Yoga has this wonderful quality of opening our minds and bodies at the same time. We get more physically flexible, and more mentally and emotionally so as well.
We flow like water, we move, we groove, we work into our cell tissue, our chakras, our meridian lines, and some other wild and crazy stuff. We get spiritual, even if we’ve rejected the religion we grew up with. We start understanding that what we can know about reality is a very small percentage of reality, and thus anything could be possible, anything could be true.
But as we do this, we must, absolutely must, be developing our most important yogic tool:
The Bullshit Detector.
As our skins get softer and more sensitive, as we learn more about what we don’t understand, as we become vulnerable and honest about the wounds in our hearts and the willingness to try different ways of healing ourselves and each other, we put ourselves in a position that is incredibly easy to manipulate. We are prime candidates for getting taken.
Naiveté is a beautiful quality in a lot of ways—many of us do need to learn to be more trusting. But we have to figure out how to tell the difference between being open minded and never questioning what’s put in front of us. As we get more internally sensitive, we start to learn what an intuition is, how to feel in the gut whether something feels right or not. We must understand and trust what my friend in college used to call the ‘No’ feeling.
But wait. Let’s go back to the original texts on yoga here. The Yamas are a list of ethical guidelines, like yoga for your personality. Here are Patanjali’s five:
1. Ahimsa: Nonviolence. Sounds reasonable.
2. Satya: Truthfulness. Like my mama always told me.
3. Asteya: Non-stealing, non-coveting. Right, I remember that from the Bible.
4. Aparigraha: Non-grasping. Being good with what you got. I like that.
5. Brahmacharya: Chastity. Wait, what?
Brahmacharya—it’s traditional interpretation is chastity, but its literal translation is ‘walking close to God.’ Here’s how I interpret it:
You have to know the difference between what’s real to you and what’s not. Your bullshit detector will tell you which people will support you on your dharma, your divine path (a path that, ultimately, you choose), and which people are keeping you small. When you understand your core values and what you really believe in, no one can sway you from that path. But you have to choose what those core values are at some point.
Many of us float through life expecting other people to take care of (control) our lives. Organized religion, politics, even advertisements tell us what our ethical rules should be and what to believe in so we never have to make those decisions for ourselves. Even classical yoga has its rules, like these, the Yamas and Niyamas.
There’s nothing wrong with guidelines, but ultimately I believe that if you let someone else define your ethical code, then you are not an ethical person. Ethics requires a lot of self-reflection, a lot of really, truly thinking about the right decision, based on what you know to be true, based on the core values you’ve chosen for yourself, and not on what God said or what Patanjali said or what your parents said. It’s hard work, but being an ethical person means being a think-for-yourselfer.
I must admit, I have some mistrust for folks who wear their religion/spirituality/values too obviously on their sleeves. When I meet that energy healer who talks about how he used to drink alcohol and eat sugar and smoke cigarettes and he was so bad (bad!), and now he just lives the pure life of energetic healing and is so happy now (so happy)! I just think: Why do you hate your former self so much? What are you punishing yourself for or trying to purify yourself of? And no, I’d rather not have your energetically magic hands heal my boobs, thanks.
Or that yogi who wears all white to indicate her purity, and a turban to signify her Kundalini commitment, who eats kale smoothies every day for breakfast and lunch and a salad for dinner (only raw food, other kinds of food are CRUEL), and spends her time only watching documentaries about genocide or conspiracy theories that keep the people down, I just wonder why she sucked out all the joy out of her life? (I mean, I heard the Muppets movie was pretty good.) And it doesn’t surprise me that much that this kind of chastity manifests itself as making out with her friend’s boyfriend after a late night on the couch talking about God. Whoops.
I mean, really. This is the definition of holier-than-thou, and why, if you’ve been cultivating your bullshit detector, it starts singing Las-Vegas-neon signs to you when you encounter certain signals that a person’s ethics may be a little too closely defined by what somebody else told them.
Brahmacharya: not necessarily sexual chastity, but maintaining boundaries, hugging in. Understanding your core values and sticking to them, even if some people don’t like it. Choosing carefully what kinds of ideas, people, and energy you want to draw into your life, and what kinds you want to kick to the curb. You gotta do it: there’s a lot of energy out there; not all of it is good for you.
Nonviolence is the first and most celebrated of the yamas, but it’s not such an easy one to apply all the time. Take pruning, for example: yes, you are cutting little living (or, sometimes, dead) bits of a live thing off of it. But you are doing that so that the plant has room to keep growing new shoots, to be more alive, healthier, happier.
Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and sweetness, is also Kali, goddess of death and destruction. Both are necessary. Sometimes living an honest life requires a scythe and a measure of courage; choosing not to choose is its own form of violence, of cowardice.
We all want to be like water. We want to let the rivers flow, we want to keep moving and evolving and changing and loving, yes. But a river needs banks. Otherwise it’s just a puddle.
Pumping Iron for your Bullshit Detector: Exercises
Want to work on cultivating your core values and your bullshit detector?
Sit down and write down your favorite things about yourself. Then write down your favorite things about your best friends, your partner. Notice what they have in common.
Write down your favorite things about your family members, especially your parental figures. Think about which qualities you’d like to pass on to your own children. Then write down your least favourite things, things that you don’t want to carry with you from your upbringing, wouldn’t want to pass on to children of your own.
These lists represent, in a relatively vague way, your core values.
Trying to make a decision about something? Take some time to sit still with it. Do you feel excited about making the decision? Does your body feel good and at ease? Sometimes scary things are also good. How do you feel when you think about NOT doing this thing? Do you feel relieved but a little bit disappointed? Fear might be standing in your way, rather than the scent of bullshit.
Practice listening to what you physically feel in your body when you think about this thing, this action, this person. Your body knows you really well. Listen to this before you let anyone tell you what to think about it.
Questions you can ask around situations like this:
Is there money involved? How much money? Who gets paid if I say yes to this?
Is the person pushing me? Do they give me time to think about what I want to do?
Is the conversation about this situation or product directed generally or are there statements being made about my life/values/personality when it’s talked about (watch out for that!)?
When I talk to this person, do I feel good about myself or a little bit bad? Are there certain topics I avoid around them because I’m afraid of what they might say? How important is it to me to talk about that thing?
What are non-negotiables for me in a relationship? (Write ‘em down. They might change, but you gotta start somewhere.)
Was that compliment wrapped up in a value statement about me that made me feel a little insecure? (eg. “I love all your weird quirks and imperfections.” “It’s so cute how crazy you get sometimes.” “I love you more than anyone else ever will.” See gaslighting)
Again, the goal here is not to become hard and fast in your ‘rules,’ but just to get better and knowing where you stand now. Then, later, even if it changes, you’ll get to know that better too. It’s all a process, and don’t be hard on yourself for any of this stuff. As my granpa used to say, “Well, sometimes a fella gets taken.” Appreciate your ability to shift and change boundaries as well as your ability to put them up in the first place.