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.
One of the enriching elements of the Axis Yoga Teacher Training program is the experimentation with yamas and niyamas. This student applied the niyama of Santosa to daily life and, through this experiment, found a piece of easily attainable enlightenment. Simply feeling content with life as it is and realizing all that is, is enough. And best of all, anyone can follow similar steps to achieve the same contentment.
“I am here for a reason, to simply exist.” As penetrating as that statement might seem, it was very humbling to realize for myself. During this existence I have encountered so many others on paths of their own and many relationships have formed as a result. I know that it is not just me who is guilty of reaching out to these other people along the way for support, advice, a helping hand and even happiness and company. There can be a tendency for us as human beings to reach out to others more often then we go looking to ourselves for answers and comfort. However, it can be a harmful and damaging way to live if one is not able to find happiness when alone. Most outside resources have only been able to ever provide me with that “fleeting” sense of joy which is as transitory as some of the sources are themselves. We have been raised and conditioned in a society that is constantly searching for new ways to be on top, to be the best, to have to greatest and most powerful technology, smarter phones, smarter kids, smarter cars. It can be overwhelming and hard to avoid the same pressure to be the best as well, to excel and exceed above the rest so sometimes we are not content just because we are always trying to improve. What comes from being on top really is satisfaction and that is much different than Santosa, a practice of true contentment, which was what I was hoping to bring more of into my daily life with this Yama and Niyama experiment.
It is an important lesson to learn; how to accept and live with ourselves. We must find how to do this before we can live with others in true harmony. Our lives are filled with surprise encounters and new acquaintances which means we have to be aware of ourselves and “who” we are projecting before we can create relationships of true value. Yoga is very much focused on teaching skills which help to cultivate the best relationships we can with ourselves and others around us. Within the Ashtanga Yoga system there are two limbs along the “Eight-fold path” which focus on these very relationships: Yamas and Niyamas. Yamas or “restraints” are meant to help one re-evaluate the value of their social relationships and help to improve them. While Niyamas on the other hand, are observances of the self. It was profound for me, to admit that I needed to work on my inner self and the relationship I had with that very self. I needed to step out and witness my ego in order to find the real lasting kind of contentment that Pantajeli speaks about in the second observance of five, Santosa. “By contentment, supreme joy is gained,” (Sutra 2.33) this statement insinuates to me that before you can obtain the supreme and ultimate kind of joy every human being would like to experience, you must discover contentment first, joy is only a product of this Santosa (contentment). Many different kinds of joy can be felt throughout life but, most of those feelings are as temporary as the objects or circumstances that they develop from; life events like a marriage or births, sex, drugs, entertainment, new clothes, new cars and so on there are so many different ways to acquire this false sense of supreme joy. This “supreme joy” Pantajeli describes is much more esoteric, it comes as a product of acknowledging and accepting the ordinary things in life just as they are, with out any selfish desire to modify or manipulate them. I have begun to realize that we must gaze inward to find true peace not outwards at the material world which promotes the vicious cycle of greed and desire; we can never be at peace with the material things in our lives the way we can with ourselves. The experiment I conducted was meant to monitor and measure my own sense of contentment. I decided that I was going to keep a journal in order to open up with myself and try exploring how to uncover that sense of true contentment without the need for anything, or anybody else. Self awareness became the most crucial tool to use, it helped to shine the light on the simple and enlightening fact that, I had everything I needed to be perfectly content right where I was at the very beginning.
During the past few weeks, while I attempted to measure my progress and become a witness to who I was projecting it became clear that much of my problem that was hindering me from that true joy was my own restlessness and high expectations. The sense of restlessness has always been present in my life. I tend to become bored easily, I wake up with a plan for my day and how it should go before I am ready to even leave the house and I get easily anxious when things are out of my control. Even when I am in situations as ordinary as; traffic, running late, waiting in line, waiting on people, being broke, getting a flat, having a bad night at work and so forth I let my apprehension and anticipation get the best of me. I was starting to maturely comprehend that these silly situations were unavoidable in life and if I was going to transform myself in a positive way, I would need to learn how to deal with those kinds of circumstances better. I started mini-Pranayama sessions for myself in some of these scenarios and found that focusing on my breathing helped a great deal to pull my attention inward which of course distracted me from paying any attention at all to the outside influences that were irritating to me. I was also making great progress guiding myself out of bad moods or upsetting states of mind just by thinking of more positive thoughts a concept mentioned also by Pantajeli he calls “Pratipaksa Bhavana”. I was learning how to be more at ease with things that were out of my control just by reminding myself that not ever thing can be how I want it to be. It was a great feeling to say to myself “I am okay when things do not go my way,” and I meant every word of that. Letting go of control does not mean that I had to become a more passive and completely carefree person; I was only coming closer to the conclusion each day that most situations would never be mine to control (nor did I really want to have control all the time). I was more concerned all the while with feeling responsible for things being done right, or on time, or in the right order, with very few hiccups on the way. I did not necessarily desire the control but was bringing it upon myself by grasping the expectations I had of myself and other people. Slowing my mind down and taking time to observe these kinds of situations was a very valuable skill I was learning to use well and to my advantage. I found how easy and gratifying it was to slow down and make better decisions and ultimately choosing better moods, making every day life and my interactions at work as well much smoother and more pleasant.
Another part of my experiment I was very eager to keep up with besides the journal was meditating. I needed to work on my inner self with this niyama and the best way to look inward is to try meditating more regularly. I had been conditioning myself for years to wake up and get as much done with my days as I could, which honestly was wearing me out emotionally and mentally. I never thought that I had trouble spending time alone, at home, by myself…but I was wrong. I had a bad problem of constantly expecting too much out of myself and the short days I had. I could become so easily disappointed when days did not go as planned or when I would feel ditched by those I relied on. You cannot find contentment and joy in life when you are allowing yourself to be disappointed all of the time. Life just is not that bad. I made it a point to take my time in the mornings since that was the most guaranteed time alone to bring some peace and clarity to my mind more often. I made a nice routine, a form of Sadhana (preparatory rituals/routines) that involved; bathing (near the end I was using some easy forms of Shat Karma such as Kapalabhati and Jadi Neti), practicing some Sanskrit mantras and finding some newer ones occasionally pranayama (breathing) techniques before making time to practice some asana (postures). Almost every morning I would end with some short meditation sessions. I did manage to stretch out the times and get better at sitting for longer periods less anxiously which was beneficial to say the least. I was very content with how the experiment was unfolding. A great deal of this meditation helped me with my journal entries which were reflecting that I was becoming more open and honest with myself (a nice touch of Satya- truthfulness). The mornings started to teach me a valuable lesson, “I am enough”, I am all the company I need to feel comfortable and at ease. Also, I found an awesome sense of joy and complacency being one with the mornings and enjoying the time with myself. Another great way that I discovered just how great it can be to slow life down and embrace it all for what it is. We are here and this is just where we are meant to be. I am everything I am meant to be no matter where I expected to see myself five years ago. Expectations can cause much more stress and disappoint than life would ever naturally have in store for us but those as well as our own flaws and failures are meant to challenge us so that we can learn to remain happy and content no matter what direction the day goes in, up or down.
I got a whole lot more out of this experience than I could have predicted in the beginning. I had no idea how much better it could feel to treat myself kindly while accepting everything this life has offered me already is perfect just the way it is. I have learned to genuinely be happy and comfortable with myself and as that self, I feel I am projecting myself more truly and appropriately finding a good deal of confidence and courage in the search for contentment. I have accepted so many people for just who they are, even the ones that I had issues getting along with at work and in my every day life. The more I accepted each day that this, was exactly the place I was meant to be in, at this time in my life, the easier life seemed to me suddenly. So many foolish and petty ideas disappeared and do not seem to matter the way they did before. My appreciation towards myself and my family has become much more apparent as well as my affection towards those special people in my life. It is not necessary that you let go of your human emotions which we are all victim to, anger, envy and desire for example, in order to find this “supreme joy” that Pantajeli speaks of; but rather that you embrace yourself and those around you for their flaws and their qualities without letting anger, envy or desire get the better of you. Remembering to always be transforming and evolving as an individual. Our minds are powerful tools that can offer happiness in a split second, but even the mind needs to be content, still, and at peace with the thoughts and actions being product of it. Once you wake up and you do not even need to bring awareness to your sense of contentment because it is already present in your daily life, once you do not need to remind yourself, and condition yourself, to think about the things in your life worth being grateful and thankful for, you have reached Santosa, you have gained ultimate and everlasting joy. I hope for all of the World that they can realize You are everything you were meant to be and that is enough, to just BE.
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