After introducing the topic of the eight limbs of yoga last month, this post will begin the process of looking at each limb in more detail.
The first limb (or stage) is ‘yama‘: social or ethical habits to consider and adopt. The five yama are:
- ahimsa – non harming, non violence (in word, deed, thought)
- satya – truth, honesty, sincerity
- asteya – non-stealing, non-misappropriating
- brahmacharya – continence, chastity, sexual restraint
- aparigraha – non-possessiveness, non-acceptance of gifts, non-covertness, non-greed.
These yama taught the yoga student important lessons in self-discipline, necessary for the later stages of ashtanga yoga. As I noted in a blog post from a couple of years ago about a modern set of ‘rules for living’, Patanjali believed that the yama and niyama cleansed the mind and body and were necessary early steps before the ultimate goal of self realisation: “When the body is cleansed, the mind purified and the senses controlled, joyful awareness needed to realise the inner self also comes.” (chapter 2, sutra 41). And Iyenga’s commentary on Patajali’s Yoga Sutra says that “Success or failure at higher levels of consciousness depend on yama and niyama.” (Iyengar, 2002, Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, p. 147).
When Patajali recorded the Yoga Sutra, yoga was generally practised by men in ashrams or monasteries, removed from normal daily life. This might have made applying some codes of conduct slightly easier or more appropriate than for us today.
If someone in the West attends a yoga class to help with stress or to increase flexibility, would there be any advantages to them trying to apply the yama to their daily life? Are they still relevant for today’s yogi or yogini, and if so, how vital are they to our yoga practice? Or do yoga students think ‘why bother?’ when faced with them?
If we answer that question with ‘why wouldn’t we apply them?’ we can see that the instinctive answer might be ‘because they seem quite hard to apply!’.
But generally speaking, being truthful, not seeking lots of possessions, not causing harm etc, are useful guides for a happy life anyway, whether we go to yoga classes or not. And even for a yogi hermit thousands of years ago they may have struggled now and again with some of the yamas. So I don’t think that means we should dismiss them as impossible or impractical, or assume they have to be adhered to either fully or not all. I don’t think it’s a case of giving away all our possessions and refusing all gifts or following the Jain religion, whose central tenet is non-harming of any living creature. Rather, we could strive to abide by them in general, appreciate how they might benefit our own life and the lives of others around us, and seek the connections with the yoga that we practice today.
If, after careful consideration, a yoga student decides not to apply some or all of them to their life, they can do so from a position of reasoned understanding, but hopefully not just rejecting them because it might make life a bit harder! After all, headstand is hard but we don’t give up after the first attempt, we try and try again. ‘Practice and all is coming’ as Pattabhi Jois would say.
So as with asana, we can approach and practise them in small steps. We can take each one and see if there is an easier first stage. For example with aparigraha (non-possessions/non-greed), we can start off by being content with all the things we do have; we can ask ourselves before we buy something ‘do I really need this?’. It is not about denying ourselves, but perhaps understanding what additional roles the thing plays in our lives. With ahimsa (non-violence) for example, a yoga student may baulk at the idea of becoming vegan overnight, to avoiding harming living creatures, and could perhaps commit to one meal a day without animal products, then perhaps one day a week.
But I can’t tell you what you should or shouldn’t be doing, and I cannot claim 100% perfection in all of them anyway. And it shouldn’t become a case of ‘holier than thou’ – it’s not a competition (‘whose the best at satya?’)! The yama are a way of helping us along the yoga path, a path that everyone takes differently. For Iyengar, “Mastery of yoga would be unrealizable without the observance of the ethical principles of yama and niyama.” (Iyengar, 2002, p. 144). For others, mastery of yoga may mean something quite different. Yoga is a individual practice, and the yama are perhaps the essence of that personal path.