In the previous post, I talked about the origins of yoga and how Sage Patanjali outlined an eight limbs path to help us live a meaningful, happy and peaceful life. One of them is what we think of yoga first - the physical practice of postures, i.e. asana, our downwards dogs and chaturangas, but it is actually the third: 1. Yama, 2. Niyama, 3. Asana, 4. Pranayama, 5. Pratyahara, 6. Dharana, 7. Dhyana, 8.Samadhi.
Today, let’s look at - Yama.
Yamas are the so called self-restraints, or behaviour rules, that connect to our deeper emotions and affect our relation to others and ourselves. Committing to these values can help resolve deeper emotional issues and make your mind calmer, peaceful and equanimous.
Patanjali outlines 5 yamas:
1) Ahimsa - non-violence. It follows that if you can’t be kind and loving, at the very least be non-violent. Violence can take the form of thoughts, words, or actions against ourselves, others and animals or nature. It’s recognising how often we engage in negative internal dialogue and harmful actions against ourselves. It is also realising that when we hurt someone else, we’re not immune to the damage we inflict - our mind will be disturbed with deeper emotions of anger, shame, fear, or regret.
On the mat: - Am I comparing myself to other people? Do I think others are doing it better than me? - Am I pushing myself through pain? - Do I beat myself up for not being able to do a pose? - Am I thinking and talking negatively to myself and my body whilst practising?
2) Satya - truthfulness. Staying true to ourselves and others. Having our thoughts, words, and actions align in harmony. The problem with lying is that we can never lie to ourselves. We will always know what we are hiding and yet will have to keep track of our lie, that splits our personality and clutters the mind with two stories to remember. Our lies often originate from non-acceptance of ourselves or a particular truth. We might pretend to be better than we are, we might have an ulterior motive, whatever it is, we are hiding something that we don’t want to accept or expose. When practising truthfulness, however, we should keep two qualities in mind to ensure our communication is non-violent (ahimsa); it should be expressed in a caring way (priyam) and be well-intended (hitam). If we struggle with this, we should postpone expressing our truth.
On the mat: - Am I practising self-care when I choose to push my body through pain? - Do I practise with honesty of how the body and mind feels in the moment, or I follow my ego and expectations? - Do I believe in the value of listening and responding to my body’s needs, or operate from a thinking it only counts if I push myself to max?
3) Asteya - non-stealing. Avoiding any unfair transaction through which we derive some benefit. Stealing is to take things easily, where we don’t acknowledge its true cost; desire what doesn’t belong to us; or take without permission or consideration. It connects to deeper emotions of greed and often excuses exploitation. We can steal time, energy, ideas, emotions, resources. Climate change is one example and the result of years of exploitation, ignoring the damage we are inflicting on nature, while pretending that we are not harming ourselves in the process. All forms of exploitation are opposed to this value.
On the mat: - Am I jealous of the poses someone else is doing? - Do I envy something that others have when I haven’t put in the work or effort myself?
4) Brahmacharya - understanding our desires and practising moderation. This value is often misinterpreted as celibacy or conserving sexual energy, but it is a wider concept of contemplating our sense of incompleteness as the origin to all desires. This Yama is not about suppressing our needs, wants and desires, but rather understanding and contemplating where they come from and avoiding over-indulgence. It is about striking a balance and moderation.
On the mat: - Contemplating my goals and aspirations on the mat - do they arise from a sense of incompleteness or not feeling good enough? - Do I fall into the trap thinking my practice will be somehow better or more complete if I achieve a certain pose? - Can I practice moderation and sustainability to the level of intensity and effort I choose?
5) Aparigraha - non-attachment, or freedom from possessiveness. Having possessions is not a problem, being attached is not a problem. It becomes an issue when it leads to possessiveness and when you’re unable to give something up or let it go. Practising aparigraha means contemplating your attachment to material things, situations, people, ideas, beliefs, and expectations. How much is your identity defined by this and how quickly you return to a place of equilibrium when you lose something or have to give it up? You can be attached to people or possessions, but it’s about checking in with your ability (if necessary) to give them up. Dealing with loss, death, or change is an inevitable part of our human experience. Sadness and emotions still come, but it’s about letting them pass and knowing your way back to a state of equilibrium and acceptance.
On the mat:
- Would I come back to equilibrium and continue practising meditation, mindfulness, breathing, awareness? - What would happen if I sprained my ankle or got injured tomorrow? - Am I letting the poses define how ‘advanced’ I perceive my practice? - Am I possessive or attached to my ability or inability to do certain poses?
______________ These values might sound a bit dogmatic or even religious at first glance, but the way they make sense to me is to not follow them blindly, strive for perfection or treat it as a box-ticking exercise. Just as our physical practice is a journey and not a destination, practising these values is a life-long process. It’s about noticing and understanding that everything is interconnected; the way you think, talk or act affect your relationship to yourself and therefore others. By cultivating your awareness, you can course-correct your thoughts and behaviours and take charge of your inner state of mind. We know that when we’re more loving and peaceful with and within ourselves, we have more to give to others.