The Soup by Pablo PicassoIn November of 2015 Ram wrote an excellent post on dana, the niyama that includes generosity, altruism, and acts of giving. Dana: On the Positive Effects of Charity. Ram’s article does an excellent job of describing the what and why of dana. Today I will attempt to explain the how.
Generosity, altruism, and acts of giving are practices that can be strengthened over the long term by making them as routine as sitting in meditation, breathing mindfully, and stretching your body in postures. In this vein, dana (generosity, altruism, and giving) is considered one of yoga’s niyamas. The Mahanarayana Upanishad describes dana this way:
“All beings live on the gift of the other. Through gifts strangers become friends, they ward off difficulties. On gifts and giving, everything rests. That is why charity is the highest.”
Creating consistent routines is essential to continued growth and development, whether you are interested in developing better balance, strengthening your core muscles, loosening your shoulders, or being more generous. Of course, it feels nice to go to one yoga class, one time, but as anyone who has practiced consistently over the long term can tell you, the benefits of consistency and longevity are many times greater. Likewise, as you practice giving more regularly and make it a long-term endeavor, you find that the individual acts of charity feel easier, freer, and more like a part of who you are.
While this could easily devolve into a discussion of what you give and the quantities, I think it is useful to separate those considerations out from the acts of giving. In other words, each of us has different things and in differing amounts that we could give: money, time, energy, attention, care, access, etc. The niyama dana is not about comparative giving. Instead it is about self reflection and a recognition that the act of giving is a form of yoga practice. So, in this regard, there is no need to parse out quantities or percentages. More basically this is a practice of evaluating what you can give of yourself in each moment of being.
Practicing dana can be as simple as turning the thought “what am I getting out of this?” into the thought “what more can I give to this?” An easy place to see this is in the perspective you bring to yoga asana practice. Sometimes we are prone to viewing the postures like pills. We think things like “what is this posture supposed to do for me?” We think and sometimes say this as if we are passively receiving the posture, as if we have no agency at all, as if it is not us who is the one creating the position with our own bodies! Once you make the mental switch from trying to get something from a posture and instead find more and more ways to give your energy to what it is that you are doing, suddenly the posture and you who are performing it come alive! In a real sense, it is that act of finding the energy, the strength, the space, the breath, you have to give that reveals the benefit of that practice. The more you practice engaging from this mental framework, the easier it becomes to drop into it.
In my experience as a teacher, the primary reason that people struggle with this is not because they are inherently selfish, it is because they consistently under value how much they have to offer to the moment. It is not that people are holding back some degree of hip flexibility like a bio-mechanical hoarder. It is that they think that whatever degree of hip flexibility they do have access to is not enough. One great benefit of practicing dana, of being generous, of giving what you have to give in the moment, is that it reveals to you how much you had to give all along. You discover the degree of hip flexibility you do have. You illuminate how much compassion you do have. You highlight the great degree of safety and stability that you do have. You recognize how wealthy you really are.
While dana is something you can practice regularly while doing yoga postures it is also useful to create other Dana practice opportunities. This practice is strengthened when you make it a regular part of your routine. I will give you a personal example, not because I think everyone should necessarily do what I do, but because it may highlight one way in which you might create a dana routine. Like many people I shop for groceries on a weekly basis. I am aware that there are many people who cannot have such a regular routine and who do not have access to food on a consistent basis. So, I downloaded the Share The Meal app, which is run by the World Food Program. The app gives me options to share one day of meals ($.50), one week of meals ($3.50), one month of meals ($15.00), and more. While it is possible to make a one-time donation to the World Food Program in a larger amount, I choose to donate money, which in turn buys meals, every time that I am at the grocery store. I don’t want to give and then forget about it. I want to make giving a part of my life. Again, the purpose of this example is not to self-aggrandize or to judge those of you who do choose to give charitably on a less regular or even automated basis, but to highlight the practice of giving and to illuminate one way among many that generosity, altruism and giving—all practices of dana—can be something that each of us can develop as a skill.
Practice changing your frame of mind from one of getting to giving. Practice recognizing that you do have more to share than you might think. Practice creating routines of generosity. And in that practice, you might just find a new way to grow.
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