Updated: Jul 10, 2019
The challenges of modern day living
We could all say that we wish to live happily and harmoniously with others and our environment, yet it is true that from time to time, it is part of life to experience problems and challenges that tip that balance. It seems to me that we are living in unprecedented challenging times on all levels, environmentally, politically, health-wise, physically, mentally and emotionally.
We are living in a world where we receive a constant flow of information, that over-stimulates the mind and completely distracts us from being able to focus on the more pertinent things or things that matter most. We place our attention on external things that we become identified with and then we lose sight of who we really are. It seems that life is faster and stress is increasing.
The Mental health foundation survey in May 2018 found that “74% of UK adults have felt so stressed at some point over the last year they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope”. 81% of women said this compared to 67 percent of men. 83% of 18-24 year-olds said this compared to 65 percent of people aged 55 and over. Ref: https://bit.ly/2sW3Oal .
According to Euronews, (ref: https://www.euronews.com/) compared to the rest of Europe, the UK has one of the longest working weeks, with employees working an average of 42.3 hours per week. We can see an imbalance here in how we approach working life.
In my own practice of complementary therapies I find that stress and anxiety are the most common reasons that someone will book in for a treatment, or bring them to the practice of yoga or meditation. With these tools, it is possible to become more skilful in how we live. We have at our finger-tips access to incredible information that can educate and enlighten us and expand our minds and view of how we live.
What does it mean to live life mindfully and why is it an art?
Stress seems to be an accepted part of life, yet it needn’t be, it is important to take time out to replenish and recuperate and self-care is vital to doing this. A big part of this is about taking action, but can also be helped by the attitude and approaches to life that we adopt.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness practices such as meditation and yoga are on the rise, as for many they are effective for relieving tension and stress. Mindfulness is not a technique, but a state of being aware of the present moment just as things are, without judging or altering them. This includes the full realm of being; thoughts that pass through the mind, feelings and emotions that are present, sensations that are felt in the body. Mindfulness can therefore be applied to present moment awareness whatever the activity, and can bring a sense of focussed attention that has a calm quality about it.
When we are present and more in the moment we can tap into a wealth of innate resources.
We can take for example the act of breathing. The breath expresses all our thoughts and emotions. We can access our breathing as a way of connecting to present moment experience by becoming aware of inhaling and exhaling, and we can choose to slow it down and lengthen the exhalation to relax our nervous system. Holistic systems of health such as yoga, meditation, Chi Kung, Tai Chi, use focus on breathing as a primary conduit of relaxation and connection to mind body, spirit and consciousness.
Being aware of what is happening in the moment as it arises, allows our mind to move away from the future in terms of planning, imagining, and perhaps a tendency for this to turn into worry of what might or might not happen! We can spend a lot of time worrying this way and worrying thoughts create stressful feelings.
A yogic view of living
The word yoga comes from the Sankrit word YUG which means to tie or unite. I like to think of yoga as a vehicle for reconnecting all the disparate parts of self, in that there are many distractions that take our minds in all directions. As our lives seem to be centred around looking at a screen, whether through our phones or computers, there is a disconnection from our bodies with a more technologiclly connected lifestyle. Our senses are over-stimulated in favour of operating mainly from the intellect.
The Yamas and Niyamas are yogic ethical codes of conduct as written by the sage Patanjali in the “Yoga Sutras” over 2,000 years ago. They are often used as a guideline in practising yoga but translate beautifully in adding a quality of attention that we can easily bring into our daily life.
To live life more mindfully means to live with intention and on purpose, to express kindness, to live in peace and harmony.
This leads to the 8 fold path of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. He lays out these paths as ways of following codes of conduct that helps us to connect to present moment awareness and attention that leads to enlightenment.
There are 8 limbs of the Astanga yoga that provide the pathways to living with awareness. The first limb is the Yamas (codes of conduct with others), then the Niyamas (personal ethics), Asana, (Postures), Pranayama (Focussed breathwork), Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses from the external word to the inner field of awareness), Dharana (Focussed attention), Dyhana (the meditative state) and Samadhi (enlightenement and freedom from suffering.
The yamas are ethical codes that help us to relate to ourselves, to our environment and to the way we connect and interact with others.
The first yama is Ahimsa (Non-harming), Satya – (truthfulness), Asteya (non-stealing), Brahmacharya (Conservation of life force), Aparigraha (non-greed).
AHIMSA - means non-violence.
“Any thought word or action that prevents us (or someone else) from growing and living freely, is one that is harmful” – Donna Farhi, yoga teacher
With this yama in mind we act from a place of kindness, consideration, calmness and peacefulness. We think beyond ourselves. This extends to how we treat other people and our environment, the choices we make in consuming goods, how we eat, how we act and interact with others and how we conduct ourselves. We are more likely to become more patient, compassionate, and empathetic to others and situations. This yama translates not just to our deeds, it is also about abstaining from harmful thoughts towards ourselves or others, on physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of being. This yama is considered to be the foundation for all the other yamas.
SATYA - means truthfulness.
This yama is about being honest and truthful, when we are honest with Ahimsa, our words and thoughts are coming from a place of kindness, encouragement and positivity. We may have to think carefully about how we are honest with someone else. Can we be truthful with them without hurting them? Practising Satya helps to release judgement of self and others, gossiping and critiscism. The buddha says that it is better to say nothing than say something that will be hurtful to another, as this will come back on us. This is sometimes not so easy to do, however having the intention as a Sankalpa, becomes a clear guideline that helps us to check ourselves.
ASTEYA - means non-stealing.
Not taking what doesn’t belong to us. This can manifest in terms of tangible physical things or can even be about not taking too much of someone’s time. The desire to steal can come from a feeling or belief of lack, that there is not enough to go around. That, “I don’t have enough”. You might wish to reflect on your own experience. When have you experienced this belief? How has this translated in your life?
We can extend this to include how we treat the environment, how we act with others, not expecting beyond healthy boundaries. What would life look like and feel like if instead, we took on an attitude of abundance, of sharing and considering others? This yama also reminds us that ultimately we do not own anything. Shamans and indigenous people such as aboriginals, have a close connection and respect for the earth, they believe in living in harmony with mother earth that it is important to give back. We can come from a feeling of abundance and that there is enough to go around.
BRAMACHARYA: Is often defined as celibacy. The word Brahmacharya actually translates as ‘behaviour which leads to Brahman’. Brahman is thought of as ‘the creator’ in Hinduism and yogic terms. So Brahmacharya can be seen as ‘right use of energy’. It refers to directing our energy away from external desires and instead, towards finding peace and happiness within ourselves.
Essentially what this means is conserving life-force energy, that comes from self-control. We need to take care of the ego’s desires or taking anything in excess. With this yama, we do not give ourselves away nor abuse anyone else.
How can I engage in practices that will raise my energy vibration and spirit? Bramacharya is a way of expressing and cultivating our life-force for greater health and wellbeing, this is going to affect our quality of life. This might translate in our daily life as not working long hours over and above what is required, to take breaks, go on holiday to recover and recharge, to ensure good quality sleep, so we can restore and replenish energy levels.
On the yoga mat, we might employ this approach by not over-exerting ourselves and considering energy levels and by paying attention in our practice. Pushing ourselves over the limit can lead to injury. This is where more self-care restorative practices have value. So this yama is about not doing things to excess, so we can experience greater vitality.
The opposite of this leads to grasping and wanting to own things that are material and perhaps give us instant gratification, however this is short-lived and then leads to wanting more. When we try and hold on to something tight, we are bound to suffer. When we are tied in this way, we might find it hard to accept that things change, that we might lose them, and leading on from Asteya, we realise that ultimately we own nothing. When we die, we do not take possessions or money with us. So to try and hold on to things, people, or situations means we are not able to go with the flow. To be able to accept things just as they are means, we will avoid trying to make things just as they are not. Being aware of this will help us to minimise our suffering.
This also translates in our yoga practice, rather than being in the present moment with our practice, it might be that we experience dissatisfaction because we are desperately trying to attain that headstand, or handstand. We might use this benchmark as a sign of achievement, or progress, this can bring a sense of dissatisfaction, rather than enjoying where we are at.
The yamas serve well in terms of helping us to shine the light of awareness on our actions, reactions and behaviours. When we practice the yamas we have an opportunity to extend the way we live life rather than just how we practice yoga on our mat.
The reflections we can consider here are:-
How can I share what I have? In what ways can I consider others? How can I give? How can I accept things the way they are and go with the flow?
The yamas are ethical codes for living that help us interact with others and our environment in compassionate ways. The Niyamas are personal observances that help us to discover and understand ourselves better.
The first Niyama is Saucha and means cleanliness or purification on inner and outer levels of being. Our yoga practice helps us to do this whichever branch of yoga we are practising whether this is physical asana, which helps to detoxify and purify our body for better health, meditation which helps to clear our mind space and thoughts, bhakti which is the yoga of service which helps to purify our karma. Purification leads to greater clarity of thought and action and helps to instil good behaviours. We are more likely to choose foods that help to heal and cleanse out body as we align ourselves with our innate purification system of the body. As we become clearer with ourselves we can be clear with others and this helps to set up good boundaries. Our practice is a reflection and affirmation of wanting to live positively and to our best potential.
This Niyama follows on from Saucha. When we are feeling clear in our health, conduct and our interactions, we are more likely to express and experience joy and contentment. We can experience humility and modesty, although this is not to say we become complacent.
Contentment that comes from within means that in challenging situation, we are able to return to our centre, we are not looking for anything outside of ourselves, or to anyone else in which to be content.
The quote by Swami Satchidananda expresses this well, “All the yogic texts unequivocally state that peace is never to be found without but always within. If we wish to create a more peaceful world, we must first learn how to relax and harmonise our mind and body".
TAPAS: this translates as to heat up, to make effort with a little bit more determination, discipline and force. Heat has the power to transform. We can change metal into gold and purify, it is like the phoenix rising out of the fire to be reborn. Going through rites of passage, being disciplined, staying with effort even if it means we might get hurt allows us to come out the other side. We can make changes that are positive and help to refine and elevate our energy.
SVADYAYA: This means self-study, the development of self-awareness or the study of spirit. With consistency of practice and self-reflection we learn more about ourselves and this brings greater understanding when relating with others. We evolve and grow and become better human beings rather than "human-doings". The practice of yoga presents many pathways to knowing the self.
ISHVARA PRANIDHANA: Surrender to and living with awareness of the divine connection of all living beings. This yama is about remembering that we live in a world where every being is part of the inter-connected web of life and that we all play a part in the harmony of the environment we live in. It is about connecting in to the essence of life, living in awareness that we are more than the body, that we energy beings of spirit.
The Yamas and Niyamas encourages us to develop kindness, peace and self-compassion that we can extend to others. It can help us to relate to others with greater connection and meaning. When we practice the Yamas and Niyamas, we have the tools that help us to choose to live life with intention and purpose, It can help to draw us out of the mundane, from unconscious habitual ways of being that can trap us into suffering. We can transcend this suffering with the aid of these ethical codes we can experience a better quality of life.
Just as in a skill that we can learn and become adept at, there is skill and an art to living in a mindful way that most likely doesn’t immediately come naturally but requires practice. When we approach things with awareness, a calm attitude and take time to reflect, we are better able to respond rather than react to a situation. We realise that we have choice in how we deal with situations and how we relate to others.
It is interesting to explore these ancient teachings and bring them to life. This is not to say we will be perfect - we are a works in progress! If we can benefit from feeling more stable and be in harmony within ourselves and with those we live and work with, then we can spread our positive sphere of influence, to make a difference to others too. _________________________________________________________________________________________