Don’t just do something, sit there! —Sylvia Boorstein
This seems like an important statement. Within the last five years, according to research done by the Harvard Business Review, in the American culture, busyness and hyper-activity have come to be associated more closely with success, than leisure. Now, instead of hard work being done so as to attain the promise of leisure, hard work is more and more being championed for its own sake. More and more, busyness and multi-tasking are seen, in and of themselves, as symbols of a successful, well-lived life.
Both anecdotal and scientific evidence, however, suggest that the opposite is true. Personally, I am struck by the number of people that respond with some variation of, “I’m so busy!” when I ask, “How are you?” To be completely honest and vulnerable here, I myself am surprised how often those words come out of my mouth in response to the same question. In fact, I have to admit that I will often say this with a hint of pride or reassurance, as though my “busyness” somehow validates my existence and lends a certain credence to my daily actions. It seems to me that being “busy,” now supersedes being skillful in making choices about how to spend one’s time. The question that remains, however, is what are we busy doing?
According to a 2015 “American Time Use Survey,” conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans spend more time working than any other activity in their lives (including sleep). Additionally, U.S. citizens work longer hours than their counterparts in other large economies. In fact, according to an article published by bloomberg.com, Americans work nearly 25% more than their European counterparts.
So what else is keeping us busy? Well, that same “Time Use Survey,” also found that Amercians spend from two to almost five hours per day watching television (in some cases this amounts to more than twenty times the amount of time spent reading or exercising). Interestingly enough, time spent on “Computer Use for Leisure” generally exceeded that of time spent reading or exercising as well. To see the study results for yourself, please click here: https://www.bls.gov/news.release/atus.t11.htm
“So,” you might be asking, “we’re busy. What’s the big deal?” Well, that’s the point of this article. In Iyengar Yoga, a there is a dimension of the practice dedicated to slowing down—stopping, actually—and holding still. Mr. Iyengar himself virtually single-handedly developed a whole category of postures known as Restorative asanas. These postures are now taught far and wide by Iyengar and non-Iyengar Yoga teachers worldwide, using many (if not all) of the props Iyengar invented to aid the practice of these postures (a fact that, sadly, is often overlooked or unacknowledged by the teachers themselves). Practitioners of Restorative yoga postures will find themselves holding certain asanas, quietly and, ideally, in profound and alert stillness for five, ten, even twenty minutes or longer. This is one category of postures where the old adage, “Less is more,” holds true.
One has to note here that the practice of pranayama, or meditative breath work, requires a similar, if not deeper cultivation of alert stillness. Every single technique of the more than sixty techniques taught in B.K.S. Iyengar’s book, Light on Pranayama is performed in a sitting or lying (i.e. still) position, with the eyes closed. Mr. Iyengar himself suggests the practice of Pranayama builds the bridge between the “outer” and “inner” practices of yoga. It makes sense, then, at this point, to examine these eight limbs (known in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras as Ashtanga Yoga) in light of this concept of alert stillness and dynamic silence, as it is the thesis of this article that these qualities provide a much needed antidote to the stress related disorders that many in our society finds themselves gripped by. What’s more, I assert the capacity to achieve a state of alert stillness is, contrary to what the mainstream message appears to be, the key to success.
In surveying the practice of Ashtanga (or eight-limbed) Yoga, delineated in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, one finds several dimensions (or limbs) that appear to have alert stillness as a pre-requisite for their fruition. In fact, all the “limbs” of Ashtanga Yoga require a certain degree of stillness or steadiness. Even the yamas, the ethical guidelines relating to our external behavior in relation to others and our environment, reflect a need to keep one’s reactivity and agitation in check and to act out reflectively and thoughtfully. Said another way, practicing the yamas requires us to slow down and think. Similarly, surveying the “last” four limbs of Ashtanga Yoga (fully half the practice) one cannot help but be struck by the manner in which they run counter to busyness. There is certainly no room for multi-tasking, or rushing in the realms of Pratyahara (sense withdrawal), Dharana (concentration and focusing the awareness), Dhyana (meditation), and Samadhi (superconscious absorption into the object of focus). Indeed, yoga, though it demands effort, can provide a strong counterpoint to busyness and therefore essential healing of the aforementioned “disorders” associated with high levels of stress, the apparent byproduct of excessive busyness.
So, what are these disorders? They seem almost too obvious to merit mentioning. However, having recently heard that the amount of information the average human “produces” in a day has increased by over 200% in just over 25 years [See http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/science-news/8316534/Welcome-to-the-information-age-174-newspapers-a-day.html], they might bear repeating. So one potential disorder could be information overload and the hindered thinking that results from channels clogged with information. Other physical symptoms include insomnia, digestive disorders, and hypertension (all of which can themselves give rise to a whole host of diseases, both mental and physical). Additionally, depression and anxiety disorders have also been found to be caused by the stress of face-paced, over scheduled lifestyles.
What I found most interesting was a study conducted by Brian Gunia of the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School. Brian is a social psychologist with a doctorate in management, who studies behavior in the workplace. His research has shown that a lack of sleep (one of the primary symptoms of an excessively busy lifestyle) makes people less morally aware and ethical. “When people lack sleep, they have a lower moral awareness,” Gunia says [See http://www.johnshopkinshealthreview.com/issues/spring-summer-2016/articles/the-cult-of-busy]. This brings us back to the idea that, to practice the yamas—ahimsa or non-violence, satya or truthfulness, asteya or non-stealing, brahmacharya or the restraint of one’s lustfulness, and aparigraha or non-greed—which comprise the first limb of yoga, one must have the ability to settle oneself. At a time when there appears to be so much contention regarding people’s character, political views, behavioral practices, and value systems, the need for clear and life-affirming ethical practices seems urgent.
And so, we return to the subject of this article. To be more precise, we return to the quote at the beginning of this article: For your own well being, for the sake of the children who, like my six year-old son, really just seem to long for undivided attention and presence, for the sake of the planet that groans from supplying our endless compulsion to do more, be more, have more (in a past article I have mentioned a study asserting that if everyone on the planet consumed resources at the same pace as the so-called “Western Civilized” countries, we would need four planets), for the sake of the spirit within us that beckons us to “be still and know:” please, please, don’t just do something. Sit there.
Living Tradition Yoga is committed to supporting our students to take the revolutionary action of reclaiming the experience of stillness, ease, and sense of sufficiency. Therefore we are excited to present:
Creating a Space for Grace: A Restorative Yoga and Pranayama Workshop
Saturday 25 February and Saturday 25 March 2017
4:00 – 6:00 p.m.
For more information, please visit http://livingtraditionyoga.com/special-events/