The Eight Limbs of Patanjali begin with the Yamas, or the ethical guidelines for yogis. The Yamas are principals by which we should live our lives not only when we are doing a hot yoga class or handstand, but also when we interact with people and with ourselves. This ethical scaffolding will look similar to people who have a religious background that includes the ten commandments as some of the the Yamas could be interchanged with the commandments. The Yamas are:
Ahimsa: non-violence, non-harming
Satya: truthfulness, honesty
While you can find the application of the Yamas in each yoga practice on your mat, they become incredibly potent when you see them in action in every day life. Here are a few examples from my householder day:
1.) Ahimsa: We have a bowl of nuts on the counter and a bowl of jelly beans (balance after all). They are there for snacks and treats for my elves and my guy and I guess in theory for me. I love both: nuts are some of my favorite things to eat and they are great protein sources for a 99% of the time vegetarian. Jelly beans? I mean come on, yum. I find myself feeling draggy in the afternoon and that tiny bit of sweet can really give me boost. But here’s the thing: both nuts and sugar make me feel really sick. In the moment of eating them I feel glorious but about an hour later and then for sure 24 hours later I feel horrible. They are not good in my body for some reason. So if I am truly and honestly practicing ahimsa I will not eat them. Ever. When I do eat them I am in a way acting with himsa, or harm.
2.) Satya: I sat down to do my taxes recently and realized I made zero money on a yoga retreat I lead last year. Not one cent. Was my inner spiritual well filled to the brim afterwards? You bet, it was an incredible weekend with wonderful people. But yoga teaching is my career and to do things that are big components of it (retreats are no small project) and to make zero money is not sustainable to me. I want to teach broadly, to offer things for my students and community but I have to make sure that I am also getting something in return. This truth, the financial aspect of teaching yoga, can be very daunting for yoga teachers. We are in this business because we love the practice and helping others. That is a big part of our truth, our satya. But it is also true that we need to buy food and pay bills like everyone else. To deny that latter truth is to be foolish and to be untruthful. To deny it would be not practicing our Satya. I decided to honor my truth and not do a retreat this year.
3.) Asetya: I have a horrible habit of being distracted by everything. I’m like the dog in Up who constantly sees squirrels. Sit me in a cafe by the door and I spend the entire time watching who comes and goes. To be with someone and not focus on them is really stealing from their time. To be with someone and wish you were somewhere else doing something else is stealing from yourself. When we practice Asetya we must truly look at where we are giving and where we are taking. And we must remember to not deny ourselves in this equation either. To turn down something we want to do to give to someone else can be a form of stealing from ourselves. Of course it can also be a kind generous offer to someone we care about, but if we spend all our time thinking about our other options we have clearly chosen to steal not only from us, but from them.
4.) Brahmacharya: I’m sure that I am not alone in thinking that there are times I should not have spent as much money, had as much wine, eaten as many tortilla chips, yelled as loudly as I did or drove as fast down the road. These are all examples of excess which can occur as easily as taking a step. When I stop and really think for a moment “do I need this? do I want this? do I want to say this in this way?” I often find that I will refrain from making the choice of excess. Traditionally Brahmacharya was presented as restraint in sexual activities, but for modern day householders we have many alluring distractions for which we might indulge.
5.) Aparigraha: The dawn of social media has made us look into the yards and lives of our friends and neighbors with so much awareness. We see now what they have, what they do and who they are with an openness not considered during the time of Patanjali. It is very easy to dive into the eddy of envy and comparison when so many things are flashed in our faces. For me, Facebook becomes a tricky endeavor when it invites in feelings of lack and feelings of desire. I am home on a cold snow day with my elves who have no school (lack of adventure) and my Facebook feed is lit up with stories and images from travels of friends in India (feelings of desire). I wake up with some real reservations about how I am caring for my body and how I perceive it to look (lack of self worth) and I see Instagram photos of another yogi in a bathing suit on the beach in handstand (feelings of envy). When we are not practicing Aparigraha we are not able to stop and realize that these images and desires are actually illusions. They are ways we trick ourselves into thinking that we do not have, we are not, we cannot, we lack. If instead we turn our attention to what we are, have, are doing, contain we feel a fullness that comes with practicing this Yama.
Sticking to the the Yamas is like coloring in the lines: the picture looks beautiful and organized. There is a clarity to what we are doing that resonates beyond ourselves and into many areas of our lives. Returning to our awareness of these principals can raise our attention to our relationships and ultimately to ourselves.
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