Ancient wisdom applied to modern life – How yoga can help you transform your habits

As special as we all are as individuals, it never ceases to amaze me how similar we are. Not only with each other, but with our ancestors also. Yoga offers an ancient philosophy that is just as applicable and helpful in the modern world. Indeed many of the things we struggle with today were discussed in the yoga sutras, which were written prior to 400 CE.

samsara deeply ingrained habits written with smasher in sanskritHabits can be positive or negative. We all probably have some positive and some negative ones. In yoga these deeply ingrained habits are called samskaras. The word samskara is from an ancient language called Sanskrit. It comes from the root words sam (complete or joined together) and kara (action, cause or doing). You can think of these as neural pathways in your brain that help shape your behavior.

Samskaras are not all bad, much of our behavior is habitual and we all have a mixture of positive and negative habits, which shape our behavior.

How does yoga help?

When you practice yoga, you develop more awareness. In yoga philosophy the Sanskrit word for awareness or seeing clearly is vidya. As you develop this awareness you become more aware of the habits you have. You start to notice how your actions are affecting your outcomes. If you have noticed you have a problem that reoccurs in your life this may be an example of a negative samskara.

You may notice your samskaras on your yoga mat. So for example if you have a habit of pushing too hard you may notice you do this in your yoga practice. Alternatively you may give up too easily or whenever you can’t do something. Both these tendencies can have a negative impact on your life beyond the yoga mat.

Ancient wisdom and modern neuroscience

Modern neuroscientists have observed that we have neural pathways in our brains for these ingrained patterns of behavior. No wonder our habits can be hard to change. The good news is you can create new neural pathways.

Awareness is just the first step

Becoming aware of our negative samskaras is not enough to change them. Noticing and becoming aware though is a crucial step on the path to change. Sometimes you may become aware of a negative habit a few times before you decide to change it. Crucially here I think is your own belief in the possibility of self-change. Start with something small like changing your morning routine. Instead of trying to do too many at once, make one change at a time, repeat it for at least 2 weeks until it starts to feel like a habit. Over time you will develop the ability to notice and change your habits and slowly one habit at a time you can build the life you want to live.

Has yoga made you more aware of any negative habit? Have you made any changes to your life because of this?

 

Ashtanga Yoga – Traditional Opening and Closing Chant

In Ashtanga yoga there are two traditional chants. One at the start of the class and one at the end.  In my classes I only do this chant in my non-beginners classes.  I do this because I think chanting can be a bit intimidating to some people.  This can be especially when they are just beginning their yoga journey.  People come to yoga for all sorts of reasons and I think that is fine, yoga has many benefits.

 

When I do teach the chant, it is is optional.  I know many of my students love it and some people just listen for whatever reason and that’s fine. I would hate someone to miss out on the many benefits of yoga because they don’t feel comfortable chanting.

Why do the chant?

I think the chant is really useful as a way to seperate your yoga practice from day to day life. If you don’t want to to chant you could take a moment to connect with your breathing.

What language is the chant and what does it mean?

The chant is in Sanskrit – an ancient language of India. The opening chant gives thanks to Patanjali, who wrote the yoga Sutras.  This ancient text can be considered the philosophical underpinnings of yoga.  If you are interested in deepening your understanding of yoga, you should definately read the yoga sutras. It was written approximately 200 years BC and has amazing relevance to our lives today.  In my mind when we say this chant we are also giving thanks to all the yoga teachers who have passed on the yoga tradition so that we can practice today.  The closing chant is more about taking the benefits of our yoga practice and putting them out into the world. You can find a  full translation of the chants here.

 

Religion and the Chant

Some people may not want to chant because they feel it is religious.  Yoga is not a religion.  It has a philosophy and can be practiced by anyone, regardless of whether they have a religious faith or not.

 

Pronunciation of the chant

This post came about because some of my students said they struggled to pronounce the chant when they are practing by themselves.  Last week I came across this wonderful video on yoga mammas blog.  The video shows Sharath and his grandfather Pattabhi Jois, saying the opening chant.  Pattabhi Jois was the founder of ashtanga yoga, he is no longer with us and the current head of the lineage is his grandson Sharath.  I feel very grateful for having had the opportunity to study with both of them.  This video shows a beautiful transmission of the tradition.

 

Here is another video of Sharath chanting the closing chant.

 

Do you like chanting?  What do you like or dislike about it? Do you have any questions about the chants?

Ashtanga Yoga of Patanjali Explored – The Ethics of Yoga

 

The Yoga Sutras were written by Patanjali approximately 500 to 200 years B.C.  In the opening chant of Ashtanga Yoga we pay homage to Patanjali.   The Yoga Sutras are an excellent guide for anyone interested in delving deeper into yoga. Despite being written so long ago, they are very relevant to the modern day practitioner of yoga. Each time I have read them I have understood them on a different level as insights from my own practice and life help me to understand them more.

 

In The Yoga Sutras Patanjali defines the term Ashtanga.  Asha mean eight and anga mean limbs. The yoga sutras are     not specific to Ashtanga Yoga and are relevant to all that practice yoga and are interested in delving deeper.

The eight limbs are:

 

  1. Yama – ethical guidance concerning our dealings with society
  2. Niyama – ethical guidance concerning our dealings with ourselves
  3. Asana – the yoga postures
  4. Pranayama- breathing exercises, control of prana, our life force
  5. Pratyahra – sense withdrawal
  6. Dharana – a state of consciousness whereby the mind is directed to one point
  7. Dhyana – meditation
  8. Samadhi- a state of oneness

 

These eight limbs of Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga are not necessarily practiced in that order.  Usually practitioners of Hatha yoga, such as Pattabhi Jois’s Ashtanga yoga that I teach begin with asana, the physical postures.  Actually the other limbs are also practiced within  the physical yoga practice as we shall see when we explore them further.

 

This is a big topic and I would like to write a series of posts about Patanjali’s eight limbs in order to explore them in my own life and hopefully get some other people’s experiences.  I would like to begin with the Yama and Niyama.  In the next part I will discuss each of them in more depth, to begin with I will define each one.

 

The five yamas are:

 

  1. Ahimsa – non – violence
  2. Satya – truthfulness
  3. Asteya- not coveting others possessions
  4. Bramachamera – sexual restraint (not necessarily celebacy)
  5. Aparigraha- to not be greedy

 

The five Niyamas are:

 

  1. Sauca – cleanliness
  2. Samtosa – being content with what you have
  3. Tapas – keeping the body fit,  to create  heat in the body and thus cleanse it
  4. Svasdyaya – self inquiry
  5. Isvarapranidhana – surrender to god

 

Well my Sanskrit dictionary  just grew!  Most of these are self explanatory and are practiced by most people anyway.  By practised, I mean we know these are things we should do, I am sure we all find it challenging sometimes, I know I do. We all get things wrong some of the time!  However they are useful guidelines in which to reflect our choices.  As discussed in the previous post about why people practice yoga, often people begin practicing yoga for purely physical reasons and then find that they are inadvertently changing for the better.

 

I will discuss each yama and niyama in more depth in future posts.

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Do you think these ethical guidlines are useful?

Do you think they are challenging?