Well, what on earth has New Year Resolutions to do with yoga? It turns out – quite a bit!
On a broad level of understanding of yoga, we have its very foundations, the practice of which is designed to strengthen our minds and therefore our resolve. I speak of our old friends the yamas and niyamas. I have written more fully about these pillars of yoga in earlier blogs, but will re-cap them here, as they relate to strengthening our resolve.
The first yama – the very foundation upon which the huge edifice of yoga is built – is AHIMSA, which basically means ‘abstaining from causing pain to others or self in thought, word or deed.’ More generally, ‘ahimsa’ also infers a general attitude of welfare for the entire world. Consciously incorporating ahimsa into our lives requires resolve. First we have to be prepared to acknowledge where we are contributing to the pain of others, and self, before we can stop it. That requires huge strength of mind, but the more we become aware of how our actions, our habits – affect other beings, the stronger our minds – and our resolves – become.
SATYA – truthfulness. We live in a society in which lack of truthfulness is so common that the line between truthfulness and lack of truthfulness becomes blurred – think tax, politicians, advertising. As we honestly examine our own lives and practices, and then determine to live with complete truthfulness, our minds are strengthened, and so is our resolve.
ASTEYA – as with Satya, the lines between stealing and not stealing have become blurred. Our Western way of life, based on greed, often involves stealing of some sort (think: stealing music, movies and photos off the internet). Recognising whether our pursuit of our own needs and wants impinges negatively on others, requires an honest appraisal of our motives and actions. And that in itself requires great strength of mind – the kind of strength that helps us to keep our resolutions.
BRAHMACHARYA – not being ruled by our senses. Pleasure gained by giving in to our senses (in my case, the chocolate chai almonds!) does not lead to happiness. So, recognising that difference between pleasure and happiness, you may like to examine your New Year’s resolutions to see if they will bring happiness or just fleeting pleasure.
APARIGRAHA – non-possessiveness. I’m sure that everyone has heard many times that accumulating possessions does not bring happiness. Yet we all go on buying and yearning for more things. So check out your New Year’s resolutions: do they involve accumulating more “things”? If so, think carefully whether that will bring happiness or just a fleeting pleasure.
SAUCHA – purity. As well as cleanliness of surroundings and body, saucha means “purity of the senses, of thought, of intention (Niranjan, YOGA magazine, Apr. ‘15, p. 38)”. Holding onto anger and resentment is like poison for the mind (Deborah Anne Quibel, http://www.thehouseofyoga.com>sixth). Fairly clearly, cleansing the mind by letting go of negative emotions helps to strengthen it – therefore making it easier for us to keep our resolves.
SANTOSHA – Contentment. This does not mean ‘passive’, but cultivating an inner peace and joy that is not dependent on what is happening in our lives. So…even if we can’t achieve our resolutions just yet, we can still find contentment.
TAPASYA – self-discipline. Just to recap… a notice that’s been on my fridge for about a decade quotes Swami Satyananda (the founder of Satyananda Yoga) “Tapasya – austerity …. preparation, strengthening our bodies and minds so that we become confident to stand up and fulfill our true potential”. In many ways, we in the rich countries have become soft; too many things come too easily. Keeping New Year’s resolutions requires the discipline that Tapasya offers, e.g. going to bed half an hour earlier so we can get up early to go for a brisk walk or our our yoga practice or meditation. With that sort of strength of mind, we can more easily pursue our goals.
SWADHYAYA – Self-study/awareness. There’s that word “awareness” again. Recognising our habits is a first step; being able to let go of those that stem from the ego requires tremendous strength of mind. Learning to question our motives for doing and wanting what we do and want is relevant to New Year’s resolutions. Do our desires spring from our ego, or from a higher purpose?
ISHWARA PRANIDHANA – gratitude, letting go. This is the ultimate, the point, the pinnicle, the icing on the cake, the coming-together-of-all … As you may have noticed, the yama and niyama become progressively deeper, more challenging, and require more awareness as we move through them.
Yes, it’s easy to say we’re grateful. But are we truly, ruly, genuinely, deep-down grateful for our food, our homes, our education, our holidays, our way of life? Or, do we deep-down think, “I’ve worked hard all my life, therefore I deserve this life-style” ??
How often do we actually stop and think “If I was born in central Africa, I would be working 15 hours a day and still not earn enough to properly feed and educate my family” – THEN become grateful that we live in a rich country. Are we truly grateful that we can even make a New Year’s resolution with some hope of achieving it?
The “letting go” part of this niyama relates to letting go of the desire to be something that we’re not, in order to discover who we truly are.
I wish everyone a very happy new year, and hope that my written ramblings help put New Year’s resolutions into a different – more useful – perspective. [I hadn’t made any New Year’s resolutions, but I have now: I’m going to make every effort to be truly grateful that I live in this country that allows me peace, freedom, friends and food – especially chocolate chai almonds!]