The first limb, or the yamas, consists of five characteristics observed and codified by wise people since the beginning of time as being central to any life lived in freedom. They are mostly concerned with how you use your energy in relationship to others and in a subtler sense, your relationship with yourself. The sages recognized that stealing from your neighbor was likely to promote discord, lying to your wife would cause suffering, and violence begets more violence; the results are hardly conducive to living a peaceful life.
You may have been taught from an early age, verbally or non-verbally, that what you do and what you own are the sole components for measuring whether you are “successful”. Do you measure your success and that of others through this vantage point? Do you judge and dismiss anything that falls outside these parameters? Does this make you happy? Are you content?
What the yoga sutras teach is that who we are and how we are constitutes the ultimate proof of a life well lived. If you do not truly believe this, it is likely that you will measure the success of your yoga practice through the achievement of asana. This tendency has produced a western yoga that is not much more than sophisticated calisthenics. Those who can bend the farthest or do the most extraordinary yoga postures are called masters. It is easy to measure physical prowess. Do you compare yourself to others who are more flexible? These outward feats do not necessarily constitute any evidence of a balanced practice or a balanced life. The yamas (and niyamas) ask you to remember is that the techniques and forms are not goals in themselves but vehicles for getting to the essence of who we are.
One of the greatest challenges as a westerner practicing yoga is to learn to perceive progress through “invisible” signs, signs that are often unacknowledged by your peers. Are you moving toward greater kindness, patience, or tolerance toward others? Are you able to remain calm and centered even when others around you become agitated and angry? How you speak, how you treat others, and how you live are the more subjective qualities and attributes you will learn to recognize as the testaments to your progress and as gauges of authenticity in your potential teachers. When you remain committed to your most deeply held values you can begin to discern the difference between the appearance of achievement and the true experience of transformation.
As you read through the precepts that follow, take the time to dwell upon their relevance to your life and to consider your own personal experiences both past and present in reference to them. You can take almost any situation that arises in your life and consider it from the vantage point of one or more of these precepts. It can also be valuable to choose a precept that you’d like to explore in depth for a month, or even a year (!), at a time investigating how it works in all aspects of your life. And last, the way in which you approach these practices, and your underlying intentions, will ultimately determine whether your practice bears fruit. As you progress in your yoga practice, take the time to pause frequently and ask, “Who am I becoming through this practice? Am I becoming the kind of person I would like to have as a friend?”
Yamas Wise Characteristics
Ahimsa–Compassion for All Living Things
Ahimsa is usually translated as nonviolence, but this precept goes far and beyond the limited penal sense of not killing others. First and foremost you have to learn how to be nonviolent toward yourself. As a practice, spend one day taking note of the unkind, unhelpful, destructive comments, and judgments you make toward yourself. This will give you an idea of the enormity of the challenge of self-acceptance and non-violence toward self. In truth, few would dare to be as unkind to others.
Extending this compassion to all living creatures is dependent on our recognition of the underlying unity of all sentient beings. When you begin to recognize the streams and rivers of the earth are no different from the blood coursing through our arteries, it becomes difficult to remain indifferent to the plight of the world. You will naturally find yourself wanting to protect all living things. It becomes difficult to toss a can into a stream or carve your name in the bark of a tree, for each act would be an act of violence toward yourself as well. Cultivating an attitude and mode of harmlessness does not mean that you no longer feel strong emotions such as anger, jealously, or hatred. Learning to see everything through the eyes of compassion demands that you look at even these aspects of yourself with acceptance. Paradoxically, when you welcome our feelings of anger, jealousy, or rage rather than see them as signs of spiritual failure, you can begin to understand the root causes of these feelings and move beyond them.
In considering ahimsa it’s helpful to ask, “Are my thoughts, actions, and deeds fostering the growth and well-being of all beings?”
Satya–Commitment to the Truth
This precept is based on the understanding that honest communication and action form the bedrock of any healthy relationship, community, or government, and that deliberate deception, exaggerations, and mistruths harm others. One of the best ways you can develop this capacity is to practice right speech. This means that when you say something, you are sure of its truth. If you were to follow this precept with commitment, you may have a great deal less to say each day! A large part of small, everyday comments and conversations are not based upon what we know to be true but are based on imagination, suppositions, erroneous conclusions, and sometimes out-and-out exaggerations. Gossip is probably the worst form of this miscommunication.
Commitment to the truth isn’t always easy, but with practice, it’s a great deal less complicated and ultimately less painful than avoidance and self-deception.
Proper communication will allow you to deal with immediate concerns. taking care of little matters before they become big ones.
Asteya arises out of the understanding that all misappropriation is an expression of a feeling of lack. This feeling of lack usually comes from a belief that happiness is contingent on external circumstances and material possessions. Within Western industrialized countries satisfaction can be contingent upon so many improbable conditions and terms that it is not uncommon to spend all of your time hoping for some better life, and imagining that others (who possess what we do not) have that better life. In constantly looking outside of yourself for satisfaction, you are less able to appreciate the abundance that already exists. The present abundance is what really matters. What health you have, the riches of your inner life, the joy and love we are able to give and receive from others are just a few of the yogic markers of wealth. It becomes difficult to appreciate that you have hot running water when all you can think about is whether the towels are color-coordinated. How can you appreciate your good fortune in having enough food to eat when you are wishing you could afford to eat out more often?
The practice of asteya asks to be careful not to take anything that has not been freely given. This can be as subtle as inquiring whether someone is free to speak on the phone before launching into a tirade about your problems. The paradox of practicing asteya is that when you relate to others from the vantage point of abundance rather than neediness, you will find that others are more generous and that life’s real treasures begin to flow. The next time you find yourself feeling as though you ‘need’ something, try giving something freely to someone. This can be as small as a kind word. If you are feeling as though you need encouragement, give it to someone else. See what feelings are generated.
Brahmacharya–Merging with the One
Of all the precepts, the call to brahmacharya is the least understood. Commonly translated as celibacy, this precept wreaks havoc in the minds and lives of those who interpret brahmacharya as a necessary act of sexual suppression or sublimation. All spiritual traditions and religions have wrestled with the dilemma of how to use sexual energy wisely. Practicing brahmacharya, as a lay-person, means that you use your sexual energy to regenerate your connection to your spiritual self. It also means that you don’t use this energy in any way that might harm another. It doesn’t take a spiritual guru to see that manipulating and using others sexually creates a host of bad feelings. This is one realm of human experience that is guaranteed to bring out the best and worst in people. It may be easier to understand brahmacharya if you remove the sexual designation and look at it purely as energy. Brahmacharya means merging one’s energy with God. While the physical communion experienced through making love with another gives a clear experience of this meshing of energies, this can be extended beyond discrete events into a way of life–a kind of omnidimensional celebration of love in all its forms.
In looking at your own relationship to sexual energy, consider whether the ways you express that energy bring you closer to or farther away from your spiritual self.
Holding on to things and being free are two mutually exclusive states. The ordinary mind is constantly manipulating reality to get ground underneath it, building more and more concretized images of how things are and how others are, as a way of generating confidence and security. The mind builds self-images and construct concepts and paradigms that feed a sense of certainty. This would be fine if life were indeed a homogeneous event in which nothing ever changed; but life does change, and it demands that you adapt and change with it. The resistance to change, and the tendency to hold on to things, causes great suffering and will prevent you from growing and living life in a more vital and pleasurable way. What yogic philosophy (and the great Buddhist teachings) elucidate is that solidity is a creation of the ordinary mind, that nothing is permanent. Life is much easier and less painful living with the knowledge of impermanence.
Have you seen this in your own life? Have you tried to hold on too tightly to something, whether it be possessiveness of your partner or your youthful identity? Has this benefited you? Has it kept the thing close by? Likely not. Grasping tends to lead to the destruction of the very thing being held. Your best security lies in taking down your fences and barricades. Allow yourself to grow, and through that growth becoming stronger and yet more resilient.
The next time you feel yourself ‘grasping’ at something, try to consciously release that holding. You don’t need to send whatever the thing is away but try to simply release your grip on it. See what happens within yourself.
The next edition of Exploring the Yoga Sutras will be: What are the Niyamas? Please feel free to email any comments, questions, or thoughts!