What does yoga mean in the context of your whole life, all your roles and responsibilities, of who you are and what you do? Is it just a class you attend a couple times a week that gives you definition in muscles and keeps you from wearing your shoulders around your ears like a permanent stress monkey?
The first clue most people have to the complete transformation yoga makes possible is that they notice feeling particularly good leaving class, on the way home and on lucky days when life doesn’t conspire to kill their yoga buzz, maybe even for a couple of hours or day after class. They feel happier, brighter and are more likely to step aside in a line so someone in hurry or with small children can check out faster. Their driving is more evenly paced and so they see what other drivers will need before it happens and make way. The sky looks a little bluer and the grass a little greener.
Then the “buzz” wears off, or is shattered by a particularly harrowing freeway event, a near miss or a particularly grizzly news story. Or maybe the simple march of time wears us down and without regular replenishing our well of energy and compassion merely runs low. So we go back to class to replenish the buzz, remember the joy and feel like the model in the health magazine ad again.
There you are at class, breathing, moving, waiting for your bliss to descend, when the teacher reminds you that the point of yoga, of doing the postures and coming to class is so that when we’re cut off in traffic or hear about a tragedy, or experience one, we are better able to remain present for the situation. “How the heck am I supposed to do that?!,” you wonder, “Wouldn’t any sane person want to get away from the painful or enraging situation as fast as possible?!” What’s the big deal about “staying present” and even if you bought that it was something you might want to try, how would you begin when the impulse to pull away or fight against it is so strong?
The same cues and reminder that your teacher gives during class in order to guide you into yoga poses, the very ones that, as a part of class, create that addicting yoga buzz can be applied when we’re loosing our grasp on the feeling of being one with all creation and have an urge to grasp for something else. Why would you want to stay present? Because the urge to run away or grasp - whether it’s for a drink, a cigarette or someone’s throat - are ways of reinforcing our habits, of keeping things as they are and of creating the world as it is... with the enraging things and injustices in tact.
Your teacher reminds you in poses to keep breathing, not hold the breath and to return to the breath when your mind is confused or caught up in details about the pose. The Yamas and Niyamas - or restraints and cultivations - of yoga guide your teacher in giving you intelligent cues for embodying yoga poses, and they can guide you in everyday situations and considering bigger questions of politics and morality or ethics.
Practice on the mat is preparation for embodying that post-yoga-class feeling throughout our lives. By becoming more aware of the guiding principles, we can consciously apply them in the situations we find challenging. The Yamas (or restraints) are nonviolence, truthfulness, conservation, non-grasping and non-stealing, while the Niyamas (or cultivations) are cleanliness, contentment, fierceness (self-discipline), self-study and surrender.
When confronting a problematic situation or considering an issue you find complex or challenging, you can begin by simply not running away: return to your breath. Staying with the feelings and complex issues - as long as there’s no immediate life threat or danger - is the most basic way of allowing the truth to emerge. From there, you will likely notice places in your body that feel tight or constricted; you can practice non-grasping by inviting those places to let go. As you proceed, you may even hear your yoga teacher’s voice as a memory from class, helping you return to your breath.
If the whole list seems overwhelming, try practicing one each day simply by paying attention throughout the day to contexts where the restraint or cultivation you’ve chosen feels highlighted. And once you’ve been through them a couple of times and can remember most of them, try reciting the list if you’re in a quandary about which is most applicable: the one you forget is probably the one that will unlock the question of the situation!