Yamas

Ahimsa

I've decided to include you all in my own little self-study of the 8-limbed Raja path of yoga. The idea of the Ashtanga (eight-limbs) method is that through devoted practice to the eight steps, the yogi will progress toward the final limb, samadhi, understood as "self-revelation." But of course, there is much work to be done along the way.

The limbs, in order, are:

  1. Yamas: Social Conduct
  2. Niyamas: Individual Conduct
  3. Asana: Posture
  4. Pranayama: Breathing
  5. Pratyahara: Withdrawal of the Senses (beginning stages of meditation)
  6. Dharana: Concentration (also in relation to meditation)
  7. Dhyana: True Meditation
  8. Samadhi: Self-Revelation

There are five Yamas which begin the 8-limbs. They are basically five ways to act in the presence of others. To me, they represent a way to sort of set ones' intentions in a clear and pure direction. They are the "if you can accept these, then you can move on to the next stage" step.

The yamas, in order, are:

  1. Ahimsa: non-violence/non-harming
  2. Satya: truthfulness
  3. Asteya: non-stealing
  4. Brachmacharya: moderation
  5. Aparigraha: non-attachment

Today, I want to do a little exploration around Ahimsa or non-harming. Whenever I think of the first Yama I think of the lesson told to me by my teacher, Theresa Murphy. She is brilliant when it comes to putting knowledge of the 8-limbed path into practice on the mat. Although the Yamas are in reference to social conduct, certainly, you must be able to apply them to yourself first. In Theresa's lesson, one needs to consider acting with non-violence not only toward others, but toward oneself, especially when it comes to yoga asana. 

In the class setting, we often try to push ourselves further than our bodies want to go or are prepared to go. Maybe we are trying to impress our teacher or others or maybe we feel a sense of peer-pressure to look as good as our neighbor does in their pose. In practicing ahimsa on the mat, you respect your limits and abilities by avoiding harmful behaviors which could lead to injury.

In the social context of ahimsa how do we act non-violently, or non-harmfully toward others? Seems like a no-brainer, right? Treat others with kindness, compassion, and love.

Easy to say. Not always so easy to fulfill. It is common to become annoyed or angry with others due to the wide-range of personalities out there and the regularity with which we interact with people. Even those who we choose to spend our time with can anger or annoy us, leading us to act in a harmful way.

What steps can we take to prepare ourselves to act regularly in a non-harmful way?

I like Donna Farhi's perspective on the first yama. In Bringing Yoga to Life on page 30, she says,

"When we feel connected to others, we find that we are naturally compassionate, ahimsa, and that the first yama, "not-harming" is not something we strive to be but something that we are. We see the essence of ourselves in the other and realize that the tenderness and forgiveness we so wish to have extended toward us is something that all humans long for."

Okay. So maybe the first step of the first yama is (again) beginning with our own selves, actually recognizing our own humanity. Recognizing our own desire to be treated non-harmfully and without violence. Calls to mind the old adage to treat others the way you'd like to be treated. Understanding that we ourselves should prefer love, compassion, and kindness over hate, misunderstanding and meanness is a great way to prepare ourselves to act accordingly when we go out into the world.

Now the hard part. Acting with ahimsa toward those whom we love. They are (almost) always the recipients of our anger because we spend more time with them and we know that they will love us even when we are cruel to them. How do we avoid funneling our harmful thoughts and actions toward them? I can think of a few ways, but surely they are boundless:

1. Thinking before you speak.

My mother used to suggest this to me all the time. And I finally just decided that she's right. Before something unproductive and harmful comes out of your mouth, taking a moment to reflect on its possible damaging effects. And then stopping yourself if it's bound to do more harm than good.

2. Consider how you would feel if the roles were reversed.

Putting yourself in the others situation and trying to understand their perspective and reason for action before acting hurtfully yourself.

3. Breathe.

Sometimes when we are going to say something negative or hurtful, the best way to avoid it is to breathe deeply and count to ten. Perhaps by the time you get to ten, you will have thought about what you were going to say before you say it and you may also have considered the reversal of roles.

So, maybe as you move through your week, thinking about ahimsa and how to put the philosophy into action. Perhaps each time before you are about to act in a harmful way (be it towards yourself or another) you can stop yourself and consider the possibility of acting more kindly. And with each time you do so, making it more habitual and more likely that you will live with love in your heart.

Satya

The second of five yamas is Satya which translates as truth or truthfulness. (For a refresher on the limbs of the eight-fold path or all five yamas, you can refer to the last post: Yamas: Ahimsa) Ah, the notion of truth. A sticky subject in my opinion. I suppose I should start by trying to define truth. Is it non-lying? Complete honesty? Certainty?

I think non-lying is a good place to start. So, what does that mean?

As I touched upon with ahimsa, although the yamas are considered "outward observances" or social conduct, they must inherently begin with the self.

How?

So, not lying to ourselves about our intentions, our capabilities, our dharma. Not only not lying, but also recognizing our full potential as an aspect of truth. And knowing what it is that we desire out of situations and people; which is more easily obtainable if we are truly knowledgeable about ourselves to begin with. And also knowing the limits of our abilities and knowing when we've given our best and when to cease.

Okay, let's simplify. The yama of satya begins with us.

We must first come into an understanding of ourselves about our true nature. In other words, we need to get to know ourselves. Some of us have no problem with this initial step, while for others it's easy to avoid addressing the issue by being caught up in daily life, watching TV, surfing the internet, etc.

An easy place to begin the practice is on the yoga mat! We can use our asana practice to gain awareness of everything, but especially of ourselves. The physical practice of yoga is the perfect platform on which we can begin to grasp a sense of Self.

If we don't know us, how can we be held accountable for our actions? Judith Lasater actually talks about integrity as element of truth. To her, integrity is internal honesty--the idea that you wouldn't do something harmful even you were the only one to know about it. (Living Your Yoga p. 124) I think I have to agree that integrity can act as a self-test for whether or not we have established satya within ourselves.

Once this initial step is taken, when we can firmly grasp at least some truth about ourselves, then we can take the next step and bring the satya into our daily lives.

This part of it seems much easier to me because of its literal social implications. Socially, we tend to all (mostly) know that it's better to tell the truth than to lie. Even little white lies can be damaging. And sometimes this means saying things that don't want to be heard.

But this does not mean saying things that are intentionally damaging!! I think we've all been in situations in which we are fully aware that what we are about to say will be hurtful, but we do it anyway. But speaking our minds honestly is a great way to develop satya in social situations.

By acting honestly in each of our interactions and relationships, we create a solid base from which to grow most functionally. When we lie, we create separation between ourselves and others, potentially damaging our relationships with them.

How can we apply satya to our practice on the mat?

Knowing our physical limits and understanding the truth of pain vs. non-pain. Despite whatever it is that your neighbor is doing or that your teacher is requesting of you, you are remaining true to your physical capabilities and not pushing yourself to injury.

Another truthfulness practice is knowing why you are in class. What is it that you are there to achieve? You can work on this by setting an intention for your practice (however small) and sticking with it throughout your time on the mat.

One final satya practice is recognizing the broader scheme of Yoga. This one can be hard for new practitioners and those who feel that they attend class to work out. Understandable in the first few years of practice. But eventually, if you are acting from a place of truth, you must reconcile the work on the mat with the greater goal of Self-realization.

There is one final thing to say. The word satya literally translates as "actively becoming the truth of the Universe." (Lasater p. 124)

Wow. Something for which we truly can aspire.

Asteya

I have been stuck for the last couple of weeks thinking about asteya, the third of five yamas. I was steadily humming along writing easily once a week until I bumped up against asteya, and haven't been able to drag myself to the computer to hammer out some specific ideas until now. So, I guess I can't promise any specific ideas--I feel as much in the dark as I did two weeks ago.

I wonder if my problem is that I'm trying to find some hidden meaning in the literal translation of asteya. In English it translates to non-stealing. That being stated, I suppose that it can most easily be understood as not taking what does not belong to you. Or to avoid the double negative, taking only what is rightfully yours.

Much like the first two yamas (for an in-depth explanation, see the previous two posts) despite the social connotation of non-stealing, the third yama must originate with us, with the self. How then can we avoid stealing from ourselves?

The most obvious things that come to my mind are things like getting enough sleep, eating properly, not smoking and drinking too much, and getting proper physical exercise. But those things make me sound like a 1950s government health announcement. And, for students of yoga, even beginning ones, they should be understood as necessary to a balanced life and practiced regularly.

What are some ways that we can avoid stealing from us on the yoga mat? Or in other words, how can we practice asteya and give to ourselves rather than take from ourselves when we are practicing?

Here are a few of my ideas:

Link the breath with each movement.

I see so many students struggle through postures trying to find the deepest expression of a pose while all the while holding their breath or gasping for air. The practice of yoga is about gaining awareness and consciousness while on the mat. When practiced properly with breath supporting body and body supporting mind, yoga can be very soothing for the neural system and should serve to energize you. Forcing yourself to go too far in a pose and struggling for comfortable breathing as a result is simply a disservice to the self. One which could even be considered a form of stealing. So, BREATHE! Make it smooth, even, and comfortable. And if you're not in the greatest yoga pose ever seen, at least you'll be making progress, rather than hindering your journey.

Try to stay present in the moment.

Unless we are consciously working on present moment awareness through a meditation practice, our minds are generally humming along at a million miles a minute. Our lives are regularly narrated by our constant barrage of thoughts. When we come to a yoga class, we are often looking for a refuge from the outside world; a place in which we can relax the body and mind and "escape" from what lies beyond the edges of our mat.  When you're on the mat in a classroom setting or in your home practice, try to avoid "escaping" from your current task at hand. Rather, enrich your moment by being hyper-aware of your body, breath, and surroundings. The practice of yoga is really a training for Self-discovery, so use your time on the mat as such.

Know your limits.

This is as much for me as it is for you. As a fellow-human being I am regularly subject to all the issues that I boss you around about on this blog. Just like the rest of you, I also desire to strike my very best pose and make big leaps quickly in my physical practice. But the practice of yoga asana is not a practice of quick rewards. As mentioned in the previous point, this time on the mat is training time, practice time for progress on the yogic path. Injury and pain is the result of trying to move too quickly toward asana achievement. In the end (now!) you will be best served to treat your body with respect and keep your practice pain free.

So, while I can't say that I solved any mysteries about asteya, I will say that I feel more comfortable with my understanding of it. To sum it all up, I think asteya is about following your body, mind and spirit toward the positive and toward ways in which you can give rather than take. And let it begin with you and naturally it will move outward to positively (hopefully) effect others.

Brahmacarya

Everything in moderation is the universal truth that accurately describes the goal behind the fourth yama Brahmacarya. I have heard specifics about to what specifically one should be applying the principles of moderation, but I don't personally find them individually important. The key to this broad understanding of the fourth yama is as easy as it sounds. In everything in your life—work, food, exercise, meditation, talking, shopping—practice moderation.

It's so simple right? We all know what is an appropriate amount of food for dinner, versus the heaping plate of pasta which so tempts us. That one's a no-brainer, because when we overdo it, we immediately feel the effects in the form of an upset stomach. When we over-indulge in exercise, our body becomes physically taxed. Et cetera. In Meditations From the Mat Rolf Gates describes this phenomenon well in his chapter on yamas. He says:

"There is the middle of the road and while on it we experience "knowledge, vigor, valor, and energy." If we indulge in immoderation, though, even for a moment, we immediately embark on another set of experiences-- namely, guilt, remorse, obsessive worry, inertia. It is really that simple." (p. 56)

I do consider this understanding of brahmacarya to be totally valid and not only that, completely comprehensible to everyone. But, I think there is more. I think that there are several layers of depth to the true brahmacarya. I have heard another simple description of this yama, which explains it essentially as "conservation of one's individual essence."  Which is like moderation from a different angle.

How to describe it?

  • It is not giving too much of the self away, and equally not taking too much from others.
  • It is understanding one's mind and the nature of the mind, and then acting accordingly.
  • It is determining one's dharma, the overriding purpose of why we are here, and then pursuing it.
  • It is practicing everything, and I mean everything from a place of love in one's heart.

How to practice it in everyday life?

Practice yoga! The true meaning behind the practice of yoga is self-realization. It all starts and ends with the self. Maybe the first years are mired in physically practice (asana) only, but that's okay! The important piece is that you are here on your mat, not running on the treadmill, and that there's a reason that you're consistently drawn back to the practice on the mat.

Furthermore, live out your days—your time at work, eating, sleeping, reading—practicing yoga. Practice the yamas and niyamas (I'll get there someday, I swear!) in all that you do. Set aside some time to meditate even if it's just a few moments a month, begin to cultivate the notion of quieting your mind. 

How to practice brahmacarya on the mat?

Practice with love. While we all want to have rockin' bods, there is no need to overdo your asana practice. Trust me, I'm as guilty of this as anyone. I love to push myself physically and am as competitive as the next guy. But we are not here practicing yoga in order to be bootylicious. We practice as part of a comprehensive plan to understand fully the Self.

And as with anything in life, your heart will tell you when you are practicing brahmacarya accurately. And when your essence is fully in balance you will know because you will shine.

Aparigraha

Here in the West, we should want for nothing. Most of us have ample food, housing, clothing and means of transportation, but it is somehow never enough. We spend our days thinking about what we "need" in order to make our lives better, more livable. If I only had _______ then my life would be better. You can insert material possessions, emotions, knowledge, a better yoga practice; there's always something

On and on. Day in, day out.

The fifth and final yama is aparigraga which can be translated as non-attachment and also non-covetousness. If any of us take a moment of repose to ponder why exactly we want whatever it is that we want, it's often to fill a need other than that which the object serves. If we ponder why it is that we're attached to something, it is often out of fear of losing it. And through that loss, a void will form which we'll be unable to fill.

Now, I'm not talking about specific things that we need to function in day-to-day life--food, shelter--or things that serve a purpose--cars, computers--but rather the constant need to consume. The ever-present void that we feel unless we're obtaining something. Again, that notion that something will be the tipping point between our lives of suffering and a life in which we are fully alive. And then we tend to cling to those things, as though they are the engine that keeps us going.

In action, Aparigraha gives us the opportunity to work on "letting go" while simultaneously trying to squelch the fires of desire.  As in the previous four yamas, a fantastic place to start is with the self. Take a little inventory and note your desires. Not your life goals, but the things which you covet. Good examples are power, a better body, money, a stronger yoga practice, people, etc. And then a good practice is to notice how much of the time your mind is consumed by thoughts of these possessions or attachments. How much of your time is spent desiring a different life than the one that you have or clinging to the life that you "have"?

How are we going to stop suffering in attachment and desire in this life and simultaneously start living?

Well, I don't know. I mean, I have a few ideas, which I'll share, but I won't pretend to have life figured out. I'm just as much on the path as the next guy.

But here goes. Desire is often rooted in fear. Attachment is also rooted in fear. We are often attached to notions that we have of ourselves. The ego (ahamkara) is strong and loud. It takes lifetimes of practice to quiet its yearnings. Now is as good a time as any to begin.

On the mat, notice your tendency to cling to one style, one teacher, or even your ability to do a pose. Take a note of these attachments and try to use aparigraha to let go. In your life, notice your tendency to cling to people, possessions, money, and power. Why? What is the root of these attachments? Maybe even take some time to consider what would happen if they went away—people will die, money will run out, power will fade, possessions will turn to carbon...with each contemplation, note your reaction. Can you begin to ease your grip on these things?

The ultimate goal of a yoga practice is to let go of the false self and realize the true Self. I have talked much about this in previous posts—about the 8-limbed path of Raja yoga and it's ultimate goal of Self-revelation. Aparigraha is just one step along the way, one which isn't going to be easy—attachment and desire are deep-seated—but one which we must take if we are to make it to the end.