In a world where things can seem so out of our control, it is comforting to realize that we are always in control of our own thoughts, choices and consequently, our happiness. During an experiment with ahimsa (non-harming), this Axis yoga teacher training student experienced a substantial shift toward greater happiness through a consistent mantra practice. Not only was there an increase in self-awareness but also in the desire to spread happiness to others.
When we were asked to think about which yama or niyama we wanted to work with for our first experiment, I was immediately drawn to the concept of ahimsa. Non-harming. This concept is one I have thought about and applied to my life before in some ways, but there is still a significant situation in my life that frequently arouses un-yogic thoughts: my job. I make my living waiting tables. I’ve been doing it for over two years and it has certainly been a learning experience. But I have to admit that it is very taxing work sometimes. Dealing with difficult customers is a regular occurrence. I also work in an environment where my coworkers and I often vent to each other, so we all carry the burden of each other’s negativity. Collectively, unintentionally, we help create a toxic working environment that saps energy from everyone involved. I frequently leave work feeling exhausted, drained, squeezed-out.
I wondered if this concept of ahimsa could help me break out of that. I wondered if, instead of getting angry at rude customers or taking up other people’s negativity, I could choose to do something else instead. I didn’t know what that something else might be at first. One day at work, it came to me. I was feeling upset and, suddenly, out of nowhere, I heard the Gayatri Mantra in my head. We had used the Gayatri Mantra a couple of times in class, and something about that mantra in particular resonated with me. I loved its message about meditating on the creator, letting our minds be inspired and filled with divine qualities. I felt that these were exactly the qualities I wanted to cultivate in order to stop doing harm through my thoughts. So I decided that every time I felt upset at work—or every time a situation arose that might possibly cause me to think toxic thoughts—I would chant the Gayatri Mantra internally. I wrote the mantra (along with its English translation) on a scrap of notebook paper and took it to work with me every day.
I think I have stumbled on something powerful here. After that first night of chanting my mantra internally, I came back home and wrote that I didn’t think it was possible to feel upset while my head space was filled with this mantra. I actually couldn’t believe how well it seemed to work, and how quickly the mantra helped me break out of negative thought patterns. It took some concentration to be able to “catch myself in the act”, and to recognize when I needed to chant my mantra, but I was able to catch a lot of little toxic thoughts and let them go before they snowballed into something much bigger. The mantra had such a quieting effect on me that, often times, when I got done chanting it, I’d forget what I was thinking before.
I got a little angry at the mantra for that. Part of me felt like this practice was stripping me of my thoughts and feelings, like it was breaking down reactions that seemed perfectly normal and human, and that on some level I felt entitled to have. I read somewhere that we humans are attached to our suffering, and it’s true. There is a twisted kind of satisfaction in being upset. There was one day when I did get really upset and I found that I didn’t even want to chant my mantra. I wanted to hang onto those feelings, and I knew they wouldn’t survive in the presence of the mantra.
The most profound moment in my experiment happened on a night when a couple of coworkers in my vicinity were being incredibly negative. They were saying nasty things about their customers and they were both getting each other more worked up. They started to get louder and louder, and I started doing my mantra in my head. I repeated it a couple of times, feeling annoyed at how hard it was to hear my thoughts over their noise. I started to get frustrated with these people for the way they were acting. But all the while I kept chanting in my head, partly now to drown out my own reaction to their negativity, and at one point, spontaneously, I realized I didn’t just want to chant for myself anymore—I wanted to chant for them, too. So I silently dedicated a couple of chants to my coworkers, wishing for them to find more happiness and peace within themselves, because happy people don’t talk like that. I wished for their minds to be inspired and filled with divine qualities. And then I felt at peace.
This was a beautiful moment because, suddenly, it wasn’t just about me anymore. I wasn’t just concerned about my own peace. I almost feel guilty admitting that, for most of the rest of the experiment, I was too busy trying to find my own inner peace to worry too much about what other people were doing. There was just this one spontaneous moment when it dawned on me that I wasn’t the one who needed the most help here.
The experiment may be over, but I want to continue with this mantra practice because already I feel a shift inside of me. Already I feel lighter, more peaceful, and less at the mercy of situations and people that I can’t control. That’s all outside of me. I do have choices about what I allow into my inner space. There’s something powerful about knowing that you have that choice. I can choose to chant my mantra internally instead of just reacting to the things that happen in life. I can choose to be upset, if I want, but ultimately it doesn’t do anybody any good. I am learning, little by little, that I don’t have to go that route—there is another, kinder and more peaceful way. And I can’t describe how comforting it is to know that.
Satya, one of the yamas of Yoga, is a self-restraint of truth and honesty. This Axis YTT student simplified an over-booked schedule in order to have the time to look within. By being introspective this student was able to be honest with the Self. By creating stillness, questions that had been avoided through ceaseless action could be addressed.
With the yama/niyama experiment creeping up on me, I was doing my best to figure out what was “wrong” with me so I could come up with a life changing experiment. I wanted to experience something that would unlock the key to my existence and allow me to make major life changes. The only drawback was that I had no clue what I wanted to address. It felt really overwhelming until former students came in to talk about their experiences. Two students spoke about their experiments and their experiences really resonated with me and led me to the satya group. I determined that my satya experiment would be about my willingness to be truthful to myself.
I realized that for the past few years I have been constantly on the go, always doing something, running from one activity to the next with very little time allotted for myself. I continually overloaded myself with obligations to friends, acquaintances, my job, my ceramic studio (something that I love), even obligations to a bucket list I recently started. I was bogged down with so many activities that I agreed to or “needed” to do, I found myself getting stressed and lashing out at others for activities that I volunteered for. I was less effective in these activities and my daily life because I overloaded myself. This was making me extremely unhappy.
My initial observations were that I 1) attempted to please others at my own physical and mental expense, 2) overloaded myself with activities with no time to just be (alone, with myself, with no obligations), and 3) was not comfortable unless I was on the go. My hypothesis in this experiment was that in order to be more honest with myself I needed to:
- Clean up my social media account, cell phone address book, and email account and remove people who I didn’t maintain an honest communicate with. This would have the result of narrowing down the number of people who would be able to ask me to do things.
- Practice 30 minutes of meditation each night before bed, track my meditation with matches, and make notes in journal about any relevant thoughts around the meditation. This would allow me alone, guiltless time where I could just focus on myself.
- Keep a journal on me at all times during the experiment to make any notes during the day that might arise outside of my mediation window. This would allow me to get any “junk” out of my head.
It felt great to give myself permission to follow up with #1 because these were tangible things. The matches gave me some control over #2 except I had hit or miss days with the meditation. I knew that 30 minutes seemed ambitious for my first project but I am still fighting my urge to please in this project. I set up a meditation area in my room. This was another tangible activity so it felt like my time for meditation was “official” which made me feel more devoted to the idea of practice. I could visually control this area with candles, fabric, and a favorite pillow but would get frustrated when my brain wouldn’t calm down.
#3 was difficult because I found that the more I meditated, the more questions I had. My journal is filled with questions that would pop up at the strangest times. This seemed counterintuitive to the idea of meditation quieting the mind. It felt like I had turned a blender on high and this journal was the catchall for thought puree. Some of the questions were related to the study of yoga like “How do I balance satya and ahimsa?” and “Who determines this balance?” Other questions were more personally identified like “Why am I forcing myself to go 1,000 miles a minute?”, “What is something I can do to have some awareness when I am going too fast?”, and “Will these things matter in the future?” Writing these questions down was a way to acknowledge what I had been avoiding by keeping myself busy. While I don’t have the answers for even half of these questions, I have started the process of trying to answer them. Seeing these questions and thoughts in my journal was scary but allowed me to validate these feelings that I’ve suppressed by keeping so busy. It also allowed me to identify that there’s no rush other than my own self-imposed rush and that much of my frustration at the world was really a frustration towards myself directed outward.
After conducting this experiment, I feel like I have started the process of being truthful with myself but that I have only barely scratched the surface. I find that I like giving myself permission to say no or to establish boundaries when it comes to activities. It has made the activities that I have participated in more fulfilling. I am also not agitated during activities that I have consciously and thoughtfully chosen to take part in. I have started keeping track of the activities I am currently engaged in on a calendar so that I can ensure that I have scheduled time for myself and I don’t overbook myself. I have been less irritated at work and more productive because I am focusing on each project fully instead of trying to work on four different things at once. This is not to say that this experiment has been a complete success as I regressed to previous behaviors where I allowed myself to become overloaded at work and at home, resulting in the usual lash out. However, by redirecting myself, continuing my experiment, and following the guidelines I set up, I was able to come back to the path that I was trying to follow on this experiment. I found a great interpretation of satya on the internet as “the Truth which equals love”. I think that this is one of the most important things I’ve discovered in this experiment. Through being truthful with myself, I am loving myself.