By Greg Stein (Poornamurti)
“…And don’t criticize what you can’t understand.” – Bob Dylan
In yoga classes we work with our body, breath and mind by using asana, pranayama, meditation and other practices. In addition, ashram life can offer a different approach for learning how to incorporate the principles of yoga into our daily lives. I recently had the opportunity to spend some time in India and Greece at the Satyananda Yoga Ashrams there.
Yoga courses are offered in the ashrams, but if someone is there for ashram life, the majority of their time is spent doing karma yoga – working. This may be at a computer, in the kitchen, gardening, or even helping with construction projects. The main practice becomes cultivating awareness in whatever they are doing. The process of working in the ashram gives the karma yogi opportunities to develop the witness perspective: the ability to watch our attitudes and reactions to everyday events. We learn about ourselves, our mental conditioning, our strengths as well as weaknesses through this process.
In yogic terminology, the word Samskara means patterns of thought – habitual ways of thinking that can either be positive or negative. We seek to develop positive Samskaras and get rid of the negative ones through the various practices of yoga and the application of yogic or other holistic philosophies in our daily lives. This is really the purpose of what we are doing as students of yoga – not the attainment of health, fitness, or to look a certain way. Traditionally, all of these practices of yoga were designed and intended to help us live to our full expression, remaining positive even in the face of life’s challenges.
The Yoga of Acceptance and Understanding
“Lord, grant me the serenity to accept what I cannot change, the courage to change what I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” – From the “Serenity Prayer”
The Greek ashram is a beautiful place, situated in a fairly rural area nearby the small village of Paiania. Founded over thirty years ago by Swami Shivamurti Saraswati, Satyanandashram Hellas is a non-profit organization largely run by volunteers in the spirit of karma yoga. The community of teachers and residents is committed to consciously living yoga in this environment of retreat and growth. They live simply and close to nature, participating in organic farming and hands-on activities in the ashram. Many olive trees can be seen outside the ashram walls; within them, peacocks and other birds roam about.
I wish to share some things I learned from Swami Shivamurti about the yoga of acceptance and understanding while at the Greek ashram. I arrived at the beginning of March, about a week and a half before Chaitra Navaratri, and heard Swami Sivamurti speak during an Antar Mouna workshop. One of the presentation topics was “Non-Criticism and Yoga.” What follows are points that stood out to me during her talks, as well as themes covered during sannyasa lifestyle lectures, given by sannyasins at the ashram:
- When we criticize others we will find that it is only because of our lack of understanding.
- We are all on the same path to Self-realization, and therefore we can reflect on the idea that we all have to pass through the same stages of evolution.
- People are as they are and events happen as they do. We often cannot change these realities in life, so acceptance is key.
- When we criticize it uses up a lot of energy. The practice of acceptance frees up this energy and enables it to be used in a more positive way.
- Swami Shivamurti also made a point of saying that “criticism” in this context refers to the negative tendency to pull someone down, and not to constructive criticism or appropriate feedback offered to someone for the sake of their growth or improvement.
Re-Training the Mind with Affirmations
If we catch ourselves falling into unhealthy patterns of thought, such as criticism of ourselves or others, we can use affirmations or personal sayings to retrain the mind and develop positive samskaras. For example, if we are about to interact with a person who we may tend to criticize or have negative feelings towards, we can repeat to ourselves mentally “(Name) I accept you. I accept you regardless of what you say or do to me.” We may not feel that our attitudes are transformed over night, but we are planting seeds of positivity in our consciousness which will grow over time.
With this idea we are working on developing a yogic attitude called non-critical mind. This is a mindset that enables us to develop compassion and acceptance for the other person. A reflection shared by Swami Shivamurti in her talks is “There but by the grace of God go I.” When we meet difficult people in our lives, we can remind ourselves that it is only by the grace of whatever higher power or inner spirit we may have faith in that we are not in their shoes. We can also remind ourselves that we cannot change others; we can only change ourselves.
Turning things around: Self-Acceptance and Self-Understanding
Just as important as acceptance of others is acceptance of oneself. Try this:
Take a one minute break from reading this article, close your eyes and take a deep breath. Bring your awareness to the space of the heart and repeat to yourself mentally: “I accept myself. I accept myself regardless of what others say or do to me.”
Now reflect on how that felt. Did you find it easy to say this? Did it feel awkward or uncomfortable? Just note your response. If you found this practice useful, experiment with it. You may wish to try this a few times throughout the day for 7 days, observing any changes that occur over this time.
When we are dealing with personal problems, obstacles, or weaknesses in life it is important to practice acceptance and understanding of oneself as well as others. This can be a great aid to attaining a sense of inner peace before even trying to make a change, bringing us towards a place where we can stop criticizing and learn compassion.
~Om Tat Sat~