Taking Your Yoga Practice Beyond the Mat
There are many substantial benefits of a yoga practice. Increased strength, better flexibility and ease in our daily physical activities can be gained by heading to the gym for those Downward Facing Dogs and Tree poses. It is not uncommon to feel a sense of calm and peace while rolling up our mat, putting away our blocks and blankets, and moving back out into the world. You likely even sleep better and have better focus than before you started practicing.
But did you know that the physical practice of yoga is just the tip of an amazing and complex philosophical iceberg that can help us to live in wellness and abundance “off the mat”?
Yoga is an ancient practice that originated in India and was introduced to the West about a hundred and fifty years ago. The word “yoga” is derived from the Sanskrit word “yuj”, which means to bind or to yoke. We most commonly take this to mean that Yoga is a bringing together of things that have been separated – like the body and the mind to the Spirit – by our daily lives and our multitude of thoughts and emotions.
Yogic philosophy explains that we are a part of greater, cosmic energy that flows through all things, and when we slow down, breathe, and release ourselves from the constant “noise” of our thoughts – like in a tough yoga practice – we can tap into this knowledge. We can feel whole.
Yogic philosophy prescribes a set of “dos and don’ts” that when followed both on and off the mat, can help us wade through our busy minds and help us find that calm and joy that we all deserve. These rules are called the Yamas and Niyamas. They are seemingly simple “rules” for conducting yourself, in your own mind and body, and interacting with others. They should be applied to our thoughts, our words and our actions. The Yamas are: Ahimsa, non-harming; Satya, truth; Asteya, non-stealing; Brahmacharya, conservation of vital energy; and Aparigraha, non-greed. The Niyamas are: Saucha, cleanliness; Santosha, contentment; Tapas, discipline; Svadhyaya, self-study; and Isvara Pranidhana, contemplation of what is greater than ourselves.
Of all of these precepts, Ahimsa is the most important rule according to yogic philosophy. It is so important that all of the other rules should be practiced while keeping the first in mind. For example, the truth (Satya) is: my arms are short. I am unable to do certain arm-balances because of this truth. If I don’t practice Santosha, or find contentment with this fact, I run the risk of breaking the first rule of Ahimsa by hurting my back or shoulders or doing a face-plant. So, after coming to terms with this through Svadhyaya, or constant self awareness and study, I use a couple of yoga blocks. I then practice Tapas by putting in the work, building necessary strength, having discipline, using my tools, and BAM! Arm-balances are now available to me. No need for jealousy, (considered a form of stealing because you are envious of what someone else can do and you want it for your own – so I’m practicing Asteya as well!) or wasting of my time and vital energy on something that will not happen because my arm bones aren’t long enough – Brahmacharya.
A relatively easy way that we can take our yoga practice precepts in our daily lives is by taking a moment before reacting to our own thoughts or the actions of others. When we stop and truly consider the reality of things, we can engage the “thinking” part of our brain rather than the emotional center and act accordingly. We can ask ourselves: Is it kind? Is it necessary? Is it useful? Have I thought it through? Have I done the work? Does this serve the greater good?
This is difficult and we will fail many, many times, but after a while, it starts to take hold simply because the product we create is better and enriches our lives. We can be more at peace with our bodies, our relationships, our thoughts and the world around us.
Written by acac group ex instructor Iffet Araniti-Davis
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