by Danielle Zissou: I was raised Catholic, so I’ve always smiled at the similarity between going to Confession, and yoga students checking into my classes at the front desk…
Catholic Practitioner: “Bless me Father, for I have sinned. It has been two weeks since my last Confession.”
Priest: “What sins have you to confess, my Child?”
Yoga Student: “I suck! It’s been three weeks since my last yoga class! First, I had a business trip, then I hurt my knee running, then I just lost my momentum….”
Me: “I’m so happy to see you today. Good job making time for yourself!”
There is not enough time in the five minutes before a yoga class to cover what is really in my head. What I actually want to say is: “But let’s remember the yamas and the niyamas! The practice of asana is just the fancy poses we do in order to fortify and heal the physical body!
Rather, are you living in alignment with the universal and personal ethics of yoga? More to the point:
“Dude, are you practicing being a good person?”
Granted, there are serious side effects to not taking regular yoga classes, not the least of which includes waking up in the morning feeling like a rodeo clown. But let’s be clear: the ethical underpinnings to the tradition of yoga form the very foundations of the practice. Just like yoga poses are rooted in the foundations of the Bandhas, (core strength) the practice of yoga is rooted in the practice of living an ethical and healthy life, with the emphasis on ethics. And health. And above all…life!
The “Yoga Sutras of Patanjali” was written circa 220 CE by Rishis, or sages, living in the wilderness region around modern day Pakistan. This is the text from which the oral tradition of yoga was codified, and from which we get the Eight Limbs of yoga.
Here is a quick reminder of the first two limbs of yoga and the ethics underpinning the practice.
The first limb:
The Yamas/ aka The Rules:
Ahimsa: Be nice. Satya: Live the truth. Asteya: Don’t steal. Bramacharya: Be classy; not trashy. Aparigraha: Let it go.
The second limb:
The Niyamas/ aka Our Daily To-Do list:
Saucha: Be clean. Santosha: Be content. Tapas: Work hard. Svadyaya: Check yourself (before you wreck yourself!). Ishvarapranidhana: Offer your efforts to the greater good, free from the attachment to illusions of success or failure.
The third limb: Asana. The physical practice of the poses.
The fourth through the eighth are roughly:
Breath control, sensory withdrawal, concentration, meditation and freedom.
When we practice the tenets of the yamas and the niyamas, we are living in alignment with true yoga, pure and simple. To live in breach of these precepts, is to merely practice yoga as a form of physical fitness.
Nothing wrong with that….and nothing yoga about that.
Let’s go back to the original question: Welcome back to yoga class, but, what I really wonder is: “Dude, are you practicing being a good person?
One day, I was teaching a class in the studio where I was the manager. A couple of students came in with their mats to check in to class. While I sensed they did not know each other, I sensed some weird energy between them. I shrugged it off and proceeded to teach the class. It was a noon hot power Vinyasa flow, the room was packed and the work was intense. Everyone flowed together and got into the groove in a big way. However, these two folks, on opposite sides of the room, each seemed a little “off” to me, and a little out of sync with the rest. While others flowed, and charitably laughed at my stupid jokes, these two were totally not into it.
After class, I was hanging out in the lobby and talking to students. One of these two left, and the other was hanging out in the hot room. When everyone had left the studio, he came out. I asked him how he felt.
“I have to say, I feel like crap,” he said. “I was rushing to get here on time, so I totally cut someone off in traffic to make the light. They gave me the finger, and I honked my horn. Then I saw they followed me into the parking lot. I was sure they were coming at me for revenge, like I deserved. Anyway, we both parked and we both opened the trunks to our cars, and to my surprise, we both pulled out yoga mats….”
I asked him what happened next. He described feeling ashamed as they checked into class. He described how he felt like a fraud all through practice. He was a rather new practitioner, but he’d been around long enough to know that there was something else to this whole yoga thing. That there was more to the whole, Downward Dog, expensive moisture-wicking clothing, fancy poses and “Ommm” thing.
He said to me that he really felt like a jerk, and that he wanted to apologize to me, being the teacher and the studio manager, for sullying the good work we do here.
I put my arms around him and gave him a huge hug. I said:
“My friend. Today, you are a true yogi.”