Posts Tagged With: niyama

Ninja skill

Yoga has brought me some very interesting talents over the years. And yes, contortion is one of them. I can squeeze into tight spots that most wouldn’t try. I can also shave my legs while standing on one foot in the shower. But better than that is I have acquired some great ninja skills. Don’t freak, this doesn’t mean that I’m attacking people with nun chucks or anything like that. It just means that I can sneak around like Bruce Lee in “Enter the Dragon” without being noticed. Because of yoga I am more aware of how I move my body which allows me to walk softly and gracefully. This in no way excludes me from the occasional bumped knee or stubbed toe but it definitely lessens my chances of having that awkward moment at the E.R. trying to explain how exactly it is that I need 13 stitches. Yes, it probably is saving me money on my health care cost. I recently attempted yoga on top of a paddle board which reassured me of my great newly acquired ninja skill. How, might you ask am I sure that I have mastered ninja skills? The proof is in the number of times I have snuck up on yoga students, my dog and even my husband. And they were all slightly startled by my presence.

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This idea of walking softly reminds me of an expression I had painted on the walls of my old yoga studio back in Ohio: “live gently, walk softly.” Yoga is a great place to become aware of both of these things. This old studio of mine was on the second floor of a building that had beautiful old hardwood floors. These floors called great attention to just how heavily we moved our bodies. Every time students would step forward into virabhadrasana it would sound as if they were trying to kill a cockroach. Or when they would jump forward to standing, it could sound like they were trying to break through the floor to make a fast escape. This became a great teaching opportunity for me to point out the heaviness of their movements and to educate them on using their bandhas. While doing yoga, the idea is for your movements to not be heard, to become like a superhero that can sneak around, unnoticed. I often joke with my students that this could give them the ability to eavesdrop on their children. Of course, only if necessary. It sure could make it easier playing the role of Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus. But generally speaking, walking softly makes you seem like a more compassionate and relaxed person.

Some Buddhist cultures take walking softly to a whole new level, they go so far as to sweep their path every where they go as to not step on any living creature. Most of us aren’t going to go to such extremes but it wouldn’t hurt to become a little more aware of our movements and the impact they have on others and even our-selves. It could do us some good to become more aware of our body language. There was a study done about how many years slouching ages us. You shouldn’t be surprised to hear that we look 7 years older when we slouch. Ha, did you just sit up a little straighter when you read that? Another negative to slouching is that you collapse at your diaphragm which is the muscle that facilitates breathing for you. If your slumped over, I guarantee you are not breathing optimally. Imagine what effect that might be having on your mood and energy. Forget that liquid crap – 5 hour energy. I guarantee you sitting up straighter and moving around more will give you energy that you are lacking.

This idea of “live gently and walk softly” is the same as “leave no trace”. When you venture out into wilderness you are to respect it enough to feel no need to change it. Leave things just as you found them, do not leave any trash, do not break any branches, attempt to not wear away the beauty that should be left for others to see. It should be as if you were never there, just as you should never know when a good ninja has passed through. We shouldn’t need to try to change yoga either, but we should try to become one with our environment. Now a days, many people in the yoga community have this need to put their stamp on yoga’s history, to lay claim to something that was a gift to us all by the benevolent God Shiva, as the story goes. Just as the divine mother gave all of us this beautiful earth. All the more reason to live gently, for future generations. All the more reason to leave yoga unchanged so the richness of its history isn’t watered down. Samurai were a bit more refined than ninja’s were. The samurai acted by a code of conduct and they were devoted to serving their king. So maybe a little ninja skill and a little samurai skill could do us all some good.

People are clomping around as if they are Frankenstein. If you’re scaring small children with your mannerisms and behavior, there is a problem. I often say to my students that the expressions they make while doing yoga should never frighten a small child. I remind them that if someone accidentally walked into the yoga room they shouldn’t think it’s an anger management meeting. From the way we move our bodies, to the way we breathe, to the expressions on our face, we should apply the softly and gently approach.

I love how sometimes students are forced into walking softly when they choose to skip savasana. Yet I am never surprised that some people can’t pull it off. As they clang, jingle and stomp their way out of the yoga room. I have always thought two of the most unattractive qualities are being oblivious and irresponsible. Yoga is great for changing both of these behavioral problems. I’ve heard it said in a much more poetic fashion than this, but once yoga awakens you, you can’t go back to sleep. Meaning once your awareness has moved into your physical being (niyama) and outward towards others (yama) you can’t undo those positive affect’s its bound to have. This is a blessing and a curse, but I can’t imagine living any other way. So I live gently and I always try to walk softly. Matter of fact, I like to try to practice it, in the most literal sense possible by walking around the yoga room when they are all peacefully tucked into savasana. Every now and then a creak in my knee or ankle gives away my movement, but for the most part I have mastered being a yogi ninja.

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The Secret

Do you ever feel like some people know something that you don’t? Does this make you paranoid? It could, or you could think it makes you curious. Curiosity gives you that drive to keep going, to figure out what you don’t yet know. I always say the greatest thing you can show up with on your yoga mat is curiosity. Your greatest asset in yoga is not your black Manduka mat (even though I do love it), or a cute outfit, or a yoga companion; but instead, it’s that insatiable need to ask more questions and always look for your own answers.

The definition of curiosity: “eager desire to know”. Oh, I love that! It is not defined as just a desire to know, because that is not enough. It’s the eagerness that makes it so great. This gets even better. I looked up the word eager: “enthusiastic”. Ok, we’re getting somewhere. Didn’t that just simply spell out why  curiosity is your greatest life companion? We should be enthusiastic about the opportunity to expand our knowledge (vidya). Sadly, the greatest contradiction to this idea is, the old wives tale that “curiosity killed the cat.” Well, if a case of the curiosities is what I must die from, then I accept. I accept it enthusiastically!

In the Ashtanga yoga system, you would place curiosity under the second limb of the system – “niyama” or self observation. The practice of yoga should help you look at your interaction with your self more often. You will see patterns exposed and identify old schools of thought that maybe you have never challenged, maybe they were schools of thought handed down to you from your parents, or your environment. You took them to be true, without any self-study to find if those truths aligned and resonated with you, as you are now. The study of the self (svadhyaya) happens when you become curious. When you allow that curiosity to carry you into the deeper layers of the things you have been told to believe, and you start looking for the things that seem to resonate with you in that place we call our gut.

Our gut instinct should naturally occur. But it can be slowly squashed out of us when people make these statements: “You shouldn’t feel that way.” or “Because I said so.”. We have all heard it from so many different sources, and sometimes there is an inclination to go, “Ok, they must know something I don’t know.” Well, I say, challenge that. What do they know? How do they know it? Where did their information come from? It’s your 3-year-old brain I’m talking about.  The 3-year-old brain is the one that digs for information relentlessly, right? Well hang out with a 3-year-old and it sure feels relentless! 🙂 What, how, why, when, where and repeat.

That is how life’s secrets are found: the things you feel your missing, the things no one is sharing with you. We live in a time where we are bombarded with information. But how much of what is coming at us, have we challenged? I am always surprised when people say to me: “I tried yoga, but I got bored.” I have never understood how boredom can happen in a yoga practice. We have approximately 656 muscles in the human body, and we have 206 bones. With over 858 parts moving in our bodies, there should be no time for boredom. Boredom comes from a lack of interest. A lack of interest can come from laziness (alasya)or aversion (abhinivesah), or from trusting that your yoga teacher knows more than you would about your own body. A yoga teacher should know many things about the body and how it best functions in different asana’s. However, you should never take someones word for it. If you haven’t first applied your three-year old brain to the things the teacher says.

Here’s an example of an internal dialogue of a curious yoga student: “Trikonasana pose – I wonder what that means? Ohh, 3 angled pose. Where are the angles? Oh, there they are. Why should my body be on one plane? Oh, because on two planes, I can’t receive a stretch to my tensor fascia latae muscle. What’s my tensor fascia latae muscle? Oh, it’s at the front top part of my ilium and attaches to my illiotibial band. Where does that go and what does that do? If my TFL muscle is tight, I wonder what problems it’s causing in my body? How does it affect my alignment of my 206 bones? If I can better stretch that how will I feel? When will I be able to grab my big toe? What would I need to do to grab my big toe?” This can go on for a while and after you have tried many things you will start to refine the postures you’re in. That refinement of your body will dispel ignorance (Avidya). You might also start to feel like people aren’t with-holding the secret. Then, you could realize that it doesn’t really matter how it looks, but more important, how it feels and why it feels that way?

Curiosity never really killed a cat. Not unless the cat’s name was “Doubt”. Because curiosity only kills doubt. Curiosity exposes the secrets you feel you have been missing. But it also creates secrets that you now know about your Self (Svadhyaya). I remember a big epiphany that I had. I was just getting ready to start my first yoga teacher training program of 9 ladies that were eager to learn. I was reviewing all my notes and nuggets of information I had learned, so far, in my study of yoga. I found my self grasping to my knowledge and not wanting to share it – out of fear that they might learn all the secrets I had worked so hard at uncovering. The little ego that exists inside all of us was afraid that if I gave it all away, I might not matter as much (which exposed another limb of the Ashtanga yoga system which is aparigrahah – non-greed). I only became the teacher I am now when I stopped coveting the information I have learned. When I openly and willing share all my secrets in hopes they will inform, in hopes they will dispel doubts, but also that they will be challenged.

So the Secret is…Don’t believe everything you are told until you have exhausted your self-study of how that information applies to you. Maybe you do need to be told, to move forward more, or to tilt your pelvis forward, or to exhale completely and then lift. But I promise, even with out those things that seem like secrets, you will figure it all out for yourself, if you just come at it with the eager desire to know!

My teacher, Tim Miller, sharing his secrets with me. Second series Ashtanga Yoga teacher training, 2010. Encinitas, CA.

Categories: For the beginner, My viewpoint | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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