Choosing Simplicity in a Complex World
“Through simplicity and continual refinement (Saucha), the body, thoughts, and emotions become clear reflections of the Self within. Saucha reveals our joyful nature, and the yearning for knowing the Self blossoms.”
Yoga Sutras 2.40-2.41
Our world is anything but simple. We contribute to its complexity by continually adding more to our plates, multitasking at an epic level, and feeding our insatiable consumerism with the latest and greatest technology, experiences, and information at an exhausting rate. Even the word simple now holds a boring or blasé connotation to some. But with too much external, materialistic focus, we lose the ability to orient ourselves within, and our identity becomes toxically associated with what we have and what we do, rather than who we are.
This Yoga Sutra addresses the need to clarify ourselves mentally, physically and emotionally in order to reclaim our natural state of joy. Imagine how you would feel physically if you ate continually throughout the day. As the body needs time to rest between meals, to assimilate and eliminate food, so the psyche needs time off the treadmill to integrate inner and outer experience. If the essence of our daily existence is a desperate effort to get it all done, constantly engaging with the next task, we never have a chance to digest and assimilate what has already been.
In our culture, stress is at an all time high. People feel overwhelmed, unable to keep up. This feeling locks the parasympathetic nervous system into the production of cortisol and heightens the body’s fight or flight response. When we run on this high, for an extended period of time, we become unable to relax and slow down, and eventually we burn out. Our immune systems become compromised and stress-induced illnesses develop.
So why don’t people adopt the practice of simplicity?
Theoretically, simplification sounds good to most people but they don’t know where to begin. When even daily choices are complex, like how many social media portals to connect with or what supplements to take for optimal health, simplifying is no easy task. Even spiritual aspirants who conceptualize the need for simplification, complicate their search for Self-knowing through an endless stream of trainings, philosophies and workshops.
Generally speaking, humans avoid change of any kind, preferring what is known. And we avoid simplicity for fear of boredom. Unfortunately, we have collectively forgotten the gift that boredom brings. Its gift is spaciousness and with space comes creativity. By simplifying, we invite psychic space where our minds can meander and imagine and our souls can shine through. Of course in order to receive these gifts, we must be willing to forgo some instant gratification.
By approaching simplicity through the definition “easily understood or done, presenting no difficulty,” it becomes more appealing. Who wouldn’t want their day to be full of ease and presenting no difficulty? Begin by eliminating one thing from your to do list each day. And practice being completely present to whatever, or whomever you are with in the moment. When we focus on one thing at a time, we create a much richer and more easeful experience. The more we simplify, the easier it becomes to stay centered because there are less forces pulling at us. We find clarity and the ability to make necessary change.
The kind of simplicity this Yoga Sutra is pointing us towards is not some quaint nostalgia for the past. And it is not instructing us to sell our worldly possessions to go live on a mountaintop. It is guiding us toward the ability to function in the complexity of the world, and still cultivate a connection to an inner joy that gives true meaning to our lives. In time, as we slow down enough, we realize that enough really is enough, and that in the most authentic sense, less brings us more.
In this overcrowded, over-stimulated world, cultivating simplicity is one of the most challenging choices we can make – and one of the most essential. It can help us reorient towards the Divine Self that lives within, which is of course the point of all Yoga practice. By practicing simplicity, we make room for what matters most.
This article is part of an ongoing series on the yamas and niyamas. For the full 10-part series click on each link below:
The 8 Limbs of Yoga Explained
Yoga is more than the practice of asana, or physical postures. Living yoga means integrating the principles of yoga into your thoughts, words and actions; it means taking yoga beyond your mat. Learn more about living yoga and explore a variety of class option such as Tantrik Meditations, Yogic Paths and Injury, Inquiry and Insight to expand your practice.
The Eight Limbs of Yoga
The Eight Limbs of Yoga are core principles that serve as a compass for living a meaningful and purposeful life.
Yamas are ethical considerations to help guide interactions with others. There are five yamas:
- Nonviolence (Ahimsa)
- Truthfulness (Satya)
- Non-stealing (Asteya)
- Chastity and fidelity (Brahmacharya)
- Non-coveting (Aparigraha)
At first glance, these considerations mirror the basic morals taught in kindergarten, but have depth in their continued practice. Here are a few alternative versions to consider:
- Ahimsa: practice nonviolence in thought, word and deed; practice self-love
- Satya: tell the truth; opt for silence if your words may harm others
- Asteya: do not steal, even in non-material ways, such as withholding information or time
- Brahmacharya: use your energy wisely and with intention; avoid excess or overindulgence
- Aparigraha: you are enough and you have everything you need already
Please keep in mind that there are many interpretations of the Yamas and Niyamas; find the definitions best suited to your personal practice.
The Niyamas are practices that inform self-discipline and worldview. The maxims below generally reflect the essence of each Niyama:
- Saucha: “Leave a place cleaner than you found it” (cleanliness)
- Santosha: “Don’t worry, be happy” (contentment)
- Tapas: “When the going gets tough, the tough gets going” (willpower and self-discipline)
- Svadhyaya: “Learn from your mistakes” (study of self and sacred scriptures)
- Ishvara Pranidhana: “Have faith” (surrender to the divine)
Asana refers to the physical postures practiced in yoga. Derived from the root word as in Sanskrit, which means seat, asana is designed to prepare the body and mind for seated meditation. The term asana refers to the ancient yogic tradition of taking a seat close to your teacher. Beyond the physical, asana refers to an outlook that life is full of opportunities to learn, even through obstacles: find the teacher in all things.