This time of year everyone seems to be talking about resolutions and how to keep off those extra pounds.
And during the dark, cold winter months ahead, it's easy to feel extra body-conscious. We purchase yoga class packs and sign up for gym memberships and swear to eat one less spoonful of mashed potatoes or dessert. We start mentally preparing for bikini season all over again, or a winter escape. So instead of enjoying grandma's German chocolate cake, we shame ourselves.
As a yoga teacher, it's easy for me to say that yoga is not about the body, and that you shouldn't come to yoga class to get a better body. But the reality is, we find ourselves doing just that — we come to yoga class to work out. And sure, it's good to want to be healthy and look your best! If you maintain a regular practice and healthy lifestyle, you'll undoubtedly see results. There is nothing wrong with that. But if you only focus on the health aspect, you'll miss out on some of the most beneficial aspects of yoga.
So instead of focusing on shedding those holiday pounds, let's focus on some of the ways yoga teaches us to be more compassionate and loving.
Before Sun Salutations and handstand, yoga offers us five moral principles known as the Yamas, to help guide our actions. Through these principles, the Yamas can teach you valuable lessons about how to be more conscious of your body in a positive way, and more conscious of the world in general.
So during this season of shop shop shop and watch what you eat, here are the five moral principles of yoga, and how you can incorporate them into the chaos of the holidays:
1. Ahimsa, Non-Harming
Society teaches us how to judge other people; yoga teaches us how to be more compassionate towards all living beings.
There are many ways to practice non-harm. You could maintain a vegetarian lifestyle, or you can reduce the suffering of other living beings in the way that you practice compassion. This is the season of giving and presents, and society teaches us that our value and self-worth is attached to what we have and consume.
Instead of thinking about the holiday season as a time to give things and receive things, we can practice non-harm simply by not buying things. When we stop buying things we don't need, we stop contributing to wasteful consumption that harms the environment and sustains an economy based on exploitative labor.
2. Satya, Truthfulness
Society teaches us to lie and get what we want; yoga teaches us to how to be more honest and vulnerable.
This time of year is great for self-reflection and meditation. We are given an opportunity to check in with ourselves and reflect upon the past year. Satya teaches us how to choose our words carefully, and always to be honest in a way that is non-harmful. How we speak affects other people, and oftentimes we prioritize our own desire to speak over the feelings of other people.
Speaking is an action, and yoga teaches us to pause and reflect on our intentions so that we speak from an honest place of compassion and love. Sometimes we are so overwhelmed by our desire to speak — to contribute to a conversation, or join in water cooler or hair salon gossip — that we forget the importance of truthfulness.
We want recognition for what we know and don't think about the consequences of our words. But Satya teaches us to pause and ask if our actions are contributing to the happiness of others.
3. Asteya, Non-Stealing
Society teaches us that we have a right to the things that we want; yoga teaches us to question desire and want themselves.
We usually define stealing as taking another person property illegally, but yoga teaches us to expand our definition of stealing and think about what it means to actually take something away from another person.
For example, I steal when I take advantage of another person's time. I am stealing when I don't stay present.
When was the last time you were late? Life goes by so quickly, and each moment is precious. Sometimes we get so hung up on the past or attached to the future, that we can't sit still in the present.
When was the last time you couldn't wait for something to be over? Or wouldn't let something go? I am stealing from others and myself when I compare myself to others and judge people. I am robbing myself and them of their uniqueness and beauty, and not appreciating people for who they are. When is the last time you judged someone?
4. Aparigraha, Non-Covetousness
Society teaches us that we can never have enough and that even less is more; yoga teaches non-attachment.
This is perhaps the easiest and hardest Yama to embrace during the holiday season. Aparigraha means non-possessiveness and non-covetousness — not being too attached to material things.
This time of year we see commercials and advertisements everywhere telling us to buy stuff, that we need stuff, and to give stuff. We are all aware that we live in a society driven by consumerism. Even in the yoga community, we caught up in the consumer side of things — buying up eco/bio/recycled/sustainable products that we probably don't really need.
Instead of devoting our time and energy to shopping or thinking about what we could be buying, this is a great time of year to focus on how to live with less. To question our relationships to "stuff" and spend more time with family and friends in ways that don't require buying a thing.
5. Bramacharya, Moderation
Society teaches us to indulge our desires; yoga teaches us that we are holy beings.
Bramacharya is often translated as moderation or sexual abstinence. But there are different ways to think about this Yama. You could think about having respect for your body and the bodies of others. This is a season of overconsumption, and when we regulate how much we drink, eat and have sex, we practice self-respect, and take better care of our bodies.
Too much of anything can be bad, and Bramacharya teaches us to be compassionate and respectful of all living beings, by practicing moderation.