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 Yoga: What is Yoga? 

Aparigraha--Not Grasping
Holding on to things and being free are two mutually exclusive states. The ordinary mind is constantly manipulating reality to get ground underneath it, building more and more concretized images of how things are and how others are, as a way of generating confidence and security. We build self-images and construct concepts and paradigms that feed our sense of certainty, and we then defend this edifice by bending every situation to reinforce our certainty. This would be fine if life were indeed a homogeneous event in which nothing ever changed; but life does change, and it demands that we adapt and change with it. The resistance to change, and tenaciously holding on to things, causes great suffering and prevents us from growing and living life in a more vital and pleasurable way. What yoga philosophy and all the great Buddhist teachings tells us is that solidity is a creation of the ordinary mind and that there never was anything permanent to begin with that we could hold on to. Life would be much easier and substantially less painful if we lived with the knowledge of impermanence as the only constant. As we all have discovered at some time in our lives, whenever we have tried to hold on too tightly to anything, whether it be possessiveness of our partner or our youthful identity, this has only led to the destruction of those very things we most value. Our best security lies in taking down our fences and barricades and allowing ourselves to grow, and through that growth becoming stronger and yet more resilient.

The practice of aparigraha also requires that we look at the way we use things to reinforce our sense of identity. The executive ego loves to believe in its own power but unfortunately requires a retinue of foot soldiers in the way of external objects such as the right clothes, car, house, job, or image to maintain this illusion. Because this executive ego is but an illusion created by our sense of separateness, it requires ever greater and more elaborate strategies to keep it clothed. Although the practice of not grasping may first begin as consciously withdrawing our hand from reaching for external things, eventually the need to reach outward at all diminishes until there is a recognition that that which is essential to us is already at hand.

Niyamas -Codes for Living Soulfully

Shaucha, or living purely, involves maintaining a cleanliness in body, mind, and environment so that we can experience ourselves at a higher resolution. The word pure comes from the Latin purus, which means clean and unadulterated. When we take in healthy food, untainted by pesticides and unnatural additives, the body starts to function more smoothly. When we read books that elevate our consciousness, see movies that inspire, and associate with gentle people, we are feeding the mind in a way that nourishes our own peacefulness. Creating a home environment that is elegant, simple, and uncluttered generates an atmosphere where we are not constantly distracted by the paraphernalia of yesterday's projects and last year's knickknacks. Shaucha is a testament to the positive power of association.

Practicing shaucha, meaning "that and nothing else," involves making choices about what you want and don't want in your life. Far from self-deprivation or dry piety, the practice of shaucha allows you to experience life more vividly. A clean plate enjoys the sweetness of an apple and the taste of pure water; a clear mind can appreciate the beauty of poetry and the wisdom imparted in a story; a polished table reveals the deep grain of the wood. This practice both generates beauty and allows us to appreciate it in all its many forms.

Santosha, or the practice of contentment, is the ability to feel satisfied within the container of one's immediate experience. Contentment shouldn't be confused with happiness, for we can be in difficult, even painful circumstances and still find some semblance of contentment if we are able to see things as they are without the conflictual pull of our expectations. Contentment also should not be confused with complacency, in which we allow ourselves to stagnate in our growth. Rather it is a sign that we are at peace with whatever stage of growth we are in and the circumstances we find ourselves in. This doesn't mean that we accept or tolerate unhealthy relationships or working conditions. But it may mean that we practice patience and attempt to live as best we can within our situation until we are able to better our conditions.

Contentment not only implies acceptance of the present but tends to generate the capacity for hopefulness. This may seem contradictory but is not. When you are equanimous within any situation, this strengthens your faith that there is the possibility of living even more fully. This possibility is not held out as something to look forward to, nor does it have the negative effect of making you feel dissatisfied until those hopes are gratified. Rather, the ability to sustain one's spirits even in dire situations, is proof that a central sense of balance is rarely contingent on circumstances. And, sustaining hopefulness, even when there are few signs that things win improve, is one very good way of fostering contentment.

Tapas--Burning Enthusiasm
Literally translated as "fire" or "heat," tapas is the disciplined use of our energy. Because the word discipline has the negative connotation of self-coercion, I take the liberty here of translating this central precept as "burning enthusiasm." When we can generate an attitude of burning ardor, the strength of our convictions generates a momentum that carries us forward. We all know how even a seemingly boring or unpleasant task like cleaning the house can be transformed when we work with vigor and impulsion. Suddenly cleaning the toilet becomes fun, hauling heavy loads invigorating, and dusting the furniture absorbing. Tapas is a way of directing our energy. Like a focused beam of light cutting through the dark, tapas keeps us on track so that we don't waste our time and energy on superfluous or trivial matters. When this energy is strong, so also are the processes of transmutation and metamorphism.

We are not all equally possessed of the disciplined energy of tapas. Some people need to work more earnestly to kindle the flames of tapas, and it is at these times that it is helpful to have a kind of parental consciousness coupled with a good sense of humor. Our actions are then guided by a part of the self that knows what's good for it, which is aided by the ability to laugh in the face of one's neuroses, lethargy, or addictions. Even the laser minds among us have days when it takes a sheer act of will to get out of bed, turn to our studies, or withdraw the hand that reaches for a second slice of cake. If you have little enthusiasm yourself, it can be enormously helpful to seek the company of those who have this quality in abundance. Attending a class with an inspiring teacher or practicing yoga with a friend who has already established a strong practice can help to stimulate tapas within yourself. Once activated, however, the embers of tapas tend to generate more and more heat and momentum, which makes each subsequent effort less difficult. The analogy of a fire is fitting for this precept. Once a fire has completely died out it can take a great deal of effort to start it up again. When you do get a fire to light, the tentative embers must be fed at regular intervals or the fire dies out again. But once the fire is roaring, it is easy to sustain.

For what greater purpose do we need tapas, or discipline? Pema Chödrön, the Abbot of Gampo Abbey in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and the author of many books on Tibetan Buddhism, tells us that "what we discipline is not our 'badness' or our 'wrongness.' What we discipline is any form of potential escape from reality" (italics added). When we're not living in this disciplined awareness, our willing tactics of avoidance create an endless cycle of more suffering for ourselves. These avoidance tactics may temporarily placate our senses, but they create a deep form of unhappiness. On some level we know we're not being true to ourselves or our potential. Discipline is having enough respect for yourself to make choices that truly nourish your well-being and provide opportunities for expansive growth. Far from being a kind of medicinal punishment, tapas allows us to direct our energy toward a fulfilled life of meaning and one that is exciting and pleasurable.

Any activity that cultivates self-reflective consciousness can be considered swadhyaya. The soul tends to be lured by those activities that will best illuminate it. Because people are so different in their proclivities, one person may be drawn to write, while another will discover herself through painting or athletics. Another person may come to know himself through mastering an instrument, or through service at a hospice. Still another may learn hidden aspects of herself through the practice of meditation. The form that this self-study takes is inconsequential. Whatever the practice, as long as there is an intention to know yourself through it, and the commitment to see the process through, almost any activity can become an opportunity for learning about yourself. Swadhyaya means staying with our process through thick and thin because it's usually when the going gets rough that we have the greatest opportunity to learn about ourselves.

While self-study uncovers our strengths, authentic swadhyaya also ruthlessly uncovers our weakness, foibles, addictions, habit patterns, and negative tendencies. This isn't always the most cheering news. The worst thing we can do at these times is give ourselves the double whammy of both uncovering a soft spot and beating ourselves up for what we perceive as a fatal flaw. At these times, it's important actually to welcome and accept our limitations. When we welcome a limitation, we can get close enough to ourselves to see the roots of our anger, impatience, or self-loathing. We can have a little compassion, for the forces and conditions that molded our behaviors and beliefs, and in so doing develop more skill in handling, containing, and redirecting previously self-destructive tendencies. The degree to which we can do this for ourselves is the degree to which we will be tolerant of other people's weaknesses and flaws. Self-study is a big task.

Self-study also can become psychically incestuous when the same self that may be confused and fragmented attempts to see itself. This is why it can be so helpful (not to mention expedient) to secure the help of a mentor, teacher, or close friend to support your self-study. If you've ever said that someone "just doesn't see himself" and watched him enact the same self-destructive behaviors again and again, just consider how likely it is that you too are blind to your own faults. A skillful mentor, and that can be anyone from a wise aunt to a therapist to a bona fide guru, can find loving ways to help you see yourself as you really are.

Ishvarapranidhana--Celebration of the Spiritual
Life is not inherently meaningful. We make meaning happen through the attention and care we express through our actions. We make meaning happen when we set a table with care, when we light a candle before practicing, or when we remove our shoes before entering a temple. Yoga tells us that the spiritual suffuses everything it is simply that we are too busy, too distracted, or too insensitive to notice the extraordinary omnipresence that dwells in all things. So one of the first ways that we can practice ishvarapranidhana is by putting aside some time each day, even a few minutes, to avail ourselves of an intelligence larger than our own. This might take the form of communing with your garden at dawn, taking a few moments on the bus to breathe slowly and clear your mind, or engaging in a more formal practice such as a daily reading, prayer, ritual, or meditation. This practice requires that we have recognized that there is some omnipresent force larger than ourselves that is guiding and directing the course of our lives. We all have had the experience of looking back at some event in our life that at the time may have seemed painful, confusing and disruptive, but later, in retrospect, made perfect sense in the context of our personal destiny. We recognize that the change that occurred during that time was necessary for our growth, and that we are happier for it. The catch is that it's hard to see the bigger picture when you think you are the great controller of your life. When you are the great controller, you fail to recognize that supposed coincidences, accidents and chance meetings all have some greater significance i the larger scheme of your destiny. When you are the master of your universe, it's hard to trust anything but your own self-made plans. When we don't have this recognition that there's a bigger story going on, we get caught up in our personal drama and a frustrating cycle of resistance to change. Ishvarapranidhana asks us to go quietly, even when it's not possible to see exactly where things are headed. At first this can be frightening, like being suspended in the air between one trapeze bar and another, but, over time, this not knowing exactly how life is going to unfold and the giving up of our frantic attempts to manipulate and control makes each day an adventure. It makes our life a horse race right up until the very finish!

(Excerpted from Yoga Mind, Body & Spirit: A Return to Wholeness ISBN: 0805059709)
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 About The Author
Donna Farhi Donna Farhi is a Yoga teacher who has been practicing for 30 years and teaching since 1982. She leads intensives and teacher training programs internationally. Donna is best known for her unique ability to help......more
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