Saturday, July 24, 2010

Yoga Philosophy You Can Use - the Niyamas

Ok, so we've talked about the yamas, which have mostly to do with our behavior towards others. The next stop on our path, the niyamas, sometimes called "restraints," have more to do with our behavior toward ourselves. There are five of them as well, and they are:

Sauca: purity, or cleanliness. You've heard that "cleanliness is next to Godliness," right? The idea behind sauca is about keeping yourself and the things in your life in good order so that they can function their best and help you live your life well. Knowing the connection between the body and the mind, if feed your body junk, or take drugs, for example, can you really expect to have optimal mental health? You wouldn't put sewage in your car and expect it to run well. And, as seems to be the case in all of these practices, there is a more subtle, internal aspect to this practice also. It's a good idea to examine what kind of things you're feeding your 'mental body' also. For example, if you spend all your free time watching violent movies - you are in essence, feeding your brain these images. You can imagine, it's hard to have a quiet mind after watching a horrifically violent movie. Does this mean we should just avoid all of the unpleasantries of life? Not at all. It just means we should be mindful of what we choose to ingest - literally, and figuratively.

Of course, the tendency to keep things clean and pure must be met with brahmacarya, or moderation. Going to extremes in behavior is ultimately self-defeating.

Santosha - contentment. We're all seeking contentment, aren't we? As elusive as it may seem at times, it helps to remember that positive states like contentment can be cultivated. There are many ways - and everyone will have their own. For me, yoga, music and laughter can do the trick. Another way to increase contentment is to cultivate gratitude. There are so many parts of our lives that we take for granted, if we only stop to realize them. We're so quick to recognize the things that go wrong in our lives - we seldom stop to acknowledge the little things that go right. For example, I was able to go to yoga class this morning because a myriad of things went right. Just to name a few - my car started; I had gas in my car; I didn't have a wreck on the way; the teacher had the same luck and showed up and was generous enough to share her knowledge with us; my body was healthy and pain-free enough to participate...the list could go on and on. We so rarely notice our non-headaches - the absence of problems, pain or suffering, we just become aware when they show up. Waking up to the presence of non-problems goes a long way toward cultivating contentment.

Tapas - heat, or "glow." I think of tapas as having to do with perserverence, self-discipline and enthusiasm. We all have days in which we don't want to go to work, exercise or do something we know we need to do, or is good for us. What makes us work through our resistance? Tapas. Sometimes it helps to remind ourselves of why it's good for us to do something. When I'm feeling like blowing off my yoga practice, I often tell myself - I never regret doing yoga, only not doing it. And, sometimes, we just think too much about things - getting into mental arguments with ourselves about what we should do. In these cases, we need to just let go the internal chatter and just focus on the present moment - and just do what is called for. Because in the doing it, in the showing up we've already made progress. Not to mention, to get the benefits of any practice, we need sustained effort, or heat. Tapas.

Of course, burnout is an all-too-common fact of life and we need to be mindful - and moderate - in our activity levels. And, as with all of these practices, tapas can be cultivated. Like all of the yamas and niyamas, it's something we have to practice. We may not start out with much self-discipline, but by making one little change every day we can make a lot of progress before too long.

Enthusiasm and motivation can be cultivated, too. Often going to a workshop, a museum, being in nature or just doing something outside of your routine, or getting a change of scenery can mentally wipe the slate clean and be energizing too.

Svadyaya - study. Here's another example of a practice that has both external and internal aspects. Learning and study are vital to personal development, to be sure. Whether we're learning a new hobby, learning yoga philosophy or a new language, learning is good for the brain and mental health. The other side of the coin, though, is self-study. We should regularly engage in honest self-reflection, which should include examining not only the things we could improve, but the things we've done well. As with all things, we will do well to remember the underpinning of ahimsa, or nonharming, and approach self-study with a compassionate attitude. Having taken an honest look at ourselves and our behavior, with the self-discipline of tapas, we can begin to make changes in the direction of becoming the person we want to be.

Isvara pranidhana - surrender. This practice is often described as devotion to God - or surrendering the fruits of our labors to God. Though this interpretation may not resonate with everyone, Isvara pranidhana still a workable, helpful concept. One way to think about it is surrendering the illusion of control. As much as we would like to be in control of our lives - and of course, having a certain amount of control of ourselves is desirable - at some point, we have to acknowledge and admit that we can't control everything. All we can do in life is to do our best, and then leave it. Forget about the outcome. If you've done your best, you can rest in the knowledge that you've made your contribution to the big picture - and remember that the ultimate outcome is not totally up to you.

Ultimately, the niyamas are about the importance of self-care in the service of the greater good. By taking care of yourself in these ways, you are more able to live your best life, which is definitely good for your mental health.


For further reading: there are several good translations of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. I probably like Satchidananda's best but Isherwood's How to Know God is more accessible and a good place to start, in my opinion.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Yoga Philosophy You Can Use - the Yamas

One of the most fundamental - and practical - parts of yoga philosophy is the group of practices called the yamas. The yamas are 5 guiding principles which form the basis of an ethical and satisfying life. I think of them as a sort of compass - when I feel off kilter, I run through the yamas in my mind and see if there's something I could be doing differently. So here's a quick introduction:

Ahimsa: nonharming. This is the foundation, the basis for all that follows. We cultivate an attitude of compassion toward others - toward everyone - even ourselves (isn't it easy to forget to include ourselves?). If it's difficult to be kind to yourself, try considering how you might feel or act toward someone you love - a child, friend even a pet. So ahimsa becomes the basis on which we think, feel and act. We can ask ourselves before doing something - is this harmful or helpful? This helps us become more in tune with the subtle ways we can do harm to ourselves, through negative self-talk, self-defeating behaviors, and so on. And considering the impact we have on others helps our relationships, too. Sometimes when we're in a difficult situation, it helps to remember ahimsa; we can remind ourselves we're not really "against" anyone.

Satya: truthfulness. Being honest with ourselves (and others) is a basic requirement for a healthy life. Let's face it, as humans, we are pretty good at bullshitting ourselves! But most of the time, underneath the BS there's an awareness of what's really going on - but a lack of acceptance. Cultivating acceptance isn't the same as being resigned to the way things are; on the contrary. Acceptance is a necessary condition for change. We have to see where we are and accept it if we want to go about changing it.

Of course, on a more basic level, satya is about telling the truth to others, too. It's important to remember the underlying foundation of nonharming, though. Sometimes it's better just to stay quiet!

Asteya: nonstealing. This can be taken literally, as in not taking what is not given to you. On a more subtle level though, it has to do with not taking what belongs to others, like their time, attention, control, you respect people enough to be on time, or do you make them wait for you? Can you let someone enjoy the spotlight, or do you have to grab it for yourself? Do you need to control situations at the expense of others? The ways in which we can take from others (or not!) are endless.

Brahmacarya: This one is harder to define and if you look into it much, you'll find lots of different interpretations, but the basic idea is to avoid misusing your energy. Some texts interpret this yama to mean sexual restraint, but in my opinion, it can also be applied to all sorts of situations. Paying attention to where we put our energies is a very valuable exercise. Do you squander your energy in unhealthy ways like gossiping, using drugs, watching tv all the time or...?

Aparigraha: greedlessness. This one runs somewhat counter to what society expects of us! Aparigraha encourages us to be satisfied with what we've got, and not to chase after things we really don't need. There's nothing wrong with being comfortable in life, but most of us spend a lot of time thinking about, wanting, and chasing things we really don't need. New cars, fancy clothes and expensive stuff don't really make us happy - we've been told this before. Chasing after stuff does give us some immediate pleasure, but soon it wears off and we're on to the next thing (or paying off the credit cards). And lots of the time, our stuff is just a distraction from our real lives.

This is just a quick introduction to these practices - volumes have been written about them. So why is all this important to mental health? If you think about it, kindness and ethical behavior are really prerequisites to good mental health. If you treat others badly, for example, you are bound to experience some combination of guilt and anxiety about future consequences, your relationships suffer, and so on. And, the yamas help take us away from our usual self-centered mindset and start considering the impact we have on others, and on the world. When we feel good about ourselves and what we do, we can have true peace of mind.

Ultimately, doing better means feeling better. But don't take my word for it. Try it yourself!

Yoga Therapy Conference

Speaking of yoga research...I got this information in my email inbox today from The International Association of Yoga Therapists. The IAYT is a wealth of information for yoga teachers and therapists; they publish an annual journal of scientific research, as well as the Yoga Therapy Today publication. Although mental health issues are well-covered in their publications, you will also find information on a variety of issues, such as back pain, osteopenia, training issues, preventing yoga injuries and much more.

Here are links to further information on the organization, their upcoming conference, and the also worthwhile Himalayan Institute. Check them out!


The International Association of Yoga Therapists is pleased to announce its first Symposium on Yoga Research (SYR) on October 1-3, 2010 at the Himalayan Institute .

This will be a single track academic research meeting devoted to yoga and yoga therapy research that will include presentations by senior researchers, extensive poster sessions, and ample opportunities for interaction between scientists, trainees and yoga therapists and instructors. For complete SYR 2010 information please visit

Sunday, July 18, 2010

What is Tejas?

Another name for Texas, of course!

Tejas is also a Sanskrit term that means power, radiant energy or brilliance. It's also been interpreted to mean valor or fearlessness. That shiny happy feeling you get at the end of yoga class - tejas!

Thank you for visiting this site. In the weeks to come I hope to share interesting and useful information about yoga and mental health. This is an exciting time for this field of research - more and more studies are showing that yoga can help recovery from anxiety, depression, posttraumatic stress, addiction, and more. So stay tuned!