A Year in Yamas + Niyamas

I’m not sure if I have or am ready to entirely process this year. I started 2015 with the idea to intently practice the ten yamas and niyamas for one month each (leaving out January and December for preparation and reflection). Looking back, had I known what this year held in store for me, I might not have been so eager to give myself any additional challenges. The past ten months have been quite the wild ride with lots of ups and downs, a few big drops, and plenty of unexpected twists. To recap, here’s what I set out to do and how it went:

February – Ahimsa (Non-harming): Eat a vegetarian diet and refrain from speaking ill of anyone. Basically, follow the Golden Rule or “Do no harm”. There are many reasons that ahimsa is the first yama, one being that it just FEELS GOOD. I feel better, on many levels, living a vegetarian lifestyle and I still strive to (xmas week omitted here). I realize this is a personal choice and one’s “diet” should be highly individualized, based on your constitution and health needs. However, we could ALL benefit from consuming less animal products, and just being nicer to each other, our furry/scaled/feathered friends, and the environment.

March – Satya (Truthfulness): Only speak what is true, and don’t sugarcoat it. Speak MY truth. Again, a relatively easy principle to practice that yields immediate and long lasting satisfaction. When you stop caring about what people think and start speaking from your heart, a giant weight on a heavy chain is lifted from around your throat. I’ve struggled with holding my tongue in the past, resulting in mental and physical distress. Consciously practicing truthfulness helped me let go of fear & inhibition and embrace confidence & honesty. Highly recommended!

April Asteya (Non-stealing): Do not buy anything that I do not need. Asteya seems like a pretty effortless practice; you feel good when you don’t steal. But my true and more challenging intention was to refrain from purchasing any non-necessities (food/drink: good, another pair of sunglasses: bad.) Given my instilled affinity for browsing and shopping, this seemed like a hard task at first. But living in a non-stealing mindset proved to be a satisfying and sobering practice. I am now reminded of the saying “Live simply so others may simply live”. I don’t know if my fist-clenching restraint at Target improved anyone’s quality of life, but I like to that it improved mine.

May  Aparigraha (Non-hoarding): Get rid of anything I do not need. Oof, THIS was the big one. Not because of the daunting task of cleaning out my closets and drawers, in hopes of shedding the layers and piles of stuff that I have accumulated over the years with no purpose or place. I mean, I DID this. It was not easy, but this was the perfect time to clean out as I was preparing to depart for graduate school for two months and start a new chapter in my life. No friends, if you’ll remember, I practiced Aparigraha in the most potent and personal way by saying goodbye to my dear Zack. After 13 wonderful years, the time very apparently came to let go of my beautiful, yet ailing, boxer boy. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through thus far, and from making that heart-wrenching decision to his last breath, those were the worst two days of my life. But of course, there is always a lesson to be learned, no matter how painful. Nothing is mine, nothing is yours. Our pets, our spouses, even our children, they all belong to the universe, and when it’s time to let them jump back into the pool, we can hold on and fight against the tide, or peacefully let them go.

June  Brahmacharya (Moderation of the senses): Do not watch TV. Given the stress at the beginning of June and the changes I was encountering as I moved to Roanoke, VA for graduate school at Hollins University, I decided to cut myself some slack this month. As I embarked on my graduate school journey, I had little time for TV or entertainment in general. But when I wasn’t in class, reading, studying, writing, rehearsing, or sleeping, I longed for something unacademic and borderline mindless. So I did allot myself one hour of TV a day, which I did not even use most days. But just to know it was there and to not feel guilty about taking a break for “Top Chef” or “Game of Thrones” from my busy and strange new life gave me some sense of comfort and a reminder of home.

July Saucha (Purity): Do not drink alcohol. Haha, remember that time?! Yea, I didn’t do that, but I will address it. Much like most of our Western society, whether we like to admit it or not, I have an attachment to alcohol. It is part of my lifestyle; a glass of wine at the end of a long day is a fine, fine thing. I do not abuse alcohol or get DRUNK (and if I do I totally admit it and feel terrible about it the next day, in more ways than one). I come from a family of drinkers, at least on one side. Libations are an integral part of meals, celebrations, social gatherings, and general fellowship. I am not blaming them, but just sharing some perspective on my relationship to the bottle. Of course I CAN not drink; I’ve experienced weeks of alcohol-free living while at the Himalayan Institute, done dietary cleanses, and just not felt like it for a few days. And you know what… it was great! I didn’t miss it, I felt amazing, then that season would end and I’d fugetaboutit. However those times serve as a constant reminder that drinking is not ever mandatory, that I don’t NEED it, and life is full of many highs and buzzes that do not come with a cork. Hmm, maybe something to keep in mind for next year…

What I DID do was refrain from processed food, which is a much more attainable goal, especially while living in Frankfurt, Germany (or anywhere in Europe). There, food is real, it is fresh, and it is rich. Yes, I enjoyed maybe a few too many Hefeweizens and soft pretzels, but they were all made with love and actual plant-based ingredients. Everywhere except the U.S. food is seen as medicine, as something to enjoy and savor, not something to shovel down your throat on the way to your next appointment with no regard as to what went into it or how. Again, something to keep in mind for next year, for all of us.

August Santosha (Contentment): Do not complain and be content. Santosha began the “TBAs”, or intentions that I would decide on when the time came. Practicing contentment sounds great and all, but HOW? I came to the conclusion that refraining from verbally complaining or surrounding myself with complaint was a good start. And it was. When we stop pouring pointless garbage out of our mouth or stuffing it in our ears (because complaining IS pointless) the result is positively liberating. I like to think of Santosha as Satya’s cousin. Don’t hold back, but only let it all spill out. I am reminded of a nice rule of thumb when preparing to speak: “Is it kind? Is it True? Is it necessary?” Check? Go for it. Nope? Let it lie. I also shared moments of notable contentment on Facebook, most notably the joyous event of my sister’s same-sex wedding and the honor of being her maid of honor. If you know the rocky history I share with my sister, you know what a big deal it is for me to finally describe our relationship now as not just content, but truly happy. #lovewins #contentmentwins #everybodywins

September – Tapas (Discipline): Meditate and practice pranayama everyday. I really enjoyed rereading my initial Tapas post. It was a nice reminder that no matter how crazy life gets, no matter how “bad” we are, we can always go back, start again, and be a little better. All in all, I WAS better at incorporating the oh-so-important practices of meditation and breathwork into my days. My fifth and final post of September was also a good one, albeit a little preachy. But that’s part of Tapas – getting a little finger-waggy with yourself, bucking up, doing the work, lighting the fire, enduring the heat, and then MAYBE enjoying the results of your labor. I say MAYBE because as the Bhagavad Gita explains, “You are entitled only to the actions and never the fruits; do not consider yourself to be a cause of the fruits of actions, nor let your attachment be to inaction.” NEVER the fruits?! Damn. Oh well, good segue…

October Svadyaya (Self-study): Recite my mantra and read from a sacred scripture daily. I only made one post this month, but I feel like I was mostly loyal to my intention. Meditation, japa, and mosksha shastra are pleasurable practices and even addictive once I make them a consistent part of my routine. Yet these are actions I struggle to make adequate space for in my life. As I sit here and type I can turn to see the dust collecting on a few dozen beautiful yoga and philosophy books. Some are dog-eared and have post-it notes sticking out, marking passages and ideas that I once meant to remember. Looking ahead, I hope to again crack their spines and dive into their juicy words on a more committed level.

November – Ishvara Pranidhana (Surrender to a higher power): Be grateful and say your prayers. I just wrapped up my final month on the Tour de Yamas/Niyamas, yet I had to go back and look at what I did. My initial intent of the “gratitude log” seemed too easy and trivial, so I gave myself the added task of blessing each meal, again, not a difficult challenge. Yet somehow, embarrassingly, I let both fall by the wayside. But let’s not forget the jury duty debacle, which if nothing else, reignited the power of pranidhana (surrendering) and my trust in Ishvara (or whatever). I.P. is still something I struggle with, not because I DON’T BELIEVE, but because I don’t know what I believe IN. Yes, I conveniently describe myself as a “Buddhist leaning Atheist”; doesn’t explain much, does it? But maybe, it doesn’t matter. We’re all just floundering around together, trying figure out this crazy thing called life aren’t we? Navigating the choppy waters of existence, trying to stay afloat between the shores of birth and death is exhausting. Finding a lifejacket that fits perfectly can be nearly impossible, so once you find one it’s nice to grab it. But hold on too tight and you might deflate it, or it might get a hole, or you might outgrown it and it just doesn’t fit anymore. My point is, even for those who think they have it ALL figured out and are 100% sure of their beliefs, of where we came from and where we go next, there’s still a sliver of uncertainty. NO ONE knows for sure, which is part of the beauty of Ishvara Pranidhana; that uncertainty leads to openness – in our minds AND hearts. I think as we’ve all witnessed and experienced over the past year, the world could use a little more openness, a lot more tolerance, and a helluva lot more compassion. Let’s usher in 2016 with open arms, open minds, and open hearts. We can’t lose.

What does next year hold in store? Who the hell knows? Will I do another Year in Yamas/Niyamas? Probably not. Maybe I’ll do a “Year of Yoga Sutras” or “Bhagavad Gita 365”. I don’t know, and honestly I don’t know if I’ll keep this blog or do something on a more personal level. All I can say is if there is one thing this year has taught me, it’s that we are never too old to be students or too young to be wise. If you’re not growing you’re dying, so take keep feeding yourself the good stuff (good thoughts, good food, good friends). Ok, and maybe a good glass of wine. Cheers to 2016!

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