I have some home projects going on these days—as in, quiet projects that require me to be okay with spending a lot of time at home…alone. I’m reading the work of some great poets, I’m doing some book keeping and some filing. I’m writing material for my yoga therapy practice. This simple stuff might not sound like a big deal, but this morning I was thinking about just how remarkable this is because a couple of years ago, it wouldn’t have been possible. Sitting in a room by myself was so uncomfortable back then. I was unsettled, grieving and grasping, and sitting still, by myself, gave space for unruly and unwelcome thoughts to surface…thoughts I wasn’t ready or able to deal with. So back then, I stayed very busy and engaged with things that allowed me to put my focus somewhere outside of myself.
Slowly, it has become possible to sit for a little while, and read for enjoyment. Slowly, I’ve been willing to let activities and commitments that filled up any extra time fall away. Slowly, my meditation practice has gone from all stirred up to settled and quiet. One of the definitions of yoga is “to attain something that was previously unattainable.*” Totally.
What is it that made hanging out with myself enjoyable? Some of it is time passing, some came with intention and practice but perhaps the bigger part has been cultivating attitudes, behaviors and self-care that let me have less drama in my life and less to fret about. Less drama and less fret-stress means I feel pleasant to be around when I’m all alone.
It turns out that the stuff that has changed for me very closely align with the yamas and niyamas. It’s no accident, really. These 10 attitudes are really practical and useful for those involved in yoga or not. As they develop, it is easier to spend time with yourself…quiet and alone. The yamas and niyamas are described in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, II.29-II.45 and are the first two limbs of the 8 limbs of yoga (ashtanga yoga). At first glance, it may seem that, like the Bible’s 10 commandments, these attitudes are about making life with others more pleasant and less conflict-ridden, which does tend to happen. But upon closer consideration, I’ve come to understand that the yamas and niyamas, like the commandments, are really guidelines for cultivating attitudes that make it more possible to enjoy the company of my own quiet self.
Yamas* –I like to think of the yamas as good attitudes to have about being in a relationship with others. The others includes people, of course, but it also includes things, nature, and our environment, too.
Ahiṁsā, non-violence, or consideration for all living things
Satya, right communication; be honest but not in that jack-ass way
Asteya, non-grasping or the ability to resist a desire for things that don’t belong to us
Bramacarya, moderation and right relationships. This does include sexual relationships, but that’s not all it’s about.
Aparigraha, non-greediness or the ability to accept only what is appropriate.
Relationships. Aaaah, yes. This matter can make time alone very torturous. When things would get quiet around me during that dark time, and I’d hear my thoughts, ‘relationships’ was a favorite fret-topic. Maybe things weren’t right with someone or I did something that wasn’t very nice or someone did something to me. Maybe I was jealous of someone’s job or house or car or stuff. With all of that going on I wouldn’t be clear enough or focused enough to sit down to do the book keeping. There was way to much getting in the way. I preferred to spend time with good people. I got really into my asana practice. I did a lot of therapy. I listened to the jams on the hip-hop radio station and I danced…a lot.
The Niyamas* are attitudes we cultivate toward ourselves. They really are foundations for having a good a relationship with yourself.
Śauca – cleanliness, this is cleanliness of body, mind and surroundings
Saṁtoṣa – the ability to be comfortable with what we have and what we do not have; contentment
Tapas – removal of impurities and cultivation of healthy habits so that our work and play, body and mind are balanced and maintained
Svādhyāya – the ability to study, self-reflect and see our progress and the room for improvement
Īśvara-praṇidhānā – reverence for the bigger plan, order of things, or the divine…however you want to see it. This is a beautiful attitude or feeling that allows us to let go of the things that are out of our control and still feel held. This one is a really big deal.
The Niyamas are simple, but not easy. Even though I ‘m still at the beginning of this path, these attitudes have made a big difference in my life already. Because when I sleep enough, I enjoy my children more. When I’m not eating crappy food, I feel better and so it is easier to enjoy a lovely poem. When there aren’t piles of stuff around my bed, I wake up and feel less burdened. And I’ll tell you what, Īśvara-praṇidhānā is such a big one. It’s not as directly accessible as experiencing cleanliness by putting your clothes in the hamper, but it is really something worth exploring. It has been a process for me to connect to this feeling that there is some order or spirit or God that is rooting for me and holding me, but I’m so different because I do now sense it. It helps me to like myself and other people so mud more because I feel tethered to something strong and big and important. And I don’t feel like I have to fix everything anymore.
Cultivating these attitudes may be really good for relationships with other people, our earth and our things, but I’m here to tell you, they are such an important part of having a good relationship with yourself. It’s painful and exhausting to be unable to sit still in a quiet room for fear of thinking too much or fear that what you said or did or didn’t do will come back to haunt you. Practicing the yamas and niyamas in the context of a yoga practice is so useful for getting to know and like yourself. I’m sure it’s a process I’ll be involved in it for a really long time and it’s worth it. These days, I’m feeling like I’m a pretty good person to hang out with.
*Definitions and quotations drawn from the excellent book, Heart of Yoga, Developing a Personal Practice, T.K.V. Desikachar