The inspiration for this blog comes from the first limb of Patanjali's Eight Limbs of Yoga, the yamas, which are viewed as a conventional list of correct behaviors or attitudes. Rooted in non-harm, they are widely valued in all traditions of Indian religion and philosophy. The five yamas deal with our social attitude, how we interact with other people, the environment and with ourselves.
For the aspiring yogi, the yamas provide a good foundation for cultivating a well balanced Yoga practice and I offer 5 Practice Tips on how you may cultivate the qualities of the yamas into your practice.
1. Ahimsa, means non-harming and respect for life; it is an attitude of benevolence and care. The following story illustrates the act of ahimsa and was kindly sent to me by my friend and peer (his words used).
"There was once a famous Indian Veena (an Indian stringed musical instrument) player who wanted to study the wisdom of Yoga. He traveled a long distance to find a famous yoga teacher and asked her: “What is the most important thing in the teachings of Yoga?”
“Be kind and considerate” replied the teacher.
“You’ve got to be kidding me; that is so stupidly obvious!” exclaimed the musician. “You are supposed to be this great teacher that I have traveled miles and miles to see and all you can come up with is something so simple even a four-year old child could say that!”
“Maybe a four-year-old could say it, but it is very hard to put into practice, even for a very old women like me”, said the teacher.
Practice Tip: Place your attention on a quality, such as kindness or gentleness to yourself and hold these in your thoughts. With this focus, you may notice that your practice softens and deepens to a more meditative state.
2. Satya is truthfulness in speech, action and thoughts; not deceiving oneself or others. It is to speak the truth with respect for others in consideration of the first yama, ahimsa.
The teachings of the Buddha (Dhammapada), encapsulates ahimsa and satya, the key foundations of the yamas.
"Use your body for doing good, not for harm. Train it to follow the dharma (duty and virtue). Use your tongue for doing good, not for harm. Train it to speak kindly. Use your mind for doing good, not for harm. Train your mind in love. The wise are disciplined in body, speech and mind. They are well controlled indeed".
Practice Tip: Are you being honest and realistic in your ambitions with your practice? Be clear and true to your intention for practice:
"Am I working towards a clearer understanding of who I am and where I am?" Or
"Am I being directed by my ego?"
3. Asteya is non-stealing, honesty and integrity; one who is trustworthy and has respect for others' property. There is no greed or desire to take things belonging to another person. Asteya can also be seen as not stealing somebody's time or taking advantage of somebody else's time. For example, arriving late for appointments such as your weekly yoga class; and likewise the teacher must also be sensitive to finishing the class on time.
Practice Tip: Examine your relationship with time. Are you rushing to class or do you give yourself adequate time, and is your journey to class more relaxed?
You have chosen to attend a weekly yoga class and it is important to give this time for yourself. Be generous with your time. Arriving a few minutes earlier to settle in is part of the practice. Try not to be in a hurry from one pose to the next. Be present in the moment and fully experience each step of your practice.
4. Brahmacarya is a practice of self-restraint, moderation of our energy in all things; too much of one thing is a problem and too little might not be adequate. Brahmacarya is the ability to channel our energy towards a life of meaning and purpose.
Practice Tip: Pay attention to your energy levels. If you feel tired, conserve your energy by doing fewer repetitions of a pose or sequence and try not to push yourself through to doing more. Cut the practice short where appropriate and be content with that.
5. Aparigraha is the absence of greed, the absence of attachment to material things. Most people find it difficult to let go of possessions and feel a sense of security when surrounded by them. Letting go of our interest in non-essential things eventually comes from the firm practice of the previous yamas.
Practice Tip: Let go of any expectations from your practice. Focus on enjoyment and appreciation of what you are and where you are at any one time, rather than focusing on wanting a specific outcome. Stay present with what is real now rather than what you imagine or project it to be in order to avoid those feelings of disappointment when the expectation is not met.
Negative thoughts that counter the yamas, like thoughts of unkindness, dishonesty, stealing etc., are saṁskāras (habits from our conditioning). They will crop up and we will experience them. The important thing is to not berate ourselves when we are thinking a negative thought, but to deal insightfully when this happens. Yoga offers a solution - to counter the negative thought with the opposite positive thought (YS 2.34: pratipaksa bhavana). I hope my suggestions in the Practice Tips above are helpful, please feel free to share and use what is appropriate for you.
My next blog will cover the second limb of Patanjali's Eight Limbs of Yoga, the niyamas; our personal disciplines and our attitude towards ourselves.
Liberating Isolation, The Yogasutra of Patanjali, Frans Moors
The Heart of Yoga, TKV Desikachar
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Edwin Bryant
The Relevance of Five yama in our lives, Santoshni Perera, Spectrum, Spring 2014
Yoga for Wellness, Gary Kraftsow