Part 2: Can we let go of desire, over-effort and ambition?
Last month in part 1 of this two part exploration of the five yamas, we explored ahimsa and satya (non-violence and truthfulness). The next of these codes of self-regulation in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras follow on from how we can move these guides into how we approach our energy and intentions on the mat.
I have always found the three yamas explored here incredibly useful in providing perspective within my practice. Paying attention to when we might be pushing into postures, imposing our will or just getting lost in any sense that getting further is somehow better, is the foundation to truly feeling present. Stepping back and letting the practice unfold is a great philosophy to take into life. Just as on the mat, if we listen and respond without desire, over-effort and grasping, then we can drop into life’s flow rather than push up against it and create stress.
asteya = not stealing, non-misappropriation, desirelessness, non-covetousness, hoarding
Asteya enables us to see where the truth lies when we remove urges of desire and covetousness.
In a world where we are continually encouraged to want and expect more both materially and via technological input, asteya seems positively exotic. With our brains wired for seeking, originally to give us the impetus to find food and now taken up with getting more stuff, it can be quite the challenge to practice not taking that which isn’t offered freely to us.
On the mat: with these busy, achieving minds we can easily approach our practice with ambition, a sense of getting somewhere and pushing through to get it by whatever means necessary. So to practice watching where we might steal energy from ourselves and overwork in asanas is a lifetime’s work. Whenever our heads pop up to regain control we can feel lost connection with the breath. Asteya helps us to let go of the wanting and guides us back to allowing a pose to unfold.
Asteya yoga enquiry: avoiding using props because they might be seen as lesser is a key area where asteya can be explored. It is not simply more advanced to not use props, we use them as our individual bodies need. For instance, when sitting cross-legged not many folks truly sit lifting up through the lower spine without a lift under their sitting bones. It is stealing from ourselves to place ourselves under this duress when we could be bringing the floor to us. The downward tilt of the thigh bones in these picture gives much more rise than practising with knees above hips – so much more open than slumpasana! If we twist without this height we compress the spine, so props help us to create body intelligence.
brahmacarya = celibacy, impeccable conduct, continence, respect for the Divine
Brahmacharya cultivates the understanding that our innate power and life force should be respected and channelled into awareness and mindfulness.
The celibacy aspect of brahmacarya can cause us to dismiss the deeper nuances of its meaning. Whilst yoga scholars may debate whether it refers to this practice directly or on a broader energetic scale of conservation, we can explore its meaning to guide our practice with right effort. This is the term Buddhists use for cultivating a balance between not too much and not too little effort; The Middle Way.
On the mat: continually observing our energy creation and output to recognise where we might overwork and where we might underwork is a constant process within any asana. This isn’t just about whether we pick a strong or a restorative practice overall, but how we regulate coming in, staying and moving out of postures.
Brahmacarya yoga enquiry: after a warming up practice that doesn’t need to be too dynamic, explore moving between downwards-facing dog to child pose, moving between the two by really listening and responding to your energy utilisation and recovery. Notice how you can hold down dog whilst feeding energy through the breath and when you might be pushing into overwork. Hold child pose long enough to restore without become soporific.
aparigraha = non-grasping, relinquishing greed and possessiveness
Aparigraha leads us to let go of anything, state of mind, thought, action or desire that is not immediately available to us in a peacefully given form.
This non-grasping equates to the non-striving aspect of mindfulness. It is the bit that our wanting minds can find so hard to let go off, particularly if we get caught up in comparing ourselves to that naturally bendy person in the class. We can miss the journey if we’re caught up with the end point, the next goal or any ideas that further in is more ‘advanced’. Advanced is not more bendy, it is more aware, honest and integrated.
On the mat: to be content where we are is the antidote to grabbing at a position which we may simply not be designed for. I do not have the natural hip setting for padmasana (lotus pose) and I have let go of the want to get there – I’d rather be walking without hip issues in later life than get into that idealised posture.
Aparigraha yoga enquiry: forward bends can have the tendency to bring out the grasping in us; to want to get further, pull ourselves in. At their best, they are an opportunity for surrender, but this trampled over by the head (and often hands) taking the wheel and going for the blunt instrument ‘more is better’. Holding elbows in uttatanasana can help us grow rather than pull in and opting for a fully restorative version may be the ending to a practice that you need. By focusing on deepening into hips, softening across the lower back and letting go of ambition, you may just find that a bi-product in moving further in…. but you know, not because you want to!