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Beginning the Journey:
Living the Yamas of Patanjali

When our children were young, my husband and I would occasionally summon up enough courage to take them out for dinner. As we stood outside the selected restaurant, one of us would stare down into their upturned innocent faces and remind them, to “be good” or we would leave the restaurant. This warning was only mildly successful until one day my husband reasoned out a more effective approach. He explained and I agreed that telling the children to “be good” was just too vague; we needed to be specific. With this revelation in mind, on our next outing we stopped before entering a restaurant and reminded them of these specifics, “Stay in your chair; don’t throw food, and do not yell. If you do any of these things, one of us will take you out of the restaurant at once.”

We gave them clear guidelines and immediate consequences to stepping over the line. We had stumbled upon a very effective technique and it worked like a charm. Each child tested the limit once, was quickly taken out, and after a very short time we had restaurant-capable children. 

     Similarly, we as students of yoga are interested in learning the guidelines (discipline) and welcome the consequences (health and self-awareness) that come with the practices of yoga. Interesting, the author of the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali, actually presents an approach to the study of yoga which is similar and of course older to what my husband and I took. In the second chapter of his book he presents the ethical precepts termed “yamas” which give us the beginning guidelines for living a whole life, a life which has both personal fulfillment as well as potential benefits for society. These teachings are specific and not at all vague. And, as will be discussed below, he makes clear the consequences of not following these teachings. 

     Significantly Patanjali gives the reader this set of ethical guidelines as he begins to list the steps of the practice of yoga, not at the end.  While Westerners are often more familiar with another step in the “ladder” of yoga practice, the postures, or asana, the yamas are  the first. It is surprising to some that the classical teaching of yoga actually begins with precepts about how to live in the world. (The next step in the practice of yoga is the “niyamas”, even more personal practices. The succeeding limbs become increasingly more personal.(1) But the practices of yoga are meant to be about the whole fabric of our lives, not just about physical health or a withdrawn spiritual life. 

     By way of background, the doctor and grammarian Patanjali is credited with authoring the Yoga Sutras, believed to have been written some two centuries before the life of Jesus Christ. Arranged infour chapters or “padas”, the Yoga Sutras elucidate the basic teachings of yoga in short verses termed “sutras”. In the second chapter Patanjali presents what is termed the “astanga” or eight- limbed yoga system for which he is so famous. As mentioned above, the first of these limbs is the “yamas” or restraints. The yamas are the basic five principles suggested to one who is interested in following yoga as a path to self-awareness and enlightenment. 

      While the yamas are considered the foundation for those following the path of yoga, they are general enough to be attempted by anyone, yoga practitioner or not. Just as my husband and I gave the rules and the consequences to our young children, Patanjali gives the yamas as basic rules of living. The consequences of not incorporating the yamas into one’s life is simply that one will continue to suffer. 

     In the second chapter of the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali states significantly in verse 16 that “the sorrow which is yet to come is to be discarded.” (2) This future sorrow is avoided because of the choices one makes now, thus creating a future in which suffering is lessened. It is critical to remember that the teachings of the Yoga Sutras are not presented in an attempt to control behavior based on moral imperatives.  The Sutras do not state or imply that one is “bad” or “good” based upon one’s behavior. Rather, Patanjali teaches that if one chooses certain behavior one gets certain results.  In other words, if you chose action “A” you will get result “A”; if you choose action “B” you will get result “B”. If you steal for example, not only will harm others, but you will suffer as well. The yamas are teachings about how to lessen the suffering that is to come.  Since all actions have consequences, Patanjali urges the yoga practitioner to choose the consequences which follow from practicing the ethical precepts or yamas. 

The Greatest Teaching 

     The first yama is perhaps the most famous one: “ahimsa”.  This word is usually translated as meaning “non-violence”. One Sanskrit teacher I studied with translated it slightly differently;  he defined “himsa” as “lion” and “a” as the negating prefix. Thus “ahimsa” became “not being like the lion”.(3) This colorful and endearing translation is helpful to those of us seeking to live a life of clarity and insight. 

     There have been many words written about what ahimsa means.  Besides physical violence, there can be the violence of words or thoughts. What we think about ourselves or others can be as powerful as any physical attempt to harm. To practice ahimsa is to be constantly  vigilant, to observe ourselves in interaction with others, our thoughts about those interactions and the intention behind our words. Try practicing ahimsa by observing your thoughts when a smoker sits next to you. Your thoughts may be just as damaging to you as his cigarette is to him. 

     It is often said that if one can perfect the practice of ahimsa, one need learn no other practice of yoga, for all the other practices are subsumed in it. It is also understood that whatever practices will be recommended after the yamas must include ahimsa as well. Practicing breathing practices or postures, or example, without ahimsa negates the benefits these practices offer. 

     There is a famous and powerful story about ahimsa told in the Vedas, the vast collection of ancient philosophical teachings from India.  The story is about a sadhu, a wandering monk who would make a yearly circuit to a number of villages in order to teach. One day as he entered a village, he saw a large and menacing snake. The snake was terrorizing the villagers and making their life difficult. The sadhu spoke to the snake and taught him about ahimsa; it was a lesson that the snake heard and took to heart.  The following year when the sadhu made his annual visit to the village, he again saw the snake. How changed he was. Now this once magnificent snake was skinny and bruised. The sadhu asked the snake what had happened to cause such a change in his appearance. The snake replied that he had taken the teaching of ahimsa to heart and had realized the error of his ways. Thus he had stopped terrorizing the village. Because he was no longer menacing, the children now threw rocks at him and taunted him. He could hardly hunt and was afraid of leaving his hiding place. The sadhu shook his head wisely and said that while he had indeed taught the importance and power of practicing ahimsa, he had never told the snake not to hiss. 

     The powerful message of this story can help to clear up the confusion that sometimes occurs when we try to practice ahimsa. Making a choice to protect ourselves and others does not violate ahimsa. To allow violence to occur does not express ahimsa. Staying “neutral” is in reality a form of action. Actually practicing ahimsa means we take responsibility for our own harmful behavior as well as for attempting to stop the harmful behavior we experience around us. Sometimes it takes a great deal of love and compassion, two key elements of ahimsa, to step in and say “no” to what we see happening. Being neutral is not necessarily practicing ahimsa. Instead, practicing true ahimsa springs from the clear intention to act with clarity and love. 

Telling the Truth 

     Few things feel more like betrayal that being lied to. Patanjali lists “satya”, or truth as the next yama.  Like ahimsa, this yama has many layers. The first and most obvious is to tell the truth as best we can. This may not be as easy as it sounds.  Researchers have found that eyewitnesses to an event are notoriously unreliable. Amazingly, the more adamant the witnesses are, the more inaccurate they tend to be. Even this simple example shows that truth can be relative; we cannot really prove what happened five minutes ago. To speak the truth then, is to speak from a point of view. Even trained scientists whose job it is  to be completely objective and who study the most straightforward of events in nature disagree on what they see and the interpretation of their results. 

     So what does telling the truth, i.e., practicing the first level of satya, mean? To me it means that when given a choice, I speak with the intention of being truthful. Given what I call the “truth” is filtered through my own experience and beliefs about the world. But when I speak with the intention of speaking from truth, I have a better chance of not harming others. I remember one strong teaching I heard on this point. The teacher stated that nothing could be true if it was harmful to others. In other words, unless we speak first from ahimsa we are not practicing satya. (4

     Another layer of satya has to do with inner truth. This is the difference between honesty and integrity. Honesty, or telling the truth as best we can is a more external practice. But integrity is an internal form of honesty. Honesty is what we do when others are around and might judge our actions or words. To have integrity is to act in an honest manner when others are not around and will never know about our actions. Integrity is a deeper form of satya. 

     A final way to think about the practice of satya is to look more closely at the actual meaning of the word in Sanskrit. “Sat” means the eternal unchanging truth beyond all knowing. “Ya” is the activating suffix which means “do it”. By this definition, satya would then mean “actively expressing and being in harmony with the ultimate truth”. When one is in this state one cannot lie or act in anyway untruthful because at that moment one is unified with pure truth itself. While we may only occasionally feel connected to this level of “truth”, it nonetheless is an important level of truth to understand. 

The Suffering Called Theft 

     The third yama is “asteya” and is translated as non-stealing. While commonly understood as not taking what is not yours, it can also mean not taking more than you need.  The latter is the more interesting definition. 

     When we take more of the world’s resources we are in a way stealing them from someone else.  When we take more that we need we can contribute to the suffering of others, thus we are ignoring ahimsa, the greatest of all teachings of yoga. We fail to practice asteya when we take credit that is not ours or take more food than we can eat. 

     But Patanjali does not just teach us about the effects of stealing on the world around us, he also teaches us about the effect stealing has on us, even if we do not get caught. While most of us would never knowingly steal from others, we actually steal from ourselves. Perhaps we steal when we rob ourselves of our own potential by neglecting a talent, or by letting a lack of commitment keep us from practicing yoga. Could it be that we steal the present from ourselves whenever we make the choice to become angry or fearful? 

      In order to steal, one has to be mired in “avidya”, or ignorance about the nature of reality, a term introduced by Patanjali in his Chapter Two. Being stuck in the state of avidya is the opposite of the state of yoga in which one is in a state of connection with all that is.  In order to steal, one has to devalue and dehumanize the person who will suffer from the theft. If you live a life in which you are able to devalue and dehumanize others so that you can steal from them, you will suffer.  This suffering occurs because one is stuck in avidya.  The entire discipline of yoga is about freeing oneself from the fog of avidya.  By practicing asteya, one begins to eliminate the suffering of others by not stealing from them. In the long run, the choice not to steal is also for oneself. 

Sexual Energy: a choice 

     The next yama is “brahmacharya” and is one of the most difficult for most Westerners to understand. The classical translation is that this yama means celibacy. The actual definition of the word, however, is based on the translation of the syllables of the word. “Brahma” comes from the name of the deity Brahma; “char” means to walk and “ya” means actively. Thus brahmacharya means “walking with God”. 

     There are always people for whom sexual love holds no great attraction; some celibates are naturally so.  Others sacrifice this part of life to live as a monk or nun and thus to consecrate their sexuality to God. Brahmacharya does not just mean to give up sex. It also means to transmute the energy of sex into something else, principally, devotion to God. 

     As might well be imagined, brahmacharya has been the source of many discussions throughout the ages in all religions.  But what about householder yogis? Are they to give up sexual relations? Does this mean that if one lives in a family situation we cannot be students of yoga? And what is the beneficial effect of abstaining from sex if one is not a monk or nun? While some yoga practitioners are drawn to the practice of celibacy, not all are. And some come to the practice of yoga after they are already married. Simply to impose celibacy upon one’s partner whether he/she chooses it is not in the spirit of brahmacharya. Indeed it is not in the spirit of ahimsa, and may in fact be the symptom of some other difficulty in the relationship. Once one is in a committed sexual relationship, to
suddenly choose celibacy by necessity must be a mutual and joyful decision if it is to have the transformative power one seeks. 

     But there are other interpretations of brahmacharya which seem quite appropriate for the average person who has taken up the study of yoga. One interpretation is that to practice brahmacharya in this era is simply to remain faithful within a monogamous relationship. Another suggestion is simple:
when you are having sex, have sex, when you’re not, don’t.(5) This particular interpretation underscores the importance of remaining in the present and focusing on what is happening right now without obsession. 

     There is yet another interesting insight into the meaning of brahmacharya. It is the approach of using one’s sexual energy, like all life energies, in a way that is in harmony with the practice of ahimsa. This means that we respect ourselves and our partner when we are in a sexual relationship, we do not use others or have sex mindlessly. To do either of these things is to forget brahmacharya and to sidestep the practice of ahimsa as well. When one is practicing in the spirit of brahmacharya one uses sexual energy to remember the divinity of self and other.  To chose this path is to allow sexuality to be part of the wider practice of yoga and to acknowledge the life-enhancing power this deep connection with another human being has. It is an important choice. 

Wanting More 

    The final yama in Patanjali’s list is “aparigraha”, or non-greed. This is a very difficult one to practice because we are surrounded by stimulants to our greed all the time. In some ways our society’s economic system is based on greed. We are constantly being bombarded with advertisements which attempt to whip up our desire for more. In fact, greed or “parigraha” is the desire for more. 

     When my husband was in law school we lived a simple life; we wore jeans, drove an old Volvo and rarely had money for such luxuries as dentists, new clothes or vacations. When he graduated and started working, things definitely changed. One day he invited me downtown for lunch and I left my protected world to meet him in a richly-appointed hotel lobby. As I waited for him to arrive, I couldn’t help noticing the beautiful people who passed by me in their expensive clothes while glancing at their expensive watches. I was filled with a strange and powerful longing. When my husband arrived and I explained my feeling, his response was simple. “That is greed”.  It was a surprising revelation to be so clearly hit with this awareness of pure greed. 

     However, greed is not just confined to material goods. In the yoga world, we can be very greedy as well.  What we are greedy after is more subtle; we may hunger after enlightenment, difficult asanas, spiritual powers or perfect bliss. Just because one practices yoga is no guarantee that one will escape the subtleties of greed. While yogis may not covet material goods, we covet more esoteric gains. In his book Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, Chogyam Trunpa writes clearly about the pitfalls of being greedy for spiritual things. (6) This type of materialism has its roots deeply entrenched in the soil of greed. 

     One way to sidestep the trap of parigraha or greed is to follow the advice of many sages. A wonderful admonition is to be happy with what you have, whether it be a lot or a little. This spirit of true renunciation will diminish the power of greed. 

Conclusion 

     In verse 30 of Chapter Two of the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali has a final word about the yamas. (7) He terms them “the great vow”. They are to be practiced at all times and at all places. This is a difficult assignment, however, it is worth the effort.  If we all follow the yamas as best we can the power released in our lives and the lives of others will be stunning. One way to do this is to choose one yama to focus on for a period of time, perhaps three months. At the end of that time, reflect upon how practicing that yama has effected your life. Do not worry if you forget to practice your yama, or even if you are unable to follow through in each situation. The very fact that you have become aware of and are attempting to practice each yama will be the victory. 
 

Footnotes 

1). The rest of the limbs are asana (posture), pranayama (breathing exercises), pratyahara (conscious withdrawl of the energy away from the senses), dharana (concentration), dhayana (meditation), and samadhi (self-actualization). back

2). Yoga Philosophy of Patanjali by Swami Hariharananda Aranya, Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1983, Chapter Two, verse 16, p. 149. back

3).  Personal communication with Dr. David Teplitz, San Francisco, California, September, 1976. back

4). Personal communication with Dr. Usharbudh Arya, Minneapolis, Minnesota, April, 1981. back

5). Personal communication with Dr. Usharbudh Arya, San Francisco, California, September, 1985. back

6). Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism by Chogyam Trungpa, Boston, Massachuetts, Shambala Publications, Inc., 1987. back

7). Aranya, op.cit., Chapter Two, verse 31, p. 212. back

 

 

 

 

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