I’ve always believed there is one universal goal in life. That is, in a nutshell, to live well.
In no way is that a profound or “new” thought. But bear with me here… Take a moment and consider the definition of “well.”
- in good health; free or recovered from illness.
- sensible; advisable.
Notice what word is NOT part of that definition? “Happiness.”
Kind of surprising, right? Everyone talks about happiness these days, especially as a goal for how we should be living. It’s that dangling carrot just ahead…and we’re supposed to be perpetually reaching for it. But the problem with happiness as a goal is that when we don’t live up to our own unrealistic notions of happiness, it affects us. And not in a good way. So, when considering the universal goal…to live well…we really shouldn’t think of happiness as a substitute. But then if “living well” isn’t “happiness”, just what exactly is it?
The subject of living well has intrigued people for a long time. There’s an ancient text called the Yoga Sutras…compiled prior to 400 CE by Sage Patanjali. The Yoga Sutras isn’t so much a divine theological-type book as you might assume. It’s more practical than that; more like an instruction manual on how to live. The text identifies “eight limbs” of yoga, or in other words, 8 guidelines for living a meaningful and purposeful life. Whether or not you practice yoga, it’s a pretty fascinating study for those seeking wellness. I especially love how the 8 limbs address both the mind and body…because you can’t have wellness without nurturing both.
So, in borrowing from the Yoga Sutras, I’ve come up with my own guidelines to living well. Think of it as the “Stef” spin on Patanjali’s original limbs. I’ve decided to turn this into a series of articles, but first wanted to introduce you to my modified 8 limbs to wellness. I’ll get into more detail on each limb in future articles.
The 8 Limbs of the Stef Sutra
Limbs 1 and 2: Yama and Niyama.
These were too good to modify, so I’m not changing the first two limbs from the same ones identified in the Yoga Sutras. People sometimes think of them as yoga’s Ten Commandments, but they aren’t concerned with right or wrong in a religious sense. You won’t go to hell if you flub up. They’re more about avoiding behaviors that produce difficulty, and embracing those that lead to positive emotions. So, the Yamas encourage you to avoid violence, stealing, overindulging, lying…and arguably the hardest one to avoid: being urge-driven. And the Niyamas suggest you embrace things like purity, contentment, effort & self-discipline. And the last Niyama involves “surrendering” yourself by being open to faith, hope, and love. The Yamas and Niyamas address our relationships with our bodies, and the interconnectedness of the two. They provide a framework for how we need to nurture that mind-body relationship, because if we don’t, we’ll ultimately fail at mastering the next 6 limbs.
I’ve got a lot to say about the Yamas and Niyamas, so stay tuned for that in Part 2. I truly believe if we can adopt some of the principles identified in them, we can increase our physical health, find success in the weight-loss battle, and even get closer to inner peace. The Yamas and Niyamas are powerful enough to completely transform us.
Limb 3: Exercise.
I know, some of you are probably surprised I didn’t put this first, being I’m an exercise pro and all. But here’s the thing about exercise. Without being in the right mind-frame to adopt exercise as a regular part of our lives, we set ourselves up for failure. The Yamas and Niyamas get us right in our heads, so we can beat the exercise mindgame. So just because it came third, don’t discount the importance of exercise when you’re seeking a healthy and fit lifestyle. There is no such thing as wellness without physical exercise.
Limb 4: Disciplined Eating.
Most of us with weight issues often have a dysfunctional relationship with food, and probably aren’t even aware how bad it is because we’ve lost touch with our bodies’ needs. Food, somewhere along the line, became an emotional crutch. Rather than eating for fuel, as we’re designed, we eat for other reasons too. Soothing us when we’re hurt, protecting us when we’re feeling vulnerable, giving us something to do when we’re bored, it goes on and on. The relationship we have with what we eat, and the feelings we have about ourselves as we eat, significantly impact our overall well-being.
Limb 5: Relaxation.
In the Yoga Sutras, meditation is pretty much involved in all of the final 4 limbs of yoga, but in the “Stef Sutra,” I’ve broadened that to encompass all areas of relaxation. Practicing relaxation, which includes managing stress, is an important piece of wellness. It trains us to be self-observant, to learn to focus our thoughts, and quiet our minds. And for those of you not quite on board with meditating, this isn’t just my hippy dippy peacenik talk. Whether we calm our minds through meditation, breathing exercises, or other forms of relaxation, these techniques have been proven to cause many physiological changes in the body: lowered blood pressure, improved immune system, increased grey matter in the brain…just to name a few. Relaxation is a way to transform our minds, which leaves us in a clearer and calmer state of being. Does that smell of “wellness” or what?
Limb 6: Sleep
Sleep isn’t one of the limbs of the original Yoga Sutras, but it certainly affects our wellness, so I’ve included it. And since sleeping is, well… pleasurable, I’m sure you’re happy to see it here, too. Because, after all, this one’s doable! But before you run off to take a nap, I have to point out this component of wellness is also one of the most neglected. Good-quality sleep is needed so our minds and bodies can renew and rejuvenate. But when we skimp on sleep, a host of surprising health risks can sneak up on us….whether it be weight gain, a messed up immune system, or even heart disease. Okay NOW you can go take that nap…
Limb 7: Connections
The people we surround ourselves with are powerful tools in our wellness arsenal. That, or they can be powerful detriments, depending on if the relationship is healthy or toxic. Research shows that people with strong support networks not only report more contentedness in their lives, but they also actually live longer. In one 2004 study, University of North Carolina researchers found that both men and women had higher blood levels of oxytocin—a hormone believed to ease stress and improve mood—after hugging. The women also had lower blood pressure post-hug, and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. So, clearly, our connections with others impact our wellness. Go hug someone you love, gang! It not only feels good, it’s also another coin in your wellness bank…
Limb 8: Affirmations
If you believe everything you read online, the average person thinks anywhere from 12,000 to 70,000 thoughts per day. I can’t find any resources to establish any truth to that, but in the time it took me to type that sentence, I counted more than 10 different thoughts pass through my head, so who knows. The trouble is, many of our thoughts are stuck on repeat. And most commonly, those are the negative ones…I’m so fat, I’m hungry but I’ve eaten so much today, too many things to do, etc. Using affirmations, we can reset our repeat buttons, and try to clear out some of the negativity that would otherwise become part of our “normal”.
So, there you go. The Stef Sutra. Even though this got long I really just touched on the 8 Limbs. Hopefully, though, it was enough to get you thinking about your own road to wellness. I’ll get into more detail in the next chapters. But, in the meantime I have some homework for you.
Wellness Homework Part 1:
This simple exercise will help you towards improving 5 of your wellness limbs: Limbs 1, 2, 3, 5, and 8.
DIRECTIONS: Each day this week, get in this yoga asana, the “5-Pointed Star”.
Stretch your arms out to the sides as far as you can, and a little pulled back, hold them tightly like that. Open your chest by doing a slight back bend while holding your core tightly. Tilt your face slightly up. Spread your legs out wide, and then squeeze your inner thigh muscles as if you were trying to close your legs. Hold the pose.
Stay there through 5 deep breaths. Each time you blow out, count to 5 and only focus on the count. Do your best to not let your mind wander from the breath and the count. Then, say this affirmation: “Today, I abandon my old habits and take up new, more positive ones.”
Repeat the whole sequence 3 times… holding the asana, doing the breathing, the concentrating, and the affirmation.
And then come back and tell me a positive thought in the comments below!