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About Yoga Series: Understanding the Yamas

Sunday, November 18, 2007

As mentioned last month, the first limb of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras is Yama. The yamas are moral and ethical principles which transcend time, place, race, gender, and social position. They are:

* Ahimsa (non-violence)
* Satya (truthfulness)
* Asteya (non-stealing)
* Brahmacharya (continence)
* Aparigraha (non-coveting)

In this chapter we'll look at each part of the Yamas, discuss basic concepts of the individual principles, and provide suggestions for integrating this part of your yoga practice into your daily life.

Ahimsa - Non-violence
The practice of ahimsa is one of being non-harmful in your thoughts, words, and deeds.

Ahimsa is the concept of non-violence, harmlessness, non-injury, and the absence of hostility. In our society today, it is very easy to get caught up in the fast pace of our lives and ignore common courtesies toward others and ourselves. We may not actively assault people, animals, or things, but even negative thoughts about such actions are a form of violence. So ahimsa is the practice of trying to reduce the amount of violence not only within ourselves and our lives, but also in the world around us. Driving in traffic, juggling a busy schedule, taking some much-needed time for yourself - there are so many opportunities to practice ahima as you navigate through your day.

Many of us do not realize how harmful we are being to ourselves (and sometimes inadvertently to others) with simple negative thoughts. Generally, when we start to feel judgment about something, we are becoming harmful in our thoughts. Begin practicing ahimsa by having a more compassionate or tolerant attitude toward yourself. By adopting a more loving attitude toward yourself, you will positively affect those around you. You might be surprised how your perception shifts. It will be easier to extend the same kindness to others. You can also bring ahimsa into your yoga asana practice. As you move through your practice, notice if you're mindful of the body's subtle messages. Rather than muscling through to a place where the body is restricted and you risk injury, practice compassion. Turn off the judgmental thoughts and comparisons and be receptive to the rich benefits of the practice.

Satya - truthfulness
The practice of satya is one of being truthful in your thoughts, words, and deeds.

Satya is translated as real, genuine or honest. If we look at this literally, we understand that we should tell the truth and be honest with ourselves as well as others. But being honest also involves looking deeper. Begin by being honest with yourself. You may need to look at your own habitual patterns and conditioning that influence your interpretation of the truth. Look into yourself without judgment and observe. When you begin to understand your true nature, you may go a step further and allow the truth to transcend into your actions and in the way you choose to live your life. And since we are all connected, you will positively affect others.

Asteya - non-stealing
The practice of not stealing or being covetous in our thoughts, words, and deeds.

Many of us probably feel we do this one with the most ease. Yet being non-covetous in every action, mental or physical, is quite difficult when we start to understand the broad nature of this yama.

Here are a few examples of things we may "steal" or be covetous of:
* Other's possessions
* Other's ideas
* Someone's spouse/partner
* Someone's time or attention
* Money

This can also include copying movie rentals, using business resources for personal gain, as well as driving a gas-guzzler which in turn steals from mother nature.

Look at your life and daily activities and see if there is one thing or event you can change each day by not monopolizing someone's time or by returning something you borrowed from a friend, or look at your life as full without envying or taking something from someone that you feel is missing in your own life.

Brahmacharya - Continence
The practice of self-restraint in your thoughts, words, and deeds.

Continence is defined as self-restraint, but brahmacharya is also defined as chastity (moral purity, modesty, sexual responsibility) and studentship of spiritual education toward higher thoughts.

This is the most debated yama. To what extent are continence, chastity, and spiritual studentship to be practiced? In our studies, our teachers have equated brahmacharya to the higher intelligence of practicing common sense self-restraint. Removing obstacles and activities which prove to harm our body and psyche and decrease our health and longevity. The reduction and control over sensual pleasures (not to be confused with solely sexual pleasure) is generally considered to be the beginning steps towards practicing full brahmacharya.

Try this for a month. Pick a favorite food, activity, or habit which is not in your best interest or decreases your overall health, and replace it with an activity that instead, feeds your higher self.

Aparigraha - Non-hoarding/Non-collecting/Non-coveting
The practice of not accumulating excessive items or things in your thoughts, words, and deeds.

Aparigraha is much like Asteya and is simply another facet thereof. However, unlike asteya, aparigraha is looking to reduce the things you have in your life. Non-hoarding is the key to non-attachment. One should not collect things or hoard items one does not immediately need or require. According to BKS Iyengar, "The yogi feels that the collection or hoarding of things implies a lack of faith in God and in one's self to provide for the future." (Light on Yoga, p. 35)

So what about greed? Is greed part of aparigraha? Greed is one of the most visible forms of this yama. We see it just about everywhere we look. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, greed is "An excessive desire to acquire or possess more than what one needs or deserves, especially with respect to material wealth." We have probably all fallen prey to our "desires" being satisfied. When we start to satisfy desires, new levels of greed or attachment can start to develop. Coupled with asteya, parigraha (coveting/hoarding) can lead an individual to lie, steal, cheat, or even murder for the desired item, regardless of the outcome of their actions. Greed is probably the highest act of not practicing aparigraha, since greed generally equates to collecting things well beyond one's immediate or foreseeable future needs.

Try this to help with understanding aparigraha. Our teachers John Charping and Betty Larson suggest this method for deepening your understanding and practicing aparigraha. Take a close look at your possessions and consider what you do not really need or even want/use. Then give it away, clean out the closets, drawers, basements, etc. This part is easy and can be lots of fun. Start here, then begin to look around you at what's left. Which thing or things do you really like or take pride in, but do not really, truly need or use? Is there a nything here that you are able to part with? If so, give it away.

So as you can see, the yamas are straight forward, yet general enough to make the yogic practitioner be responsible for their own thoughts, words, and deeds. Since there are no "Thou shall not ...." type statements, one must develop personal strength and humility to sincerely achieve daily success in living by the Yama's moral and ethical principles as laid out in the Yoga Sutras.

If you want to learn more about the yamas, here are some suggested texts.
* Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, by B.K.S. Iyengar
* The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice by T. K. V. Desikachar
* The Secret of t he Yamas : A Spiritual Guide to Yoga by John McAfee

Referenced Sources:
John Charping/Betty Larsen, SIYI Teacher Training Materials
Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, by B.K.S. Iyengar
The Secret of t he Yamas : A Spiritual Guide to Yoga by John McAfee

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