My plane was to be in Bangalore, but I was standing at the baggage carousel in the partially constructed airport in Chennai. Three days to go and an email had landed in my Inbox from Air India, notifying me that I would be flying from Bali to Chennai instead of my expected Bali-Bangalore (and yes, this was the time of the famous book, but no, I did not intend to be on the Eat, Pray, Love trail). And so, my send off from Bali was in a VW van, as I whispered prayers for my wellbeing through whatever lay ahead. Rod Stewart’s song, “Forever Young” was blasting from the tinny speakers of this old caravan, ”May good fortune be with you, may your guiding light be strong” became my Mantra.
Getting my bearings in Chennai’s airport, I walked over to the taxi stand and hired a taxi to Pondicherry. I decided this might be a nice place to relax for a few days before my train ride across continent to Goa. I came to the stand and a wordless portly man, Danny DeVito’s Indian twin from his days in “Taxi” (hairstyle and everything), used his pen to scratch down my information. Honestly, he couldn’t have looked more bored with me. My taxi driver appeared, a wiry old man, about my height, stood there in his bare feet, pant legs of his chocolate brown uniform rolled just above the ankles. We went outside and loaded myself and my luggage into the back seat of his wee taxi and spun through the parking lot. I was looking around at how beautifully this man had decorated the interior of his taxi, when, at the lot’s exit we were already making our first stop…his boss, that short portly man who had registered me with the taxi, opened one of the back doors and crammed a life sized, pink stuffed teddy bear in the back seat with me…then he, himself, hopped in the front to ride shotgun. You just never know if you’re going to get where you’re going in some places.
Anyway, a short ways away we did drop him off, along with the bear, and the driver and I faced the road ahead…multiple unexplained stops still within the city limits included. Once we reached the highway though, we began to travel at a good clip, the Indian rain started to come down thick and heavy, could barely see anything. At one point, a flatbed truck started backing onto the freeway from a side road which the rain made impossible to see. My driver was not slowing down and was showing no signs of doing so…his bare foot rested heavy on that gas peddle as he pressed forward through the driving rain. I truly thought I was about to die, I called out to him about the truck, he turned directly around to look at me with a toothless smile and that Indian head bobble, but with the language barrier he didn’t know what I was trying to tell him. My urgent cry grew louder, pointing, he looked forward, swerved the taxi, and we carried on down the freeway unphased…like all was just a part of a normal day.
Getting into Pondicherry required a permit, and so my driver did all the legwork, letting me sit in the taxi for the twenty minutes wait. Once inside city limits, we could NOT find the hotel I had looked up, but he persisted, stopping to ask so many pedestrians if they knew, but no one did. Then out of the mist (the rain was stopping by that time), like an angel, there was a man on a bicycle who happened to be scouting town for prospects to rent his boss’s suite…that was the ticket, I nabbed it. This sweet, gentle soul of a taxi driver took me to the door, carried my bags, and placed them on a chair in my room. He was aiming to leave without any expectation of a tip, but I crammed 1000Rp in his hand, because after all I had been through traveling from Bali to this room we were standing in, his kindness and his generous efforts meant so much to me.
Turns out, I loved Pondicherry…I recommend it to anyone, it is gorgeous. It draws the French traveller, as it was once in the hands of the French; gorgeous remnants of the French influence in the architecture draw you back into a different era (the Indians themselves will speak to you in French before they will attempt English here). I ended up staying about five days or so, which would have been longer if I hadn’t had a due date in Goa. I would walk to the seawall for my morning coffee on the beach, watching the sun climb its heights in the sky over the Bay of Bengal…being a westcoaster I’m used to watching the sun dip into the ocean, so this was new for me. Then I would make my way to the Sri Aurobindo ashram for a while, they allow the public to sit in silence in their stunning courtyard. Somewhere through the day I would end up having tea with my “landlady” who didn’t speak any English, so we relied on my polite French anecdotes (which don’t amount to much). She was born and raised in India, but of Vietnamese descent, she spoke French and wore a Sari…so I spent quite a bit of time looking at her (as she did me).
I left Pondicherry, too soon, but right on time. Took the train to Mysore which is where I had planned to be but cut it a few days short. I was due in Goa, and as it was December, there was zero possibility of hopping a train, so I bussed to Mangalore and taxied to Goa….that my friends, was an adventure in itself. And so, by plane, train and automobile I made it to Goa from Bali. And I honestly don’t know the point of sharing this story other than that man’s toothless smile from all those years ago, came to my heart the other day. Maybe that’s the point, that kindness lasts. May he be well.---with love, Letters In Yoga www.lettersinyoga.com
One of my great teachers once said “If you want to reach for the stars, it is essential that the Soul learns through experience”. The richness that is brought to our experiences through Yoga, is so deep and so true and so vast, it is a universe unto itself. Sounds a bit dramatic, even as I write it. But how can it be anything other? Life, itself, is magical. To put the first Limb of yoga into practice will change things about your Life because the Yoga system changes Your system. You won’t be the same. The Yamas and Niyamas can’t do anything but change you by changing how you choose to see things and experience them. It shakes everything up, it stirs it all up, it loosens it all, it shifts what was reality and a habitual way of treading through life, whether any of it or all of it was learned or self-taught. Practicing the First Limb of Yoga will have you reassessing what is useful to you now, what is really relevant, and what hinders. It’s like a juice detox cleaning out the system of the mind. This is why it is essential to begin at the beginning, to establish a foundation in the practice like having our feet on the mat.
The Yamas and Niyamas being the First Limb of the Eightfold path, are therefore, as our feet are to asana practice….this is our rooted foundation from which everything else unfolds. Every asana engages some muscles actively while others are at ease and passive; likewise, with the Yamas and Niyamas, some are more active in a given situation while others ease back…until it’s time to activate the passive and release those which have been active. This means learning to observe whatever serves as the appropriate stabilizer in any given moment, but always from the foundation. We trust this type of grounding because it is our bedrock…this serves our commitment through fear, while we shake and shimmy through what can be a turbulent practice. Then, at last, sensing the inner calm. Putting the commitment into our practice of the Yamas and Niyamas as we do our asana practice, eventually guides us into the meditation, the peace and freedom that follows any emotional turbulence that moves through as we establish a new norm. So often we feel happier after asana practice because we feel physically lighter and move with more agility…same with the affect of the Yamas and Niyamas on the mind…we feel happier and more at ease mentally, and in the heart.
Like picking them up off the dusty shelves, practicing the Yamas and Niyamas activates them, they begin showing their life, they begin to resonate within you they become living, breathing qualities. They infuse your life with their essence and this is the embodied practice of them. From this point we’ll resonate with their message in layers of understanding and wisdom because they are alive now. We’ve elevated our experience by a notch or two (or more), where the magical connection with Life begins. We’re more in tune, more aligned, the division between the man-made world and Life thins.
It’s so important to walk Ahimsa alongside our practice, so practice it and practice it well. Ahimsa reveals itself in layers and will never force you to practice more than you’re ready for. The only surprise might be that you’re ready for more than you realized. This is where the discomfort is, and this is where your relationship with the Yamas and Niyamas is essential, so you can lean into them with all your trust to get you through. The truth is, you will consider backing out when you hit those edges, as we do when we want to slightly ease out of an asana posture when it starts to challenge us. We’re tempted to cheat here, but the Yamas and Niyamas will hold us in line, because through them, we’ve become more of who we are. So we stay the course. We stay the course because innately that’s what we do, innately we’re reliable, and accountable, and trustworthy, and courageous enough to see things through. These principles are just helping us to rediscover this.
Always be guided by Ahimsa we’ll remember our purpose when the shaking and quivering begins. This shaking is the awe and reverence for the practice; staying the course through this demonstrates our deep respect, not only for ourselves but the practice of Yoga. Practicing the First Limb will make us tremble as we hold true, as anything that is sacred and loving will do. This is where we feel our awe for the practice and what it gives back to us when we commit to the path and all it holds. This is how it gives back, by holding our hand whispering, “I’m here with you”. So lean on them into greater awareness of self, into greater enlightenment of how you fit into all that is; and revealing that you do indeed have a purpose in being here, and that it is your duty to honour that purpose and fulfill it the best you can while you’re here. The Yamas and Niyamas won’t leave you once you are in the habit of remembering them, and how they serve you in the way that you serve them. The First Limb is a system worked progressively; yet as you work them, you begin to see how they fold into one another as though separate but one at the same time.
One caveat, be wary of “Oh I got that”, never lose respect for step one; guaranteed there will be a slip, because the Yamas and Niyamas are bigger than we are, and if we lose that respect for them we lose the practice. They guide us toward our Being, if not into our Being…it’s what got you where you are now…there is always more to learn from returning to the basics. There is such great value within step one, as it reveals more each time we return with the new wisdom and knowledge gained from the steps which follow…which all emerged from step one. Never be too arrogant or too good for step one because it is reflected all around us on a daily basis. Each moment is a new opportunity to step onto that platform and be supported to grow into greater wisdom, compassion, and understanding…a connection to the unity. We have the willingness then to do good…which we often forget when we’re so stressed that we drop the steps. We become self-absorbed in stress, and often do harm in those times. But if we’ve practiced the steps during easier times, the practice will unfold more naturally during times of stress.
We have to know that we are resourceful and the Yamas and Niyamas bring to light that we are…but we have to practice. Life will become lighter, but we need to commit to the practice. Never lose respect for step one because you never know when you’re going to need it.
From the First Limb you will live your life differently because you will approach Life differently. You won’t be able to go back…because you won’t want to.--with love, Letters In Yoga www.lettersinyoga.com
The wonderfulness of the First Limb of Yoga, comes from its capacity to be life changing as it unfolds through us. Its very structure (known as the Yamas and Niyamas) offers us freedom. The anchor that this structure provides means we have the space to be Ourselves, through gaining the trust in knowing our frame of reference. And this is one of integrity. Adhering to this practice engages us in an awareness, and this awareness brings freedom.
The First Limb of Yoga provides a boundary to respect and requires our discipline. Which, in itself means, the freedom from being consistently distracted by our mental and emotional whims. It’s beautiful really, because the Yamas and Niyamas allow us to come into right alignment with our lives, which is what’s necessary to fulfill our dreams. They shield us from the persistent wandering into directions we wouldn’t decide upon, had they been given proper consideration. The longer we carry the awareness of the Yamas and Niyamas within our minds, we will eventually surrender to practice, unable to deny their presence and call any longer. As interaction begins, introductions are politely made…you to them, them to you. You feel each other out, working out the hesitancies and suspicions. You might start by saying “Ok Ahimsa, let’s see what you can do”…and so the relationship begins.
Gradually, growing in responsibility of working the practice, we shift to what it’s really about: “Ok, what can I do? Who am I in this new way?” It becomes a reflection on what we can do for the practice. Unwittingly, we’ve gained a great respect and honour. Over time, this practice comes alive with its own momentum, and there is no going back. Suddenly, you’re on a new road and it’s the Yamas and Niyamas which led you there. The growing gratitude and compassion is merely a fortunate result.
So, let’s start at the beginning, with Ahimsa, the yogic practice of non-harming, the practice which walks along side all other practices. Whether a first timer or an old hand, it’s always a great idea to (re)visit “step one”…of any practice. Ahimsa is the first of Yoga’s ethical practice of the Yamas, and is really the most beautiful practice, the more we interact with it. We come to feel better about ourselves, better about what we feel we have to offer, and better about how we’re treating others. There are the more obvious forms of violence in our world, and as most of us don’t take those kinds of actions, we perceive ourselves a non-violent. But violence is many fold and is often woven into our day without our even realizing it. If we can tune in to these subtler acts of violence, we will begin to notice the daily impact on ourselves and on others. The realization will come more by freeing ourselves up of the violence than by thinking how bad we are for our violent actions, to self and to others. The more we free ourselves from the violence the more options our true nature will provide, to come forward.
People often ask about anger, and how it relates to Ahimsa. Many people in our world unfortunately resort to violence as their only means of expressing anger (mentally, verbally, physically). But anger is not necessarily synonymous with violence. And it is our role to work the violence out of the anger, so anger can be expressed justifiably. It is true and hopefully the aim of most, to be able to express anger in an emotionally mature manner. To experience and express anger in a way that we can sit with the emotion and bring reason to it, then communicating the emotion toward understanding in some way. Giving anger and its relation to Ahimsa such little space in this post is not meant to simplify this issue, but it is an entire topic on its own. Righteous anger expressed respectfully and appropriately is not necessarily a contributor toward Himsa (violence). From this practice, the quality of judgement softens, and/or we don’t rely on it with such haste. We naturally grow in our compassion and empathy because of the empowerment that the choice of Ahimsa provides. Because, practicing Ahimsa is a choice…which we realize when we slow down to consider the consequence of what we’re about to do. These are characteristics of being in right alignment with ourselves, as mentioned earlier. We begin to become aware of how like our fellow man we actually are and we recognize the absurdity of aggression; we soon see aggression’s dominance in society. From where do humans feel it’s necessary for that kind of dominance really? And so, we grow in our self-confidence through Ahimsa. It provides a choice, and it increases our experience of the interconnectedness of all of Life. We begin to experience that Life itself is actually gentle. Life doesn’t require the force of aggression that humans seem to feel is appropriate. The gentleness of Life is fluid and opens our perceptions, which folds into increased Ahimsa. At this point, the layers of violent behaviour start to become more perceptible, and our tolerance of the subtle forms lessens to that of the more extreme…because we see how they feed each other.
Through Ahimsa, we require more from ourselves. Stopping violent or harmful behaviour creates a space to be filled by something intelligent…because violence is not founded on intelligence. Compassion is a critical aspect of Ahimsa; not only investing it in to the practice, but the way it expands as a result of the practice. Ahimsa is internally disruptive, no doubt…because it shifts the old ways. But we can’t let ourselves be distracted by that. We can’t fall into the churning waves of the Self’s pity party of how awful we’ve been. Instead, we continue with the practice, through the discomfort into what unfolds out from that. It’s here that we find the freedom of compassion and of forgiveness…taking right action from there.--with love, Letters In Yoga www.lettersinyoga.com