eight Limbs of Yoga. Santosa means contentment, and according to B.K.S Iyengar in Light on Yoga, santosa is something that has to be cultivated. “A mind that is not content cannot concentrate,” he says.
What is interesting to me about santosa is its relationship to desire: “There is contentment and tranquility when the flame of the spirit does not waver in the wind of desire.”
I’ve been running these words over in my mind all week, contemplating their meaning in the context of a new year with new goals, and perhaps also with an acute sense of what I feel is lacking in my current life and what I want to do about it in 2016. How can I cultivate santosa while at the same time knowing that certain aspects of my life need to change? My desire for things to be different seems to be in conflict with my practice of tranquility.
While I’m not typically one for hard and fast new year’s resolutions, I often come up with a general theme I’d like to work with throughout the year. For example, “Have More Fun” or “Wait and See.” It’s a simple way of approaching each year’s twists and turns with different mentalities and being curious about the results. This year I’ve settled on the always appropriate, “Relax.”
So how can I relax while also wrestling with the aspects of my life that seem unsatisfying and in need of change? Don’t I need to be doing something?
Perhaps yes, perhaps no. Santosa does not imply that we should not take action, that we should not work hard toward goals or take ourselves out of less than ideal situations or try to improve our lives. What santosa does imply however, is that through a cultivated practice of contentment, we might begin to know the difference between the choices that the changing, sometimes fickle nature of desire leads us to make and following paths that open to us when we work with a focused yet tranquil mind.
This can be a subtle and difficult discernment to make, and when examining our hopes and wishes for a new year in light of santosa, I think it’s important to remember that it’s human nature to want things to be different than how they are. It’s one of the most common trappings of the mind and one of the most detrimental thought patterns to our mental well-being. We can become addicted to our feelings of dissatisfaction and our attempts to control our surroundings in order to feel more satisfied. This may temporarily provide relief, but rarely offers the permanent sense of “I’m OK now” that we were hoping for. The hard truth is that that feeling never comes. The nature of life itself is impermanence.
I prefer “groundlessness” for this idea, taken from Pema Chödrön in Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change. Her ideas on working with groundlessness are helping me sculpt a practice for santosa this winter:
“This basic meditation technique is designed to help us remain open and receptive not only to our thoughts and emotions, not only to outer circumstances and the people we encounter, but also to groundlessness itself, to this underlying energy that is so threatening to the part of us that wants certainty. This practice allows us to get very close to this edgy, uncomfortable energy. It allows us to become familiar with nothing to hold on to, with stepping into the next moment without knowing what will happen. It gives us practice in taking a leap. It also gives us the space to notice how the mind immediately tries to entertain us or come up with scenarios of escape or revenge or do whatever else it does to provide security and comfort.
As we continue the practice, we will come to experience life’s impermanent and changing energy not just as threatening but also as refreshing, liberating, and inspiring. It’s the same energy—we just experience it in two different ways. Either we can relax into it, seeing it as the true nature of our mind, our conditional goodness, or we can react against it.”
Just as the newness of winter offers both quiet and freshness at the same time, so does santosa offer both tranquility and inspiration for paths not taken. When cultivated, santosa can actually help us stoke the flame of our spirits, especially while enjoying the calm and quiet of winter at the same time.
So as I relax into a santosa practice this winter, I am trying to remember that cultivating contentment will actually provide the exact opposite result of “doing nothing.” Instead of giving in to daily desire for change and by working with this groundlessness that Pema describes in a tranquil, focused way, perhaps I will become even more attuned to the energy that will help me take leaps, make unexpected changes, and help me find liberation from the new year’s mentality of dissatisfaction.
Lately I have this desire to get rid of things—it’s not a familiar sensation.
I’ve always admired the adventurous types that can pack their lives into compact suitcases; the people who are ready to get up and go at a moment’s notice, who aren’t afraid to leave where they’ve been in order to go where they haven’t. I admire them, but I’m not one of them.
I like to root into the places that I live. I take comfort in seeing familiar faces, and in walking familiar paths. I collect books for my shelves, spices for my kitchen, and artwork for my walls. I hold onto letters from old friends, gifts from relatives, and even the candles from my twenty-first birthday. I crave adventure, but I often get cold feet. I love hellos, but I dread goodbyes.
But in the past few weeks, three things that I’ve read have settled into their own homes in my mind: and they don’t seem ready to pack-up anytime soon. These things have caused me to confront my desire to collect, to hold close, and to stay, without wanting to toss away, to release, or to go.
1. "Let live what can live, and let die what must die."
This phrase is from Clarissa Pinkola Estés Women Who Run With the Wolves, a book that some of us at The Perri Institute have been reading over the past couple of months. In it, Estés talks about the “Life/Death/Life” cycle, which is the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth—or beginnings, endings, and beginnings again. As I continue to read this book, I am fascinated by the manner in which the author talks about death—not necessarily the death of humans, but the death of certain aspects of our lives. It isn’t something scary, or sad, or even all that alarming. It’s actually something rather freeing, and more importantly, it’s necessary; if we don’t allow what must die to die, then there is no space for the living to live. Particularly thought-provoking to me was her application of this cycle in relation to love:
“A part of every woman and every man resists knowing that in all love relationships Death must have her share. We pretend we can love without our illusions about love dying, pretend we can go on without our superficial expectations dying, pretend we can progress and that our favorite flushes and rushes will never die. But in love, psychically, everything becomes picked apart, everything...To love means to embrace and at the same time withstand many many endings, and many many beginnings—all in the same relationship.”
Whether it’s love for our family, our partner, our friends, or our art, each one of these relationships must be able to withstand both addition and subtraction. We must be able to recognize what these relationships need more of, and what they need less of. We can’t be afraid that letting go of what we no longer need will deplete us—instead, removing unneeded luggage will actually revive us.
2. “The way we do anything is the way we do everything.”
Recently I read this post on Elephant Journal, in which the author, Tamara Star, states that the way we keep our homes translates directly into how we run our lives. “Let’s pretend I’m in your home right now,” she writes. “Take a moment and open your closet. Are there a bunch of clothes in there you never wear, but continue to hold on to, just in case?” Guilty. “When we hold on to things just in case…We’re not trusting that what we need, or who we’ll want, will be there if we let go of what’s no longer working.”
This issue of trust is huge. There’s something scary about getting rid of things, about saying goodbye—it’s frightening to think we may never see them again. What if there comes a time when we need them? What if there comes a time when old ideas, old desires, old relationships, and old goals become relevant again? But this author is right to question the validity of these fears. If we’re afraid to let things go because we’re afraid they won’t be there in the future, then that fear is masking the fact that we don’t trust we’ll be able to handle circumstances that may arise. We’re not trusting ourselves. We’re not trusting that we’ll be able to gather our materials once again, should the time come in which we need to do so. By not trusting ourselves and the wisdom and strength that we’ve developed simply by living, we’re doing ourselves a great disservice.
3. “Well something’s lost but something’s gained in living everyday.”
When in doubt: Joni Mitchell. This quote from “Both Sides Now” perfectly encompasses the inflow and outflow of our daily lives, and it also taps into how we address this cycle. We can focus on loss, on death, and on what we have to give up, or we can focus on gain, on life, and on what we now have room to receive. Mitchell reminds us that the Life/Death/Life cycle Estés speaks of is occurring every single day. We can’t afford to mourn every loss. We also can’t afford to be afraid of letting go. Being human is about experiencing hellos and goodbyes on a daily basis.
So what does all of this have to do with yoga?
Aparigraha, translated often as non-hoarding, is one of the five yamas—or disciplines for conscious living—in yoga philosophy. In Light on Yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar writes the following:
"By the observance of aparigraha, the yogi makes his life as simple as possible and trains his mind not to feel the loss or the lack of anything. Then everything he really needs will come to him by itself at the proper time.”
Training ourselves not to feel any loss might seem a little ambitious, but the overall point still stands. Estés, Mitchell, Star and Iyengar are all saying the same thing; as yogis, part of our work is to recognize that we must be willing to let go of what no longer serves us. We must trust that what we need will be there for us when we need it—often what we “need” is something we already have, tools that we’ve already developed in our practice that aid us in whatever is to come. This reminds me of my home yoga practice, in which handstand plays a starring role. I’ve been so stuck on the idea that my heels must touch the wall in order to achieve the asana, that I haven’t taken the time to step back and realize that this idea is no longer serving me. I’m no longer thinking about how I need to organize my body in a strong, supportive way that will allow me to stand on my arms—instead I’ve become obsessed with the end goal, a goal that won’t be realized by practicing in a way that is no longer useful to me. Now I’m focusing more on finding maximum suspension: advice that TaraMarie had given me a while back, that I feel it is time to return to now. I’m challenging myself to see how long I can float my legs off of the ground, before gravity pulls them back down. Right now, the flotation duration is pretty minimal. But the idea is new, it is exciting, and it makes me feel more like an adventurer, and less like someone who is stuck in a ditch. I’m letting new practices live: new practices that never would have arrived--or rather returned--if I hadn’t been willing to let the old ones slip away.
When we’re off the mat, applications of aparigraha are also plentiful. Whether it’s old clothes in our closets, excessively expired food in our refrigerators, or understandings of our friends and families that are no longer relevant, we must be willing to recognize what we’re hoarding, recognize what no longer serves us, and be able to let it go. Only then can we clear space for what's new, and what's prevalent.
Lately I have this desire to get rid of things—I’m hoping it becomes a more familiar sensation.
Mindbodybrew is ultimately about providing a space for written reflection at every step along the yoga path. We hope that by sharing assignments from our Teacher Trainees, we can expand their deep investigation into community-wide dialogue. The following is a piece written by one of our newest, current trainees, Marissa Wiley, in which she ties the Yamas, a limb of Patanjali's Eight Limbs of Yoga, to her practice, on and off the mat.
While reading B.K.S. Iyengar’s book Light On Yoga, I was extremely fascinated by the ethical disciplines of yoga. In the west especially, there seems to be a physical focus on yoga more than anything. However, there are eight different facets of the yoga practice in Light On Yoga and asanas, or the postures many of us associate yoga with, aren’t even the first or second facet. The first of the Eight Limbs of Yoga are the Yamas, the honorable and humane disciplines. These disciplines are also called the “great commandments”, for they are applicable at any time and in any community on the face of this earth. They are commandments for leading a humane and moral life.
One of the yamas described is ahimsa. Ahimsa guides us away from killing and instead, towards love. This commandment directs the yogi to love and embrace all forms of creation, for we are all children of that same creation. This commandment also specifies that killing or harming any piece or form of creation is an insult to the Creator himself. It’s described that this violence and desire to kill comes from a sense of needing to protect ourselves; this really could either relate to anger or fear. Iyengar writes, though, that men cannot protect themselves, and thus, the thought that they could is wrong. He encourages the yogi to rely on God, which in his eyes will bring about freedom from fear, or abhaya. Abhaya is described as the main way to curb violence, as it brings about an inner peace and love for creation.
This had me thinking about what I’m fearful of in my life and in my yoga practice and what brings me back to a calmer place. Many times I’ve attended yoga class exhausted and mentally drained. I don’t feel up for the challenge, and I certainly don’t want to take risks. There is no desire in me to play; instead, I want to continue with my habitual flow of my safe little bubble. In class this week, TaraMarie Perri shared a Kurt Vonnegut quote with us: “We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down”. This quote really struck a chord with me because of my tendencies to avoid risks. This opened up a door in my thought process that related not only to my yoga practice but to many facets of my life. I’ve always been the hesitant kid. I was afraid of fire, afraid of the dark, afraid of strangers, and very afraid to put myself out there. But why not jump off a cliff and figure it out on the free fall down? What’s the worst that could happen? Of course, this requires a lot of patience with oneself. I’ve been trying to work on this a lot in my daily life and in my dance practice recently, but it was extremely refreshing to hear it in my yoga practice as well. It has me thinking of what risks I could take and how I can bring that feeling of play into my practice.
I also can be pessimistic when tired. It can be hard to change my attitude once I get to a certain level of exhaustion, and it’s been something I’ve been working on in yoga. Once I start moving through flow, thoughts will start to bubble up. What always helps bring me back to my yoga practice is pranayama, the recognition and subsequent manipulation of the breath. Bringing my focus back to my breath always helps me dispute these negative thoughts and “what ifs” and brings about a feeling of starting fresh. It’s almost like a reset button for my thoughts and my energy. Now that I’m starting to deepen my yoga practice, I’ve been paying attention to my breath during daily activities. When I start to feel anxious or worried, I bring my attention to my breath and try to focus on it. I almost immediately feel more relaxed about the situation and am more patient with both the situation and myself.
When I have more patience for others, I become much less bitter and angry. Without this excess frustration, I am able to see more clearly. I move through the day with more ease and awareness. With this awareness, then, I am more appreciative of the things around me and the things I am particularly blessed with. This is why I feel that taking risks and pranayama are perfect examples of abhaya and ahimsa. If more people could be affected by yoga and pranayama, I feel like this world could be a better place. It would be a more patient, more playful, less violent, and more appreciative world. People would be open to new things and would be more aware as to how their actions affect others.
- Marissa Wiley