DAY 43 : Brahmacharya Day 1

The third yama in the series, which will be my focus for this week, is brahmacharya. Sandra Carson, in the practice which is part of the programme I’m following on Ekhart Yoga, interprets this as “moderation”. In commenting on sutra II.30 Bryant defines it as “celibacy”, which seems to be a pretty common interpretation. Citing other commentators, Bryant writes:

“Vyasa defines celibacy as the control of the sexual organs, and this is refined by Vacaspati Misra as not seeing, speaking with, embracing or otherwise interacting with members of the opposite sex as objects of desire. He quotes the Daksa-samhita: “The eight kinds of sexual indulgences are thinking, talking, and joking about sex; looking [at the opposite sex with passion], talking secretly about sex, determining to engage in it, attempting to do so, and actually performing the act” … In short, self-realisation cannot be attained if one is sexually active because this indicates that one is still seeking fulfillment on the sensual level and thus misidentifying with the nonself.”

 A later yoga sutra (II.38) states that “[u]pon the establishment of celibacy, power is attained.”

Frankly, that all sounds like precisely no fun, so I think a different understanding of brahmacharya is required, at least for me. I liked Sandra’s “moderation” interpretation. In terms of the physical yoga practice, the idea is that if we push ourselves too hard in any one posture, we will not obtain the maximum benefit. Pulling back slightly and so being able to hold the posture for longer will be far more beneficial. This requires a clear connection between the mind and the body so that we can identify the precise point that will be most beneficial, between holding back too much and pushing too far.

The practice itself focused on hip openers. The hips are central to so many yoga poses, so cultivating a keener awareness of how they feel and move will I think be useful far beyond this one particular practice. Once again I had to face one of my current yoga nemeses, poses which start from a wide-legged forward fold position, but I think I managed not to get too frustrated. Beneath any frustration, annoyance and negative thoughts I know that these poses are good for me, because they require me to deal with internal discomfort and negativity and to face that part of me which says that something must be done perfectly or not at all.

After completing the practice, I did a bit more research into the meaning and interpretation brahmacharya. An article on Centred Yoga states that celibacy and a complete abstinence from sexual activity is “only part of the picture”. It refers to brahmacharya as essentially the act of harnessing energy and directing it towards greater personal understanding. The focus on celibacy seems to be due to the view that a preoccupation with sex and desire drains a person’s energy, so that it can’t be harnessed and directed in that way. There seems to be an underlying assumption both here and in the work of the commentators cited by Bryant that at a basic level people are just obsessed with sex and that this is detrimental to their wellbeing. I mean, for some people that might be true, but for most adults who are capable of making their own considered choices about these things it’s just a part of life, rather than something that takes over and drains energy that could be applied elsewhere.

Another interesting article was this one on Ekhart Yoga, which considers brahmacharya as the “right use of energy”. Putting brahmacharya into practice requires us to consider where we direct our energy, and in particular whether it is directed externally, towards things that we desire (I guess this is where the celibacy point comes in) or towards presenting ourselves in a certain way to please or impress others, or whether it is directed internally, towards finding peace and happiness within ourselves. In terms of the physical practice of yoga, I suppose it is a question of whether energy is directed towards perfection in a posture, or frustration if it cannot be achieved, or towards accepting where we are, staying present with the sensations and obtaining the maximum mental and physical benefit that we can from a pose.

Combining the concept of moderation with a consideration of how we use and direct our energy seems, to me, to be the most useful interpretation of brahmacharya. The two are, I think, connected, as practising moderation requires that we do not direct our energy towards pushing our bodies as hard as we can in a pose or towards feeling frustrated, rather we direct it towards finding the most beneficial expression of a pose and towards focusing on the breath and the present moment. Moderation is not something that always comes easily to me. I’ve always been a perfectionist and I can tend to get a little obsessed with sometimes very random things. So, if we’re talking in terms of the direction of energy, mine often isn’t put to optimum use. It will certainly be interesting to see how a conscious focus on brahmancharya affects my practice and my life this week.

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DAYS 41 and 42 : Flows, Twists and final thoughts on Satya

Having finally got some energy back, yesterday I did one of my favourite Yoga With Adriene practices – her side body flow. I’m not entirely sure why I like this practice so much, but there’s something about the combination of poses that raise the heart rate, stretch out the side body and twist out the spine that ticks most of my yoga boxes. I’ve always had a bit of an issue with not wanting to take up too much space (perhaps a combination of not liking being tall and not being comfortable in my own skin, and the associated lack of confidence), so I wonder if one of the reasons I like this practice is that poses that focus on the side body require you to open yourself up and take up as much physical space as possible. The yoga mat is a place where that can be done with impunity and without having to worry about what others think. Getting used to doing that on the mat perhaps helps cultivate a feeling, both physical and mental, that can be taken off the mat.

For Day 42, I chose an Ekhart Yoga practice called “Positive Twist”. (It may be becoming clear that I’m a sucker for any practice that involves a decent amount of twisting – I think it comes from having to a greater or lesser extent an almost permanently sore back.) This practice started with some warm-up sun salutations, then moved through a series of seated postures building up to Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana, which is basically head to knee pose incorporating a twist. This idea of a practice which is essentially building up to and preparing for one particular pose was intriguing, and having done it I can see how stretching and warming up certain parts of the body and spending time in certain poses can increase flexibility in, and so the benefits of, the final pose.

I found some of the intermediate poses quite tricky, not so much from a physical perspective (although I was no-where near the full expression of those poses), but rather from a mental perspective. I really don’t enjoy poses which start from a wide legged seated position. There’s something about that position which magnifies almost every pocket of inflexibility. This leads to me feeling very hunched and closed off, which can trigger very specific negative thoughts and can cause quite intense discomfort in respect of certain parts of my body. To start with, I swapped in different poses in order to avoid this, but then I thought that this was entirely contrary to this week’s focus of satya/honesty. Avoiding a pose which a particular practice requires and then telling myself that I completed that practice is the exact opposite of honest. So, I went back to those difficult poses and tried to just accept where I was. I tried to really focus on my breath, which meant that the resulting thoughts and feelings weren’t nearly as bad as I’d feared (although when is anything, really).

These were the last practices in my week focusing on satya. I have been trying my best to approach each practice from a position of honesty, as well as incorporating last week’s focus of ahimsa/non-violence. I have found that approaching yoga and life in general with a view to being honest and truthful can strip away a lot of the little stresses that by themselves may be negligible, but which can build up to have a much greater and more detrimental effect. When you know that you’re being true to yourself and to the facts of a particular situation, there is a little less to worry about and decisions become easier. It does, however, require confidence in oneself and one’s actions, because having that baseline means giving less weight to how others might judge our words and actions. That’s something that it can be difficult to move away from particularly if, as I have, you’ve spent most of your life thinking about what other people need or want first, and yourself second. As with many things, though, I think it’s a case of practice and of retraining ourselves to act in a different way. The more persistent we are, the easier it will become (hopefully, at any rate!).

The focus for the coming week is the next yama, brahmacharya, which means “moderation”. As someone who has a vaguely obsessive personality, moderation is not always something that I’m particularly good at, so this should be an interesting week!

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DAY 30 : Ahimsa (non-violence/harming) Day 1

This was my first day of Ekhart Yoga’s ten class programme on the yamas and niyamas for beginners with Sandra Carson. Each class focuses on one yama/niyama, and my intention is to work on one per week, so in all the programme will take ten weeks.

The five yamas form the first of the eight limbs of yoga, and the five niyamas the second. “Yama” is defined by Bryant as “abstention” and “niyama” as “observance. The first yama is ahimsa, which translates as non-violence or non-harming. The commentators that Bryant cites identify this as the most important yama, which is at the root of all the others. Those commentators, or the parts of their commentaries that Bryant cites, and indeed Bryant himself, focus very much on non-violence in the context of our relationship with the wider world and its inhabitants. A yogi should not cause physical harm, nor should harm be caused through harsh treatment or words or the incitement of fear.

There is, however, no mention of something which was a more central focus of today’s practice, which was non-violence towards ourselves. I don’t mean so much in terms of physical harm (although that would obviously come within ahimsa), rather in terms of harmful and negative self-talk. It was repeatedly mentioned during YWA’s Revolution that we can’t be our optimal selves in the world at large unless we’re treating ourselves with kindness and respect. If we’re constantly beating ourselves up, then we’re not in the best frame of mind to serve either ourselves or others. On that basis, practising ahimsa that focuses only on our relationship with others and not on our relationship with ourselves is surely somewhat one-sided.

A theme throughout the practice was “moving with respect”. On the yoga mat, respecting our body and the limits of our flexibility on any given day are key elements of practising that non-violence in the context of our relationship with ourselves. If we do not have that respect, then we criticise and judge and focus on perceived imperfections, either in how we hold a particular pose or in our body itself. I say “we” here, but obviously I can’t speak for every yoga practitioner. Personally, I find that cultivating that mindset of respect and acceptance starts to shift the direction of my thoughts from their standard negative, critical track.

Physically, this practice wasn’t hugely challenging, but I don’t think every practice has to be. I did miss a common feature of Adriene’s practices, in that she will often incorporate one or more pauses in Child’s Pose to allow the effects of the practice so far to sink in, so I paused this video halfway through for a few moments. I also very much appreciated the relatively long and meditative Savasana at the end.

The aim for the rest of the week is to take this concept of ahimsa and try to apply it both on the mat, in terms of cultivating respect while I practice, and off the mat, in terms of how I talk to and treat myself and how I interact with others. There are also various aspects of ahimsa which I think require a little more thought. Does practising ahimsa absolutely require at the least a vegetarian lifestyle (as Bryant and the commentators he cites insist)? Just how much do I instinctively disagree with the apparent karmic aspects of the concept? How do we reconcile practising ahimsa with taking the required strong stand against the ever-more prevalent hatred and intolerance in the world? I hope to have some vaguely articulate thoughts on these questions over the course of the next seven days.

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