Now that we have a basic understanding of the gunas and how the bahiranga serve as tools to elevate clarity for the purpose of the mental practices let’s go back to setting our dinner table and the first two legs of Ashtanga Yoga: Yama and Niyama.
In hindu iconography Yama is the god of death and in control of lifespan. Therefore, in the context of yoga, yama means to control and here refers to the restraint we practice in our engagement with our external environment (and other beings). The purpose being to maintain a healthy relationship with the world around us. Niyama adds the prefix “ni” coming from the root word “nitaram” meaning “ALL the time.” This is a more intimate level of restraint and one we are encouraged to observe all the time, not just in the company of other beings. Therefore niyama is the restraint we practice with our own thoughts, words and actions related to ourselves, our constant companion.
According to Patanjali both the yamas and niyamas are of 5 categories.
As it is the first limb, AND as we are learning yoga abhyasa is often helpful when we work from the outside towards the interior, let’s begin our journey with the yamas described by Patanjali in the later half of the Sadhana Pada.
- ahimsa: non-harming
- satya: truth telling
- asteya: non-stealing
- brahmacarya: proper conduct
- aparigraha: non-posessiveness, non-hoarding
These are the yamas according to Patanjali. The Yoga Yajnavalkya categorizes the yamas as 10. In addition to the first 4 above 6 more are added:
- daya: kindness (an important aspect in the yoga sutras for the meditative mind)
- arjava: sincerity (we might consider this the practice of what we profess or non-hypocrisy)
- ksama : forgiveness
- dhriti: fortitude (again we see the encouragement for steadiness or “staying power”)
- mitahara: moderation in diet. ahara means to take what we want from the outside world. Mita means moderation. So mitahara is moderation in consumption. (we can also see the roots here for pratyahara- prati + ahara indicating a complete supension for a period of time from the outside world)
- saucha: purity, cleanliness (seen in Patanjali’s view as a niyama)
These list are not conflicting of eachother, Instead Yajnavalkya’s list is an elaboration of the list provided by Patanjali with a bit of crossover into the niyamas listed by the sage. So for sake of clarity let’s stick to the Patanjali’s more concise list while acknowledging the value of Yajnavalkya’s additions.
The foundation of the yamas is AHIMSA.
Himsa means to harm. Adding the prefix “a” flips the meaning. So the tenent of ahimsa is to not harm any being through our actions, yes, but also our thoughts and words. Sometimes ahimsa is not “convenient” to the way the world encourages us to live. However, to avoid accumulating more mental agitation and confusion which clouds our mind’s capacity to go within, it is imperative. As Ramaswami reminds us this tenent isn’t necessarily for everyone but it is for the yogabhyasi.
The initial practice of Ahimsa (and the yamas in general) may be referred to as “just, pause” over “just cause.” In our day-to-day interactions we can find 1000+ reasons (just cause) to react, engage, get angry, or lash out. And here is the rub: often times we are not wrong. There is a lot of injustice in the world; dukha is prevalent and plants a lot of seeds. However, we have to remember that our world is just that- a projection of our own citta vrttis (pleasing, painful and neutral) i.e. the way we have categorized and projected all of the information we absorb. So…
whenever the mind has doubts (vitarka) about following the implemented (badhane) ethical standards, or is distracted by old habits think (bhavanam) of the other side (pratipaksa).
…before we react with “just cause” it is a good idea to “just, pause” and consider the alternative (pratipaksha bhavanam). It is the pause that allows us time to consider and evaluate whether our reactivity is coming from a limited perspective and misinformation (viparyaya) or if we are engaging with the intellect in a neutral and discerning playing field towards proper perception. Pro-tip: often times it is the former.
As Patanjali warns us in the Samadhi Pada vs 5:
The chitta vrttis (vrttayah) are of 5 types (pancatayyah). These 5 types can be harmful (klishta) or helpful (aklishtah).
Therefore even the most agreeable mental activity of pramana “correct perception” can be harmful if we are acting from a tamasically shrouded agenda (as Ramaswami puts it “righteous indignation”). It may be be “tasty” to react from that seat of righteousness but it may also result in later rumenation, memories, questions, discomfort, and regret (i.e. more influence from rajas and tamas in our practice).
So pause, consider, do your practice and study the words of these great teachers again and again. This is a slow krama at first but, like everything, the practice reinforces future (more helpful) behavior.
Tomorrow we will continue with our journey into the yamas. For now let us consider this: As yogabhyasis it is helpful to check our aim….even in yoga practice. Yoga is in so many spaces these days in bite sized, agenda laden pieces. One example is the use of yoga practices in silicon valley. Large tech corporations are making meditation rooms, including breathing and concentration techniques in the workspace for better focus. It could be argued that one aim is to keep employees at work longer, to increase productivity, and in essence accumulate more wealth. But is the focus to provide a deeper understanding of one’s own nature, to support employees in quality living? Given the turnover rate at many of these coorporations due to burnout it is unlikely. Where is the ahimsa? Even patanjali warns about getting enamored and stuck in the preliminary results or “special abilities” that our practice opens us up to (like increased productivity). Remember the aim “tadah drastuh svarupe avasthanam”
“And then the yogi resides in their true nature.”
Back to ahimsa: Patanjali touts the result of a strong “ahimsa muscle” as
“when one is established in (pratishtayam) non-harming (ahimsa) all violence and violent tendencies (vaira) will release from (tyaghah) the environment (sannidhau)” of the yogabhyasi.”
Kindness breeds kindness…pass it on.
A practice that may help:
At the end of the day take 5 minutes to evaluate your actions, thoughts, words from the tenet of Ahimsa. Ask: Where have I harmed myself or another intentionally or not? What proceeded that action? How might I change the behavior in the future? Can I resolve the harm done so it doesn’t breed more harm?
Metta prayer is a helpful companion to this pratipaksa bhavanam:
May I be happy, safe and at peace. May all beings awaken to the light of their true nature. May all beings be free. May my thoughts, words and deeds contribute to this for all (include yourself here)