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:
How to Live with Purpose: The Eight Paths of Yoga
The word yoga is translated literally as union but there are so many different forms, types and practices in yoga that it can often seem confusing. Although the eight limbs of yoga and the eight paths of yoga sound similar, it’s important to differentiate them.
The eight limbs of yoga is explained in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras as an eightfold path called ashtanga, which means eight limbs (ashta= eight, anga= limb). These limbs are suggestions for living a life full of purpose and meaning. They act as a compass for self-discipline, integrity, and connecting to the divine within ourselves as well as the world around us. They are: yamas, niyamas, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and Samadhi.
The eight paths or forms of yoga are Hatha, Bhakti, Jnana, Karma, Tantra, Raja, Kriya, and Kundalini.
The eight paths or forms of yoga each incorporate at least one or more of the eight limbs of yoga. All forms are practices to accelerate the process of yoga, or what the Bhagavad Gita refers to as, “the science of creating union between the Individual Consciousness with the Ultimate Consciousness.”
Each yogic path essentially is a set of practices designed for a certain type of practitioner. While Karma yoga uses action and service, Bhakti yoga focuses on love and devotion as means of attaining union. Raja yoga is known as the yoga of concentration and Jnana yoga is the yoga of knowledge.
Different from the branches of yoga, explained in Ashtanga, the eight paths each have a unique history and origination. As a yoga practitioner, you might want to review the origin and meaning of each, try the exercises below and journal or meditate on the answers to determine which form you will choose to explore next. Remember, you can only master so many forms in a lifetime.