If you haven’t yet read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, then I highly recommend you do. After you are done reading this article, do yourself a favor and go to your local library, local bookstore, or online source and pick up a copy. While the novel is an enjoyable existential romp through the galaxy, relevant to this blog it’s no big spoiler to tell you that the message of the book is “Don’t Panic.” This is not just the underlying message of the book, it’s explicitly stated, early and often and is sometimes even included on the front cover! “Don’t Panic” is a pretty good way of describing an approach to upashama, calm, considered one of the yamas of yoga practice.
For many years I have considered upashama, calm, to be one of the yamas. I originally learned about upashama in Georg Feuerstein’s Encyclopedic Dictionary of Yoga (1990):
“The Siddha-Siddhanta-Paddhati (II.32) speaks of calmness (upashama)…and makes the point that [this has] to be learned gradually.”
However, when sitting down to write this series on additional yamas and niyamas not found in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, I attempted to follow up on Feuerstein’s citation, but could not find this specific reference. If any reader has documentation of the inclusion of upashama in yama practice, I would be interested to follow up on suggestions for further reading. While I would appreciate better documentation of historical reference, I do not doubt that Feuerstein included upashama in his description of yamas in good faith. I have included calm as a yama in my own practice and teaching of yoga for some time, so I can at least attest to its value from my own perspective as student and teacher.
As a reminder to those who are familiar with and as an introduction for those who are new to my perspective on yama and niyama, I do not view them as states to be achieved, but rather as actions to be practiced. In this regard, upashama, calm, is no different. When they are encouraged to practice being calm, people sometimes assume that calm is a feeling that will be reached after some other action has been engaged. In this view, calm is a destination, something to strive for, an external thing that can be attained, an end. What I am suggesting is that calm, in the context of yoga, is a way of engaging, something to cultivate internally, a practice.
When you sit down to meditate your mind might have a tendency to wander, to perseverate on past problems, and imagine impending issues. Upashama is a practice of being okay with these tendencies of the mind, a practice of staying calm amidst the perceived tumult of consciousness. There is no value in self castigation. There is no value in magnifying the distractions of the mind by giving them more power. Instead, find the value in acceptance of your mind as it is, yourself as you are. Practice being calm, patiently watching the waves of thought arise and fall away. For many, this practice of calm amidst disorder has the effect of dissipating these disruptions, at least partially, if not completely. However, the practice of upashama is truly practiced without the reliance on these end results. You practice being calm even if the uproar in your mind increases rather than decreases. In so doing you are taking a longer-term approach, understanding that while there may be short-term distress, you are building a long-term skill of being able to be calm even when the circumstances are challenging at the deepest levels.
Of course, there are some practical actions you can take to build this skill of calm. Intentional breathing, pranayama, is a clear example and its benefits have been frequently discussed on this blog. Specifically relevant to why practicing breathing is upashama is Nina’s post Why Meditating on Your Breath Works. But there is also a fundamentally simple common experience that most of us have which best illustrates this point. Think of a time when you were just about to do something challenging, scary, nerve racking, potentially life changing, or even just exciting. Maybe you were about to give a public speech, go into an interview, say “I love you” to someone for the first time, or otherwise. What most of us do instinctively just before the action is to take a deep breath. No one had to tell us to do this, we didn’t learn it in school, but maybe we’ve seen others in our lives do it just before they do something that looks challenging.
What does that deep breath do for you? How does it make you feel? For most of us, in that moment of breathing, everything else drops away. The thing we are about to do, the fear, the anxiety, the contemplation of potential outcome, the desire to run away, all of that fades, at least just for that instant, as we are completely focused on the one breath. Pranayama can simply be a way of extending that experience beyond a single breath and into a series of breaths, a way of practicing calm.
Calm is also something we often practice in asana. Many of the postures are inherently challenging. They often agitate and intensify in the short term. But when we intentionally practice putting ourselves into challenging circumstances, like in the practice of many yoga postures, then just as intentionally practice calm amidst the challenge, we strengthen this skill. The Navy Seal Jocko Willink once described the way that Navy Seals have incorporated yoga into their training. He explained that often Navy Seals are in circumstances where parts of their nervous system are ringing alarm bells, telling them to fight or flee. However, most often, in order to assure their best chance at not only survival, but also success, the best course of action is the counterintuitive one, to remain calm. He explained that yoga posture practice was one way that he and his team train themselves to be calm at the edges of intensity and learn to watch the intensity ebb. You certainly do not have to be a Navy Seal to recognize the powerful tool that practicing upashama can be. When you practice calm while in the controlled environment of a yoga posture, you are training yourself to be able to better weather the inevitable storms and stresses of life more broadly.
We are constantly being inundated with the message that we should not be calm. The news media, product pushers, the business world, and even our friends and family would often have us believe that we are and should constantly be in a state of crisis. There are certainly ways in which we might all work toward a more just and robust society and reduce unnecessary suffering in the world, but freaking out is not going to help. Neither will nihilism or gloom and doom. What will help amidst the chaos, so that you can better focus your mind and body on the important work at hand, is to be calm. It is most likely that this ability will manifest because you have been developing this important skill, when you sit, when you breathe, when you move, and when you face the inevitable challenges that confront us all. Find that upashama, like all of the yamas and niyamas is not simply a philosophical notion or imagined ideal, but a practical skill that you can practice and hone.
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