May 15, 2011

Patanjali is my Homeboy: the Yamas.

How to use these ideas on and off  the mat.

Part two in a series on the Yoga Sutras. For part one, click here.

Patanjali is not, contrary to popular belief, abstract and outdated.  As I wrote in part one of this series, I think it’s important to understand Patanjali in modern terms if we are to find him useful at all. To be sure, Patanjali is not my favorite read on yoga, I turn to the Upanishads and the Rig Veda for inspiration. But the concepts put forth in the yoga sutras are foundational in understanding what this whole yoga thing is about and how it began, long ago.

As I said in my last article, I didn’t find these ideas useful at first. I was lost in the language, ideas like unattachment and ego and Self. Like so many other people, I said to heck with this whole philosophy thing. How is it going to help me in my yoga practice? (Silly thing, that…the dismissal of a young girl’s attention to an ancient philosophical way to live in this world in pursuit of a better downward dog).

But yoga is a sneaky, demanding teacher. You practice long enough and eventually realize that it has changed you from the inside out. Not just your achy hamstrings, but your sense of truth and authenticity. Those concepts are universal and timeless.

The Yamas consist of five concepts that together make up the first limb of the eight that Patanjali codified in his Yoga Sutras. Paired with the second limb the Niyamas, they make up the ethical and moral precepts of right living in yoga. Of the eight limbs, I find the first two to be particularly impossible to become outdated. I hope you’ll see why as we outline the five subcategories of the Yamas.

1. Ahimsa: usually translated as non-violence, it is the core value in the ongoing debate over whether  yogis should be vegetarian or even vegan. More than just non-violence though, ahimsa serves as the broader umbrella for the rest of the yamas. Ahimsa means compassion for all living things, kindness and consideration. It’s about seeing the big picture and acting in a way that does not create physical or emotional harm for others, or for ourselves.

Reflections On the Mat: What is your practice like? Does it make you feel good? Are you unable to stand up straight the next day? Are you pushing too hard or are you also able to find the ease in the practice? If you’re chronically injured, it may be a sign that you are not honoring ahimsa in your practice.

In Life: Think about this concept for a minute…are you a gossip? Do you tend to have road rage? Do you belittle people or take advantage of them? What are the quality of your thoughts? How can you begin to recognize ahimsa in your every moment of every day?

2. Satya: non-lying, or commitment to truthfulness. Where satya gets interesting, is in the things we might say and chalk up to being truthful.A commitment to being honest is not an excuse to harm someone’s feelings. Think again on ahimsa and remember that creating no harm is the idea. Under this guise, it may be better not to say anything at all, or to redirect your answer. I am pretty sure my husband is an expert in this:

(me:) Does this dress make me look fat?

(him:) Why don’t you wear the yellow one, I always liked that one best.

Most often people lie because they are afraid of the consequences of admitting to their actions, or about facing their reality.   We do this at work, with our friends, with our spouses…little (or big) white lies to save ourselves the embarrassment or explaining of what we’ve done. We rationalize it. But I have found this thing to be true and try to teach it to my sons everyday: most often telling the truth will lead to far less serious consequences than lying. When you cultivate an environment of truthfulness, you will find that others are truthful as well, because you make it okay for people to screw up, although there may still be consequence and disappointment.

My teacher Kofi Busia once said, if you create for yourself a world in which lying is acceptable, that is the world you will live in.

Reflections on the Mat: Are you honest with yourself and your ability? If you are a teacher, do you practice what you preach and teach only what you know? Do you stay within the scope of your body’s capabilities at this moment, or as a teacher, within your scope of practice? Are you in denial about an injury or limitation?

In Life: Think on this a second…do you welcome honesty in your life? Not just your own, but others? How do you react to people when they tell you something honestly, particularly something difficult to hear? Do you create safety in your relationships? If honesty is not the foundation of your relationships, then what is?

3. Asteya: non-stealing. I always get a laugh out of this one. Most of us would not find it difficult to not steal. But take a second look at this one and you’ll find some interesting perspectives we are all guilty of, at some point or another. Like using people’s time inappropriately, or taking advantage of someone’s money, ideas or property, or to take something that has not been freely given, whether it is a physical object or otherwise.

Reflections on the mat:  when you practice, are you polite and considerate of the other people around you? Do you walk in late or leave early? Disrupt savasana or cheat yourself from savasana? Do you crave excessive attention from either the teacher or other people? Do you, when practicing at home, take the time to make sure that your practice is honoring your body at that moment?

In Life: Are you an energy vampire? Do you use other people’s time considerately? Borrow things past the time permitted? Do you meet your obligations in a timely manner? Do you hold up your end of the bargain and step up to the plate or do you let do the work for you? Do you give credit where credit is due? Are you punctual?

4. Brahmacharya: commonly translated as celibacy, brahmacharya is usually dismissed as ancient, ascetic and unusable by the modern yogi. Most of us are not interested in becoming monks and find the idea of celibacy to be impossible. To be honest, as a woman, and being the woman that I am,  I don’t feel that sexual energy is a particularly difficult force for me.

But not so fast. Brahmacharya is so much richer than celibacy and it can be more notably used as: to walk while chewing on the divine. In other words, to aim that all of our actions and relationships bring us closer to our spiritual goal.  As Eknath Easwaran says in his translations of the Upanishads:

Sex, of course, is the most powerful desire most people have, and therefore the richest source of personal energy.

Brahmacharya, self control in thought and action, was a prerequisite…

But this was not suppression or repression. Sexual desire, like everything else…is only

partly physical. Essentially it is a spiritual force- pure,high-octane creative energy- and

brahmacharya means its transformation.

Nothing is lost in this transformation. It is clear…that sex is sacred, and ashram graduates

often went back into the world to take up the responsibilities of family life.

But they did so  in freedom. Free from conditioning, they has a choice in everything they did, even in what they thought.

Their ideal was not to retire from the world but to live in it selflessly, with senses and passions completely under control.

Reflections on the mat: do you practice any form of prayer or spiritual goal? Do you sit for meditation? Do you practice mindfully instead of mindlessly? Is your practice stagnant or has it become merely exercise?

In life: Are you living your dharma, or in accordance with what you believe your life’s purpose is? Are you stagnated in job or relationships or embedded in unhealthy relationships? Are you finding joy in daily life and with those around you? What is your purpose here and how can you align more fully with that in thought, action and deed? Do you recognize a divine power at work in your life?

5. Aparigraha-non-grasping/non-hoarding are the traditional translations, taking only what is needed, to take only what we have earned and having faith that there is abundance for us and for all around us. I  find that associating aparigraha with unattachment especially useful. It is unattachment to things, people, situations and thoughts. Most attachments are based on either longing or aversion, and sometimes fear, particularly fear of going without.  But since everything in this life and everyone is impermanent, attachment is a fleeting and useless way to spend our energy.

Reflections on the mat: What would happen if you were seriously injured, right now? What would you do? How would your practice change? How would that make you feel? Similarly: are you jealous of someone else’s practice or body? Does it make you judge yourself?

In Life: What are you attached to: Is it your stuff? Your job? Your reputation, home, car or otherwise? How about your ideas about yourself: your weight or looks? Are you jealous of someone because they have what you want? In what ways are you allowing your attachments to keep you from really living?

I hope that you find these comments useful. Go out and think about these ideas on and off the mat, and then join me here to discuss what you find. And be sure to look out for the next article when we discuss the Niyamas.

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