You may think that change and learning stops when you finish your formal education. You may think growth stops when you reach physical maturity. But that isn’t the case, not one bit.
All of life is ever changing, ever growing. Even when you think something is staying the same, it is changing. That phrase ‘stuck in her ways’ doesn’t mean that a person has stayed the same, it means that their habits have become deeper embedded into their mind and become more deep rooted. It looks and feels like change, but it is the personal growth equivalent of keeping your feet in cement as it dries. The cement is changing, and your feet, and you, are becoming more and more stuck with every passing second, so that too is change.
You can allow these changes to happen to you, or you can take your destiny in your hands and guide the way you will grow and change through life.
As you are here on this page, I’m guessing you’re interested in the latter, and how Yoga can help you on this quest, so let’s take a look.
Yoga, your ultimate personal development plan
Yoga is so much more than the exercise regime that gives you a sleek, toned body. It has the potential to do this, but it can give you so much more.
There is a clearly described path that you can follow to achieve massive personal growth through Yoga. This path, laid out for us by Patanjali in The Yoga Sutras, is a millenia old philosophy that is as relevant now as it was when it was written at least 2 thousand years ago.
Maybe even more relevant. We live in weird times. I think we need these lessons more than ever.
Within the text of The Yoga Sutras, is a framework known as the Eight Limbs. These limbs guide the seeker to profound personal and spiritual growth. While the ultimate aim of Yoga is Enlightenment, or Union with the Divine (the word ‘yoga’ can be translated as ‘union’), there is a powerful path of personal transformation to be accessed along the way.
Yamas – Creating a strong moral foundation
The Yamas are the first of the Eight Limbs of Yoga. Together with the Niyamas, they make up the moral and ethical foundation of Yoga. These are essential because Yoga is about the whole being, so must offer us ways to elevate every aspect of our being.
The Yamas are
- Asteya – non harming
- Satya – truthfulness
- Asteya – non stealing
- Brahmacharya – control of desires
- Aparigraha – non grasping
These Yamas invite us to rise above the animal instincts of violence, dishonesty, theft, lust and craving, and grasping and hoarding. These traits are endemic through human society, and have been always, but it is strikingly obvious now, in the time we live in.
We can apply these Yamas to all aspects of life – how would your work life, your parenting, your self talk, your behaviour to your spouse, your eating habits, your shopping habits, your leisure time, your relationship with yourself and the world around you be impacted if every day you were to try to being less harming, lying, stealing, lust and grapsing? What would our world look like if politics, commerce, education, and diplomacy worked according to these principles?
The Yamas are a powerful vehicle for self examination and behaviour change. They have helped me to change my diet, the way I talk to myself, the way I treat my body, and those I love and so much more, and I can always get better in all areas.
The Niyamas – You can become so much more
If the Yamas are about curbing animal instincts, the Niyamas are about reaching to be ever better humans. While becoming less animal will obviously do that, the Niyamas are about elevating us beyond to an even higher level of being.
The Niyamas are
- Saucha – cleanliness
- Santosha – contentment
- Tapas – self control
- Swadhyaya – self study
- Ishwara Pranidhana – surrender to the Divine (however you feel that in your life)
The Niyamas invite us to strive to achieve more than we would if we were animals. To live a life of purity in our living environment, our bodies, thoughts, words and actions. To appreciate what we have in life and not allow external factors to influence how we feel about life. To behave with discipline and focus, steadily working towards our growth, doing what we say we will, regardless of possible ‘failures’ and refusing to allow obstacles to get in the way. To develop in awareness of ourselves, our thoughts, behaviours, patterns and habits, and to use this awareness to change. And to develop connection to the Divine, to the Higher Self, to be steadfast in faith if this is how that shows up for you, or to accept that not everything is within your control, and that all you can ever do is your part in any scenario, and allow the rest to unfold as it will.
The Niyamas will show you your ‘areas for improvement’ but when you can live with these as as guide to life, things will improve in your daily life as a matter of course.
Asana – Adopt a good posture for life
The Asanas are the most well known part of Yoga, but they are just one of the Eight Limbs. In the original text of the Sutras, the only posture mentioned is Sukka Asana, the seated posture used for meditation. Originally, that was the sole purpose of Asana, to prepare the body for extended periods (and by this I mean hours and hours, the ancient Yogis were totally dedicated to their Yogic endeavours). As Yoga is all about evolution (of the soul), it is right that in time, Yoga too has evolved to meet the needs of a wider population of practitioners, with differing physical needs.
In the 21st century, with a largely sedentary Western civilisation living on an increasingly processed diet, we need the postures to help to loosen and heal stressed, stiff and overworked bodies. The postures we practice in Hatha Yoga help to increase flexibility, strengthen muscles, balance the inne systems of the body, release tension and stress, improve digestion and much more. Through relaxation of the body we can relax the mind, dissipating mental stress as we release the physical.
Asanas help to connect us to the body. When practising postures with conscious awareness of what your body is doing, you can really start to notice just how much is going on when you move the body. You become more conscious of what your body needs, and better able to respond to the signals it is giving you. This connection to your body is increasingly valuable in a world where distraction and unconsciousness seems to be the name of the game, where we are encouraged to eat on the go, to sit all day, to deal with stress by overloading the body with toxins in the form of alcohol among others, to live hunched over computer screens, and where tiredness is seen as a badge of honour.
Pranayama – the breath of life
When you stop and become present with your breath, you are giving yourself possibly the greatest gift you can bestow on yourself. Breathing is absolutely vital, and while it is an automatic function of the body, left to the autonomic nervous system, most of us will breathe very shallow breaths, not taking full advantage of the potential of this action.
Every single one of the trillion plus cells in your body needs oxygen to nourish it, and needs to release carbon dioxide, a substance which is toxic to the human body. When we nourish anything well, and clear away the waste and rubbish, it functions better – think of a houseplant, if all you do is give it a small amount of water from time to time it might live, but it won’t thrive. If you feed it plant nutrients, give it plenty of light, the right amount of water, and clear away dead and dying leaves, then the plant will flourish. It is the same with your breath.
There are so many physical and mental health benefits to learning to breathe properly, including better sleep and more energy, increased resilience to stress, improved digestion, increased cognitive functions and much more. Beyond that, taking time to be present with your breath allows you to listen to the voice of your intuition, the little voice that often tries to guide us to do the thing that is right for us, but we don’t always listen to it. This intuition is your inner knowing, the ultimate proof that all the answers you seek in life really are already known to you, but you have to get still and listen.
Pratyahara – bringing your attention in
Once you have begun to develop control of your breath through Pranayama, you can use it to go deeper into yourself, and to begin to withdraw from the sensory onslaught the world throws at you, in the practice of Pratyahara. This practice helps you to learn that you do not need to respond to every stimulus that comes your way, that you can let things pass and turn your attention away from what which is not important. A very valuable lesson to learn in the age of the constant distraction and fabricated outrage and fear on social media I am sure you will agree.
Pratyahara is the act of noticing things happening, but letting go of the need to engage with them. When you sit quietly with your eyes closed, trying to keep your focus on your breath, you will find that your thoughts want to distract you, you may find you develop an itch on your nose, or a noise outside will take your attention. Pratyahara is the practice of acknowledging these things, and then letting go of them. In the case of physical discomfort you may need to tend to your body, but in time, you will learn to let that go too.
Pratyahara teaches many valuable skills that can be carried into daily life, and can help you in your pursuit of life guided by the Yamas, as you will be able to respond to life in a different way, without allowing your animal instincts, which run entirely on responses to sensory information, to influence your decision making.
A powerful start to your journey along the Yoga path to personal growth
These first five limbs of Yoga are known as Bahiranga Yoga, the Outer Yoga. They are concerned with making us fit to move onto the Higher practices of Yoga, the Inner Yoga, which have little to do with the material world and everything to do with the inner world and our spiritual life. When you reach these levels, you will need the guidance of a teacher who has passed through these levels him/herself to guide you effectively, I know the theory, but have no personal experience yet!
I detailed my own journey to self discovery and healing in my book, Bent Back into Shape, Beating Addiction Through Yoga. You can get a free extract from the book when you join my email list, fill in your details below to get your free copy today, along with a free video workshop in which I share some ways you can use your breath to control and beat stress!
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