When it comes to yoga, uncomfortable looking contortions, chanting and tight yoga pants may spring to mind. On further exploration, the term “yoga” encompasses much more than physical postures. The practices are built upon a bedrock of a vast set of brilliant ethical guidelines to support integrity, self-study, relationships and personal development. These guidelines are known as the “yamas” (personal vows) and “niyamas” (rules of conduct). They ask us to bring enhanced mindfulness to our inner and outer worlds.
This week’s blog is the first of a series about how utilizing the underpinnings of yoga can support the healing of anxiousness. Each week, I’ll distill a suggested observance through my lens, how it supports my journey of healing and how to simply integrate the concepts into a daily life.
Note: whenever new information finds its way to us to inspire us, to assist in creating a life we love, is there a way we can receive it from a place of already being “enough”? So much of our culture tells us we’re not worthy until we’ve bought the next thing, learned the next lesson, or achieved the next goal. My invitation is to begin from a place of “enough”. If the following information resonates, use it to enhance your experience. We’re all doing the best we can with the information we have, and once we have new information, sometimes we can create new thoughts, feelings and outcomes if that’s what is desired.
The Five Yamas
AHIMSA and how it relates to shifting Anxiety, Shame and Perfectionism:
It’s likely already true that “non-violence” is one of your ethical guidelines. Most of us don’t physically hurt each other, but we still cause harm every day. While we can’t imagine saying them out loud, we tend to entertain incredibly hurtful thoughts about ourselves, the people around us, and our environments. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. We’re wired with a negativity bias that has our brains on the lookout for danger and unpleasant events to keep us safe. The problem is, the world around us provides plenty of content to be negative about. When negativity governs our minds, our bodies don’t feel good, which only propels negative thinking, causing us to act (or not) resulting in outcomes that oppose the dreams we have for our lives.
The first time I was taught that I’m not my thoughts, my world view shifted. I had been living on the edge of my seat, convinced of my essential “wrongness” because my thoughts constantly told me as much. According to the endless stream of inner criticism I was unconsciously believing, I was too loud, too big, not smart enough, or thin enough, and on and on. I never gave my thinking much consideration. I had a thought, and then I blindly reacted to it. Mostly by avoiding or hiding and experiencing fear. I was creating daily dramas for myself and the people in my life out of thin air. A life lived in fear creates a fearful body. When our bodies exist in emergency mode for too long, we experience dis-harmony between our minds and our hearts, and “anxiety” becomes our identity.
The simple act of bringing awareness to our thoughts is half the battle. When you’re noticing your thoughts rather than “being” them, you are connecting with the aspect of you that is “the witness”. What part of you is doing the thinking? What part of you is watching the thinking? Both eastern philosophy and western psychology have empowering answers. Our thoughts are nothing more than repetitive patterns that we’ve picked up along the way. The more we think our harmful thoughts, the more they stick, until our minds and bodies carry the habit of the thought. The aspect of us that can observe the thoughts is our higher mind. Yoga suggests it is our higher Self, a part of us that is in peaceful awareness, that we can connect with through the gateway of the present moment.
If we’re thinking repetitive thoughts, we’re not living in the present moment, we’re in the past. Practicing “watching” our thoughts, coming back to what is real and adjusting our thinking to reflect the truth is an essential practice to heal our collective tendency to harm ourselves with our inner dialogue.
A Practice for Managing Thoughts:
Author and Spiritual Teacher Byron Katie says that at any given moment we are either believing our thoughts or questioning them. The question to begin asking yourself is, “What am I thinking?” The answers will begin to awaken you to the reasons you’ve been feeling badly and making choices out of alignment with who you want to be.
We have thousands of thoughts all day long, so the practice of noticing what you’re thinking is one that never ends and is an enlightening path of self-discovery. Once you begin observing the voices within, next ask “Is this thought true?” and, (my favorite question) “Is this thought serving my highest good?”
When you create a habit of observing and questioning your mind, you immediately discharge the power of your negative thinking. You’re creating a boundary between the true you, the listener, and the thinker. We may never be able to still the voices altogether, but we can always detach from believing every thought we have.
The final step in managing the mind is to reconnect it to the heart. Marianne Williamson’s words resonate deeply: “the spiritual path is the unlearning of fear and the returning to love”. Once you’ve acknowledged that your thought is not serving your highest good, can you create a more loving version of it? At any moment, any thought is possible, so why not think thoughts that promote appreciation, joy and excitement? I’m not suggesting to simply “think positively”. If you open to it, you will find a kinder thought that feels very true. When the head and the heart reunite, the resonance is clear.
One limiting thought I hear from my clients is “I should be farther along in my life by now”. Thoughts like this are becoming more pervasive with the addition of social media in our daily lives. We’re constantly exposed to the curated version of other people’s lives seen through a rose-coloured filter of smiles, vacations and peak experiences. Thoughts like this one cause shame, fear and immobilization when it comes to positive action. When I ask if this thought is true, very often a shift takes place immediately. Most people have never questioned their “should” and “shouldn’ts” that make contentment seem so unreachable.
All clients agree that this thought does not serve their highest good; they feel miserable and speak and act in ways that align with negativity. But, if we inquire into a more loving, true version of this thought, we might come to something like “I have come a long way from where I was”, or, “I am where I need to be at this moment in my life”.
These thoughts create new feelings which promote new, creative possibilities. If a change for the better is desired, we’re more likely to grow from a compassionate thought than one that is rooted in self-loathing and self-doubt derived from unconscious thought-patterns we’ve absorbed throughout our lives.
The act of thinking itself can be profound. From creative thought, the world has its most beautiful literature, ideas and services. The mind is a wonderful servant. Our task is to make sure it is not our master.
Sign up to receive the Worrier to Warrior Blog here, and find weekly reclamations of a courageous heart right in your inbox!