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January 24, 2014

New Year, New Yoga: Resolve to Experience the Other Seven Limbs in 2014. ~ Monette Chilson

With January comes a blank slate, that annual do-over spirit that inspires us all to become better versions of ourselves.

Although we are yogis at heart and know that the deep work of the soul matters more than what happens on our mats, it is tempting to succumb to the surface improvements, even when it comes to our practice.

How strongly that vision of an unwavering handstand beckons to us! But is the fleeting sense of a “perfect” pose really what our hearts desire?

Or is it, perhaps, the less sexy aspects of yoga—those limbs that don’t garner nearly the attention the asanas (poses) do—that are calling to us?

Even committed yogis can find it intimidating to tackle the seven less physical of Patanjali’s famed eight limbs. Rest assured that you need not be enlightened to venture into this unknown terrain, you simply need to be a seeker of the light.

Making a resolution to experience all that is possible within your practice will not be a quick fix, nor will it have a definitive, quantifiable outcome. It is a resolution to journey rather than a quest for a predetermined destination. Most people break their New Year’s resolutions before the sun sets on January.

To venture through all eight limbs, you’ll need a year-long plan that will break down your yogic sojourn into manageable steps to avoid early burnout or a sense that you’ll never “get it.”

Here’s a road map to get you started. In true yogic fashion, it provides space for rest to let you assimilate all you’ll be absorbing this year.

Month(s)
Task
Description
January
Introduction/
Overview
 Find a translation of the Eight Limbs 
or a book on yogic philosophy that covers 
them. Read the introduction. Or sign up for
a local lecture on yogic philosophy.
February
First Limb 
(yama)
Universal morality
March
Second Limb 
(niyama)
Personal observances
April
Third Limb 
(asana)
Body postures
May
Fourth Limb 
(pranayama)
Breathing exercises
June - August
Break
Incorporate bits of what you’re learning into
 your more relaxed summer routine.
September
Fifth Limb 
(pratyahara)
Control of the senses
October
Sixth Limb 
(dharana)
Inner awareness
November
Seventh Limb 
(dhyana)
Meditation
December
Eighth Limb 
(samadhi)
Union with the Divine

To prepare you for this adventure we’ll take a peek at our first limb, the yama (sometimes considered a yogic list of “don’ts”). Embracing the five yama will require leaving the status quo behind and writing your own “shoulds” rather than blindly embracing another’s.

Non-Violence: Ahimsa (1st yama)

We’ll begin where Patanjali did, with the admonition against violence—ahimsa, the very first yama.

Even with this seemingly simple, morally universal call to do no harm, there are endless applications of this principle in the real lives of people around us. One person may find squashing a bug reprehensible, while another may brandish a fly swatter with no compunction. Some people choose not to eat meat and consider violence against animals to be included in this yama.

Others are happy sitting down to a big, thick juicy steak and don’t consider that an infringement of ahimsa. Some go as far as to shun leather products, while others aren’t bothered at that level. There are women who have had abortions and are at peace with their decision. There are also those who have had them and are not at peace, feeling that they, personally, violated their own standard of non-violence.

There are those who advocate for euthanasia arguing that it can sometimes be the most humane choice, while others argue that it is never a humane choice. There are parents who teach kids not to hit by spanking them, and then there are those who see that as a blatant contradiction and an infliction of violence.

As much as we’d sometimes like to play God and have all the answers for everyone, the only answers we will ever really have are our own—and even that takes a tremendous amount of work, vulnerability and levels of self-honesty. 

Exercise: 

As you read through this first yama, sit with it. And not just during your designated meditation time. Carry it with you throughout the day, use it to create your own moral compass. Question your choices and make notes on what constitutes violence for you—against others and against yourself.

Pay special attention to that voice in your head that may speak harshly without your permission. Ahimsa is your base barometer for approaching the world with integrity. Find out what violates your interpretation of ahimsa and what doesn’t. You will gain a greater understanding of who you are and begin to develop a set of guidelines for living that stem from within rather than without.

You can write your own ahimsa manifesto that articulates what you’ve learned about your stance on this foundational yama. Print it and post it somewhere you’ll see if regularly.

Sensual restraint: Brahmacharya (4th yama)

Unlike the other yama, this is not a commandment of absolute avoidance; rather, it is a call to pursue sensuality in balance. Its application is even more personal than the other yama. For example, with sexual expression, a monk or priest practicing brahmacharya would be doing so with the goal of complete celibacy. A married person would be aspiring to faithfulness within the marriage, while a single person may be striving to experience sexual expression within scenarios acceptable to their own belief system.

This same sense of restraint applies to other sensual pleasures that can seize control of our will and our appetites—literally and figuratively.

Chocolate is particularly seductive to me, but I can choose how I succumb to the temptation. Savoring fine, single-origin chocolate, one bite at a time, is a lovely pleasure. Sitting down and gorging on left-over Halloween candy in one sitting is a completely different experience, devoid of the sacred nature of the former.

One embodies restraint, gratitude and joy in simple pleasures, while the other espouses the cultural norms of gluttony and instant gratification. Brahmacharya does not prohibit us from indulging (even in the Halloween stash), but it does bring an awareness to our choice of indulgence.

The Sanskrit word for this yama—brahmacharya—can be broken down to reveal a broader interpretation of the yama so often associated with self-imposed limitations on earthly pleasures. “Brahma” is used to refer to God, while “char” means walk and “ya” denotes an active approach. In this light, the often maligned yama transforms into the simple command to “walk with God.”

Exercise:

Buy a bar of the richest, most decadent chocolate you can find. Make sure it is one that’s pre-divided into small squares. Break off one piece each day and spend a few moments savoring it. Let it melt on your tongue and try to sense the fragrant undertones.

Realize how much pleasure we can derive from this small act. Return to that feeling of balanced indulgence as you go through your day. You are creating for yourself a sensory experience that will serve as a touchpoint for bringing this yama alive within your daily routine.

Let 2014 be the year you open yourself to yoga that takes you far beyond your mat. Surround yourself with yogic friends, wise teachers and writing that explains and inspires this holistic journey you’ve embarked upon.

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Assistant Editor: Renée Claude/Bryonie Wise

Photo: Vinni/Flickr

 

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