How well do you, lover of yoga and life, comport yourself? Are you always kind? Honest? Do you know whether to prioritize kindness over honesty? And I bet you don’t steal… unless it comes to ideas. Or maybe time. Or energy? Do you hold onto stuff? Want more and more? Especially when it comes to sex… or maybe affection?
Along the eight-part integral Yoga path offered by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutra, the Yamas represent the signs at the trailhead. This is where we start.
It’s said that if we don’t observe the guidance of the yamas, we don’t proceed. It’s also acknowledged that this is where we start because, when followed, the yamas produce a great effect without resort to any other factors. Master teacher and guide TKV Desikachar said that they guide the practice and become the result of practice.
In the Yoga Sutra, they are the great vow of practicing yogis, meant to be applied universally, without regard to class, era, religion. This often causes much unrest in the modern yoga community because not everyone wants to give up meat (the procurement of it being an inherently violent act) or sex (the act of it being inherently not celibate). The mere engagement with both of these proscriptions will at least offer the student a bit of insight into her compulsions or habits.
We are advised. We proceed with kindness and moderation toward ourselves and those we observe.
- Ahimsa: non-violence. Because all living beings are you. Because all living beings are spiritually equal. Be empathetic and compassionate toward all embodied beings. Release a spirit of malice and hatred. Remember that acts of violence inflict physical, as well as emotional and spiritual, harm. Remember too that the violent act may manifest in words or even intention. This yama is the root of all others. It is a practice. And the result of a practice. Hostilities cease for those established in non-violence.
- Satya: truth. Words and thoughts should correspond to fact—to what is known through sense perception, inference and verbal testimony. Posing deceptively as a truthful or virtuous person will always trigger a downfall. ‘Let us not speak what is true but unkind; let us speak what is kind and not untrue.’ (paraphrasing Shankara.) Truth must never result in violence. The Sutra advises: those established in truth will see their words become a reality.
- Asteya: non-stealing. Don’t take from others! Not their stuff, their time, their money or ideas. Don’t even harbor thoughts of doing so. The last point being important as the more one desires something, the more one is inclined to acquire it. This helps us release desires, which you’ve probably noticed is a major cause of suffering. Share what you have. Remember that wealth is a tranquil mind. Establish yourself in a non-stealing attitude and all wealth comes to you.
- Brahmacharya: celibacy. In the modern context, this is often accepted as moderation but folks in Patanjali’s day were just as sexually compelled as we are so he didn’t mince words about the application of this yama. Sex is sex! This is defined as control of the sex organs and refined as ‘not seeing, speaking with, embracing, or otherwise interacting with the opposite sex as objects of desire.’ In the modern context, it’s advised that we keep our batteries full by being mindful of sexual relations—saving them for those with equivalent energy to share with us. To become established in moderation assures us of vitality.
- Aparigrahah: non-coveting. This is the ability to see problems associated with the acquisition, maintenance and loss of things, since these processes only provoke the suffering of attachment, injury, loss. It’s so distressing when we can’t satisfy a desire for something. Then we get it and it’s distressing when it gets scuffed. Or we lose it, and that’s distressing because we no longer have it. So much distress! So, take what’s necessary. This will limit your instinct to hoard, to become overly attached, to become bound. If you’re stable without greed, the cause and effect of life becomes clear.
Niyamas: The Observances, or The Guidance on Personal Behavior
The Niyamas are the second step on Patanjali’s eight-fold path. If the yamas are the trailhead, the niyamas are the advisement that the risk of travel is your own. These are the guidance on how to care for yourself as you go. The inner disciplines.
- Saucha: cleanliness. Both external and internal. Pure in thought, word, deed. Pure in learning and sharing. It’s simple but it’s small so we forget. Also, the body, what is put into it and how the senses are used to acquire information for perception. Purifying the body and mind of contamination so that physical, emotional and spiritual engagement with the world is from a place of ease. By practicing purity, you become finely tuned to accept the deteriorating bag of your body is attained, the changing nature of material reality, and the truth around you. When the heart is pure, you are happy, calm, attentive, balanced.
- Santosha: contentment. This is disinterest in taking more than your immediate needs in life. ‘It is enough; it is okay,’ is the thought that would guide us. Neither liking nor disliking but accepting. Things will go up and down, but it’s the way you go when things don’t go your way. By contentment, true joy is experienced.
- Tapah: austerity, discipline. Tapa is fire. It’s what metabolizes our experience. By practicing austerities, we benefit from the transformative effect of the heat it creates in us. Coupled with svadhyaya (below), this is what allows us to tolerate suffering, to understand that it’s an essential part of the transitory nature of existence. Tapas is a commitment to practice through hardship, remembering that our endurance helps us to remove the patterned impressions that color our view of life. It’s what allows us to tolerate all the dualities of life, to endure, and to remain undisturbed. Like a cloth becoming clean through the vigor of a handwash, through tapas, you eliminate impurities in the body and mind. ‘Adapt, adjust, accommodate. Bear insult. Bear injury. This is the highest practice.’ Swami Satchidananda.
- Svadhyaya: self-study. This also refers to reading sacred subject matter on the topic of liberation and the repetition of the sound of OM. Through this study, you become connected to your heart’s call.
- Ishvara pranidhana: self-surrender; devotion to whatever is highest to you. This is devoting all activities to this power within, around and beyond. To humanity. This is the conversion of all acts into selfless service by the right attitude. This, it’s said, leads to tranquility as it releases doubt and its consequential grasping at the illusions you think you’re supposed to want.