By Patty Hart • Photos by Doug Russell
When people say, “I’m in relationship,” they usually are referring to a relationship with another person — perhaps a friend, an intimate other, or even a business partner. Most people would agree quality relationships of all kinds matter and have real value.
So, have you considered how you relate to yourself? As a yoga teacher, this has become a curious question I often ask myself.
One of the reasons I practice and teach yoga is to explore my relationship to myself in any given moment. You might call it an ongoing personal inquiry. I offer this same inquiry to my students while I’m teaching.
Sometimes it is an invitation to observe or feel your toes lift and your quadriceps engage. At other times it is, “What would happen if you allowed your upper arm bone to set into your shoulder socket?”
Luckily, yoga comes equipped with a potentially integrated toolkit of awareness, contemplation and movement that invites me to feel the nuances of inhabiting my physical body. I say “potentially integrated” as I sometimes rely on a few specific tools while ignoring others.
For example, if I turn all of my attention to alignment in warrior pose, I may miss the opportunity to relish the joy of breathing the feeling of it into my muscles, skeleton and cells. In so doing I am figuring it out from my mind. The pose might look ‘perfect’ visually yet my head is doing the pose – not my body.
There are missing threads of connection in my being which leave me wondering, where am I in that moment? My physical form may look like a warrior yet I’m not integrated inside. I’m just posing.
Giving to My Practice — Elements of Relationship
My yoga practice provides me continual benefits as it does for millions of practitioners. But what is it that I bring to my yoga practice?
Two useful gifts I bring are intention and attention. My intention is to be as present as possible to whatever arises in my own body. I attend to those arisings as an interested observer of my feelings and thoughts. In that way I invite relationship to the whole of me through carefully considering the parts.
For instance, one of my bodily tendencies is for my knees to hyperextend or move beyond a normal range of motion. For years I was either unconscious about it or resisted awareness of it.
As my yoga practice has matured I have been able to watch that tendency arise and feel when my knees go towards that default. Eventually with compassionate attention I learned to adjust my position and soften my knees, and do so without my mind’s opinion/judgment taking me down the road of ridicule.
For a long time I would turn down that ridicule road and want to condemn my (yoga) form for not moving properly, for not remembering, for getting it ‘wrong’ - meanwhile comparing myself to other students who seemed to have it ‘together.’
That condemnation was my ego erratically plowing down a very narrow bumpy path, and taking me further away from true connection to myself.
It was the antithesis of what I wanted from my yoga practice. In feeling that dissonance, I began to recognize the qualities I needed to give to my practice.
What has helped me give to my practice in large part is the toolkit contained in the second of the eight limbs of the system of yoga — the Niyamas. These are five practices of observance or guidelines for living. I feel these guidelines point a yogi in the direction of equanimity.
Some Niyamas, like Tapas, are evident in one’s physical asana practice, when building heat in a pose or a series of postures. Other observances such as Svadhyaya stimulate the higher mind.
Saucha – Purification or Cleansing
Santosha – Contentment or Happiness
Tapas – Internal ‘heat’ or Discipline
Svadhyaya – Self-Study
Ishvara Pranidhana – Self-Surrender
Learning to embrace these guidelines within my body, emotions, thoughts and spirit has helped my yoga practice to become my life engagement practice.
And because it is a ‘practice’ and a life-long one at that, it will probably not be ‘perfect’! There is something to be said for not carrying the weight of perfection while staying committed, which is very freeing.
Niyamas as Self-Love
You might say the Niyamas are akin to a yoga self-love package. I find that each of these guidelines tend to weave into and support the others on and off the yoga mat. Working with these tools has required a kind of rawness or vulnerability within me. This allows me the strength and compassion to look at and question aspects of myself that are challenging, and at times seemingly intractable.
Niyamas in Action!
Several years ago my health took a downturn that negatively impacted my immune system. As an initial step towards the contentment of Santosha, I had to first accept my situation. As I shifted my attitude away from “why did this happen” I was able to allow for another perspective to emerge: “OK, my body mind is out of balance. What do I choose to do about this?”
This acceptance triggered an exploration of my diet and a study of other ways to better support my immune system. This self-study (Svadhyaya initially on a physical level), eventually led me to consult a holistic nutritionist, making significant changes in how I fed my physical body.
With the focused energy of Tapas, I disciplined myself to lovingly prepare my daily meals and eat consciously on a consistent basis. This is a practice I happily continue to this day.
As my body cleansed and rebuilt itself, the result of Saucha, or purification, my immune system function began improving. Without effort, my body shed 25 pounds over nine months. Gradually, the extreme fluctuations in my system, which also had triggered recurring, painful viral outbreaks lessened and then ceased.
Happiness, Creativity and Self-Love
As a result of attending to these self-love yogic guidelines, I felt happier. That happiness showed up in spontaneous moments within my days. As I trusted that I was becoming healthier, I could pause and feel the subtlety of delicate connections within my being that were not obvious previously. A wondrous sense of expansion and surrender to a universal consciousness (Ishvara Pranidhana) became more apparent.
It does not surprise me that many of these moments of happiness, for no apparent reason, usually occur when I teach yoga. As I embraced the Niyamas, I loved myself more and created deeper relationship with myself. The happiness I was feeling allowed me to give back to my students with greater attention to their needs, encouraging their curiosity and exploration. That for me is yoga in relational flow!
Although it is not spoken about directly in the guidelines of the Niyamas, I suspect there’s a wondrous cause and effect relationship between creativity and happiness. As I feel it, staying creative with my yoga teaching invites these deeper levels of happiness. That happiness nurtures my creative expression through the art of yoga. It is a joyous feedback loop!
So when I engage the Niyamas I am giving back to my yoga practice and committing to reinforce my inner relationships. By establishing an authentic relationship with myself first, I can move into the world from a state of my own fuller presence.
Moving with and as that fuller presence, provides a mirror for others to feel themselves more deeply - with greater awareness. This commitment helps me stay available to the beauty, joy and creativity of existence.
Patty Hart, E-RYT owns Every Body Happy Yoga. She also offers group classes at the Naturopathic School of Healing Arts, and offers ‘Trauma Awareness Yoga for Women’ private sessions at the Arbor Wellness Center by appointment. You can reach Patty at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 734-645-7251.