In a world of infinite possibilities, we are often faced with difficult situations that require us to choose among many options/that require from us tough decisions. How do we decide?
Some decisions can be trivial. Some decisions can determine a whole new life path. Some decisions can feel like the next logical step. Some decisions may result in a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Some decisions might feel like you are gambling all that you have. Some decisions may force you to ponder what seems to be an impossible future.
Sometimes the hardest decision can be just knowing the right thing to say.
Decisions can have many dimensions, such as length of time or magnitude of impact: Is the decision something that will have an immediate, short term effect or is the decision something for the long haul? Will the decision affect just you or are there others – one or many—who are stakeholders in this?
Implementing decisions can sometimes require expenditure of great effort or summoning up vast amounts of courage. Some decisions may only require a single word (or maybe a sigh.)
Ultimately making difficult decisions is an inherent part of the human condition and has existed throughout the ages.
As the Bhagavad Gita teaches:
योगः कर्मसु कौशलं॥
yogaḥ karmasu kauśalam
Which translates to “Yoga is skill in actions (Karma).”
Each decision we make is an action. Even avoiding a decision is making a choice. Choosing well is a kind of yoga, the yoga of our lives, the yoga of engaging with the world.
The texts of yoga philosophy (such as the Bhagavad Gita) have many examples that can provide us with guidance. I have found myself returning to certain texts and certain teachings again and again.
In this article, I want to offer a concise set of easy to remember concepts that can be utilized at any time for providing guidance in making decisions. This guidance can be found by remembering six Sanskrit words that begin with S: Sri, Satya, Svatantrya, Svadharma, Saprema, and Svaha.
(Of course, professional Sanskritists will tell you that there are actually three different letters for the transliterated S in the Sanskrit alphabet. Please allow me this inaccuracy.)
Truth be told: The first three were popular terms among Anusara yoga teachers, and in my 12 years as an Anusara yoga teacher I spent much time contemplating those terms and how the concepts might be applied on the yoga mat and in life. The next three became favorites of mine as my study of yoga philosophy continued.
[One/You/We] can contemplate these concepts further—maybe over a lifetime—and apply them to asana practice. Our practice on the mat can reinforce our skill at making decisions, by entraining breath, body, mind, and spirit.
Śrī (Devanagari: श्री)
Sri is probably best known as an honorific—like a polite form of Mr. or Ms.—seen at the beginning of an address to power Indian sages. But the word Sri is also a concept with a particular meaning. A teacher of mine once defined Sri as “The Auspicious Divine and Manifest, the principle of the auspicious, life-affirming energy that pervades the universe in the form of embodied diversity.” The concept of Sri is also personified as a goddess of abundance: Laksmi in northern parts of India and Lalita in the south.
So then, for any decision to be made, preference the choice that is the most positive and life-affirming for yourself and for all of those involved.
It is not about being Pollyannaish. It is simply giving preference to positivity over negativity.
It is possible that the word Sri is the ancient root of the English word spirit, and from that we get the words: inspiration and respiration. Then, in the performance of yoga asana, Sri is the breath: the breath that helps us to go deeper into a pose; the breath that informs us if we are straining in a pose. The breath itself can become a peaceful meditation.
The breath is like a kind, positive friend who is always there.
satya (Devanagari: सत्य)
The term Satya shows up most familiarly in the Yoga Sutras as one of the Yamas. Satya means truth.
सत्यप्रतिष्थायं क्रियाफलाश्रयत्वम् ॥३६॥
satya-pratiṣthāyaṁ kriyā-phala-āśrayatvam ||36||
“Once a state of truth (satya) has been permanently established, each statement will form the basis for a truthful result.”
Truth may come from books or experts that we trust. Truth may come from experience. Something may simply “ring true” for us.
Sometimes you need to rein in the truth.
Finding truth might mean determining whether the choice is based upon some fantasy goal or is based on reality, on facts. This might require seeking out friends who don’t just agree with you, but are willing to tell you it to you straight, even if it might mean bursting your bubble.
This is especially true if strong emotions are involved.
Watch out too for individuals who attempt to impose their “truth” upon you, and try to coerce you into believing something that may not be true for you (or even true in general). Use critical thinking (and maybe your gut) to know what is true for you and you only.
In yoga asana, Satya is the commitment to how we place our foundation, the alignment of our hands and feet. Such awareness and precision that the teacher (or anyone else) would never think to correct you. Truth is the engagement of muscles and steadfastness to remain in a pose when it is intense.
svātantrya (Devanagari: स्वातन्त्र्य)
This is a technical term that arises from Indian philosophy, specifically the “high” Tantra of Kashmir Shaivism. It refers to freedom as an inherent nature of the universe — that Siva purely out of his freedom creates the universe.
The recognition here is that our individual “truth” can only take us so far. There are things that we do not know or are yet to discover. Thus granting the most freedom to all those involved in your choice allows new truths to be discovered.
Recognize too that freedom does not necessarily mean having more choices. Ultimately, freedom means knowing how to make the best choice.
Watch out too that you are not being led on by someone (or yourself) into some unrealistic expectation. Respect the freedom of others, but respect yourself first. Freedom, yes, but truth first.
"For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to Love in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others." ~ Mandela
In yoga asana, it is also true that freedom comes after truth. More freedom, in terms of greater range of motion, comes only after we set our foundation and establish the boundaries within a pose by engaging the muscles that stabilize joints. It is often the case in poses that it is the boundaries that bring about greater or deeper openings in the body.
svadharma (Devanagari: स्वधर्म)
This again appears in the Bhagavad Gita.
“It is better to live your own destiny imperfectly than to live an imitation of somebody else's life with perfection.”
Svadharma means literally "own dharma" and has been translated as "own duty" and "particular responsibilities." In a general sense, it refers to your true nature: that which defines you independent of any external source.
So then, for any decision to be made, make the choice that is authentically yours. The decision may be for another person or a group, but it must ultimately be a decision you can own.
You cannot blame your parents or anyone else for your choices.
Watch out for conditioning that can come from unknowingly following the desires of parents, peer, culture, society.
Ultimately the choice should feel easeful in your heart and less of a struggle, a fight.
And not just your svadharma, but also the svadharma of the other individuals involved in your choice. If your choice requires others to fundamentally change who they are, it is not a good strategy and that choice may be doomed to fail. Choice can involve compromise, which might mean a “give and take” or to do more of one thing or less of another, but asking someone to change is really that person’s choice, not yours.
In yoga asana, this is doing your own pose, not the pose of the person next to you. The goal of a pose is not even necessarily to look like a picture in a book.
At a certain point in a class, everyone might be doing the same pose, in that, it has the same name and same general form. But each person can bring his or her own unique expression to that pose.
Make the goal of the pose to be fully yourself.
saprema (Devanagari: सप्रेम)
Saprema means “with” (sa) “love” prema. But it really refers to a Divine love, a love that needs no object, no “other”.
Often acting from a place of love is not easy. We can think of times when what is needed could be called “hard” love, such as an intervention.
Ultimately, no choice should diminish your heart or the hearts of those involved.
Even the choice to pursue a divorce – which might appear to be the ending of love - can be done with kindness, compassion, and love.
In yoga asana, this is doing poses that heal injuries or not practicing when we are sick.
We recognize that yoga is a gift of love that we give to ourselves. But the magic of the gift of yoga is that it reveals gifts that are already present in our hearts. It helps to unwrap the love that is already always there.
Make a table like the one below, listing your separate choices (as clearly as you understand them) down the left-most column.
Then, in each row, under each of the categories, apply a “score”. You could use a number (e.g. from one to ten), or a word (such as high, medium, or low), or possibly write a whole paragraph meditating on the value of that choice relative to that category.
By offering this article, I am not suggesting that I have led the perfect life. I have made many errors of judgment. I have mistakenly hurt individuals I care for deeply. I have made rash decisions, which later I attempted to undo. But I try not to live in regret and just always do the best I can.
By following a process like this, it might empower you to make the best decisions you can make.
By following a process like this, sometimes an “impossible future” can become possible.
But sometimes too simply random chance gets in the way of even our best design.
svāhā (Devanagari: स्वाहा)
"svaha" is often translated as "so be it". Whenever fire sacrifices are made, svāhā is chanted at the moment an offering is given up to the fire.
This is not really a separate category to base a decision on. Instead it is an attempt to let go after the decision has been made.
That does not mean giving up, because sometimes decisions require perseverance or on-going course corrections.
Svaha is simply the recognition that you made the best choice based on the information you had, and that the final outcome is not always in your control…
Svaha is also the savasana at the end of class. We allow ourselves simply to be satisfied with the efforts we made. Recognizing that ultimately we did the best that we could, given the circumstances at hand. And letting go of the result…
Then onto the next choice to make.