Yogi Assignment: Bring the Yamas to the Holiday Season
The moral and ethical principles that are the foundation of yoga practice are a 24/7 commitment. It is said that once you start the path, there is no turning back and no room for excuses.
Across the United States, this week marks the official beginning of the holiday season with the national holiday known as Thanksgiving. We usher in the festivities with decorations, shopping, gift-giving, parties, and family gatherings. Along with the usual seasonal fanfare is the unwelcome stress of holiday traffic, busy malls and shopping streets and facing unprocessed familial tension. Coinciding with the beginning of winter, this time of year often brings up loneliness when feeling of loss surface and many are left to confront wounded relationships. Many people draw inward and retreat into the unhealthy inner worlds of depression and grief. While the holiday season is meant to be celebratory and there is always much to celebrate, the truth of the matter is that the holidays can be a lot to handle.
While I’m a yogi every day of the year, it’s times of heightened stress that I fall back on my practice to support me. Standing in long lines amidst traffic, instead of fuming with impatience I choose to breathe. Faced with added pressure to feel the “holiday cheer”, my practice keeps me honest and real. When my Instagram becomes inundated with Black Friday adds encouraging us to buy more, instead of letting the seed of bitterness into my heart, I choose compassion and kindness and forgiveness.
I’ll be honest, I have a conflicted relationship with the holiday season. As a multi-racial person of Japanese-Scottish descent raised in South Florida I always felt like an outsider. Too white to be fully Japanese, too Japanese to be white, not part of the large minorities of Hispanic and Jewish populations, I had no “people” to call my own. During the holiday season I often acutely felt my status as an outsider. My family had no formal religious affiliation. Between my Buddhist Japanese grandfather and my Scottish religiously unaffiliated father, the decision was made to raise me without any religious education. Well, as it turns out, I was also raised without any strong cultural affiliation as well. I am certainly “American”, meaning that I identify as and am a native-born citizen of the United States. But, I am also placeless in the sense that nearly everywhere I go, people ask me where I’m from. To this day I never know what to fill out on in-take forms that ask for religion and ethnicity, so I mostly fill out “other” which feels alienating in and of itself. I think about this when I see large families gather with long-established traditions passed down from one generation to the next.
I know firsthand how this season brings up questions and reflections on identity, history and culture and that’s why I’m bringing up my personal history. My most common associations of holiday season from my youth are a time of shopping and eating. When I first started practicing yoga I reacted quite strongly to the unfettered heights of consumer culture. As an act of personal resistance, I spent the holiday season in India. From late November through early May for a few years straight, I checked out of the trifecta of Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. Trading casseroles and fruit cake for chai and coconuts was so freeing. But eventually, my travels lead me back home to the U.S. While I still make annual trips to India, these often now happen in January. I made the decision to spend the holidays with my family for the last few years as my father’s ailing health seemed to indicate there would only be a few more holidays left. And, last year, right before the Thanksgiving holiday my father passed away. I’m grateful for the years I spent at home during the holidays. This year, as I prepare for a busy holiday season at my home base in Miami, I am prioritizing my yoga practice to maintain as much of a calm center as possible and I hope you do too.
It’s often during the busiest times of years that we place ourselves last and routines of self-care fall by the wayside. During the holiday season the best way to navigate the murky territory of identity, emotion and stress is to maintain continuity of your practice, both on and off the mat. The yoga practice is so powerful because it is more than just a physical practice. Yoga is effective because of the inner transformation that happens when you practice. Without the deep shifts in the mind and heart, yoga would lack the resilience to be a lifelong practice. Traditional yoga philosophy is often rooted in a 2,000 year old text written by the sage Patañjali called the Yoga Sūtras. In Book II, an outline of the eight-limbed path, called Ashtanga Yoga, is presented. The first of the eight limbs presents a guideline for the yogi’s interaction with society and is broken down into five sub-categories. Called the yamas in Sanskrit, these moral and ethical precepts contain life-wisdom for all yogis. Whether you are a seasoned practitioner or brand new to the practice, diving into the practical application of the yamas will give you an anchor of peace amidst the holiday season.
Here are five ways you can put the yamas to work during the holiday season. If you’re in the U.S., try them out this week during the Thanksgiving holiday.
Practice: Loving-Kindness Meditation—Translated into English as non-violence, take this on like a a mantra and let it be the foundation of your meditation practice. If you don’t already have a seated meditation practice, I invite you to cultivate one by sitting for as little as five minutes a day. Spend a few minutes of the day practicing loving-kindness meditation. Start off by sending love, peace, joy and forgiveness to yourself. Then extend your heart and send those same blessings to a friend or family member. Finally, extend the same feelings to all beings, human and non-human, all over the world and all through the universe. Once you get established in the practice of loving-kindness meditation you can do it anywhere. As you’re on the way to that holiday gathering, practice generating loving-kindness towards yourself and all attendees. As you wait in long line at department stores, generate loving-kindness towards yourself and all other shoppers and employees. In this way you will make the world a more loving, kind place for yourself and for those around you.
Practice: Cultivate a Truthful Heart— Satya, the second of the yamas, means truthfulness. It can be tempting to put on a happy face and say you’re “fine” even when you’re not. But, this creates emotional distance between you and the world. Try being honest in an authentic and undefended way. If you’re having a bad day and someone asks you how you’re doing, be honest. Reply that you’re having a bad day and then see what happens. Truthfulness opens the door for honest connection. You might be surprised to find compassionate responses as you share your vulnerability with the world.
Definition: Non-Stealing, Non-Appropriation
Practice: Sympathetic Joy—It can be so easy to feel jealous of other people’s happiness. It sometimes feels like there’s a limited amount of happiness in the world and when others are happy, it can seem like they “stole” our happiness. Jealousy is vicious cycle that leads to a dead end. To help curb that state of mind practice sympathetic joy. Start easy. Choose someone you love like a child and celebrate their happiness. Then, expand your heart and see everyone in your city happy. Finally, hold the person who brings up your jealousy in turn heart. Freely send them the happiness, success and joy that you desire. Then bring your mind back to you heart and feel the freedom.
Definition: Sexual Continence
Practice: Cherish Your Relationship— Brahmacharya, the fourth of the yamas, is often translated as celibacy. There is, however, more to this precept than abstinence. Only renunciant yogis who have taken vows of celibacy should think about maintaining abstinence as their commitment to Brahmacharya. For most yogis, it may be best to think about Brahmacharya as an act of valuing and honored the committed relationships in your life. If you’re in a committed relationship, take on gratitude as a daily practice and express it in actions. Starting today, think of at least one thing each day that you are grateful for about your partner and thank them for it. Commit to expressing your gratitude each day for the holiday season (and perhaps beyond). If you’re not in a committed relationship, turn your sense of honor inward and think of one thing that you are grateful for about yourself each day. Then, look in the mirror and thank yourself for that. Of course, feel welcome to do both gratitude exercises if you’re in a committed relationship because the more you practice being thankful, the more full your heart will be!
Practice: Yogi Gift-Giving— Aparigraha, the last of the yamas, means non-greed, non-covetousness and non-attachment. True acts of giving are not performative and need no celebration or public praise. A big part of Aparigraha involves releasing your attachment to a particular outcome when giving a gift. It’s easy to feel disappointed when a friend or family member doesn’t seem as appreciative of a gift as you’d like them to be. Perhaps they even return an item you spent hours choosing for them. If you truly put Aparigraha to work in your heart, you will practice letting go of your judgements around how they treat your gift. Studies show that engaging in acts of service increases positive feelings in the brain. Try something as simple as buying a cup of coffee/tea for a friend or a stranger and see how you feel. If you do not have funds to give an economic gift, donate a few hours of your time to a good cause. Remember it’s not about the result or the praise that you get from others, it’s about opening your heart to act of giving.