Part II Of The Debt I Owe to Yoga
This is the second part of a series entitled The Debt I Owe to Yoga, subtitled Have you worked your limbs today? Part one was an introduction to yoga, some of its cultural impact, a brief history, and how it has affected me personally.
To explain the spiritual significance and the totality of what yoga really is one must, of necessity visit Patanjali. It was he who classified yoga at approximately 200-400 BCE, (some documents say 150 BCE) because by that time the practice, had gone into all different directions. He organized it into a format known as the Yoga Sutras. His “eight limbs” of yoga still inform the practice today and discuss posture, breathing, meditation and correct living. He is known as “the father of modern yoga.”
As he expounded these thoughts, his students jotted them down in a sort of shorthand using just a few words which came to be known as sutras. The literal meaning of the word “sutra” is “thread;” and these sutras are just combinations of words threaded together usually not even well formed sentences with subjects, predicates and so on. Within the space of those two hundred short sutras, the entire science of yoga is clearly delineated: its aim, the necessary practices, the obstacles you may meet along the path, their removal and precise descriptions of the results that will be obtained from such practices. 1
It is important to remember that these limbs are not philosophy but direct instructions on how to practice yoga. Yoga is a way of life, and making these values a part of one’s life will take patience, concentration and fortitude. It might even be said that after experiencing the other seven limbs, that the asanas (postures) are a breeze.
So, just what are these limbs of yoga? To simply list them would satisfy surface curiosity, but it is certainly worth our while to delve into the meat of the subject.
The first two limbs are divided into five rungs each. They are the Yamas and Niyamas. Yama is a Sanskrit word that means restraint. I have heard them referred to as the “Ten Commandments of Hinduism.”
The first limb, yama, deals with one’s ethical standards and sense of integrity, focusing on our behavior and how we conduct ourselves in life. Yamas are universal practices that relate best to what westerners call the Golden Rule, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Some also equate them with The Ten Commandments.
They give us basic guidelines for living in society and for insuring an orderly, peaceful world as well as individual peace, provided all members adhere to these precepts.
The five yamas are:
Nonviolence – (Ahimsa) Not causing pain. It is more than not killing. Killing can actually be less harsh than pain. However our words, and attitudes towards people can cause lifelong pain. Even our thoughts can harm others because our thoughts become actions, to one degree or another, and our actions cause harm.
Guarding against anger which can cause harsh words and hurtful deeds is a good place to start with non -violence. Also, under the practice of do no harm, I include the fortunately shrinking habit of killing for sport. In the western world today there is absolutely no need to kill animals just to enjoy watching them die. It is a cruel, senseless, and I dare say demonic act of violence indicating a moral void.
Truthfulness – (Satya) – Not lying. We all know that lying is normally considered “bad”. Sometimes though we feel that lying, although bad, is OK if it is done for a “good” reason. We can all think of times when we may have lied to spare someone’s feelings or to avoid an encounter that would have ended up causing more discord than peace. However, according to Sri Swami Satchidananda a vow of absolute honesty means no lies of this sort either. He says, First follow truth and truth follows you. He likens the practice to the first smoke of a cigarette. It is hard at first but soon it just becomes natural. 3
Nonstealing – (Asteya) – Simple, right? Taking something that is not ours. Removing money from someone’s wallet, shoplifting 2* or taking a neighbor’s lawn decor are all blatant intentional acts. Yet, Deborah Adele explains the various ways in which we can steal without really thinking of ourselves as transgressing. She explains that we can take something from others by discounting or not paying attention to them. During a conversation for example we may find ourselves trying to “trump” or “one up” their stories and successes by presenting a more fabulous tale. Such actions take from them and make it about us.4
She also applies this concept to the earth itself, when we claim land and property as ours. To own something then is a form of stealing. We are visitors to this land, this planet and we have to accept that nothing on this physical plane does or can belong to us. To own something then becomes a form of stealing. 5 It reminds me of a statement I read many years ago “Property is Theft”*6
Continence (Brahmacharya) – Celibacy is sometimes considered to be the practice of brahmacharya. However, celibacy is the effect. The practice, or cause, is of constant remembering of the highest reality, absolute truth, the divine, or the presence of God. This remembrance is the cause, and the celibacy is the effect.7 With one’s mind constantly on God and Godly concepts, it is relatively easy to reign in one’s thoughts of licentiousness. Not that this is saying to never have sexual relations, quite the contrary, but sex should be put in proper perspective and not allowed to run one’s life. For that matter neither should thoughts of anything else that detracts from spiritual development and merging or yoking with God.
Noncovetousness (Aparigraha) – Excess. Always wanting more, more, more. Throughout the US we see signs of greed and needless accumulations. There are storage centers for items we have purchased and though we may no longer have use for them, we cannot seem to part with them either. Some of us buy items we really don’t want or need because they are on sale. Coveting really can get to be an expensive condition both financially as well as otherwise. Boats, and large recreational vehicles are a prime example of a monthly payment for the item itself, and in some cases pay for storage and insurance all for items we may only use one or two times a year. Evaluating actual need and projected use prior to purchase would be a possible cure to such material gluttony. Renouncing is a natural antidote to covetousness.
The next rung is the Niyamas which deal with our inner world. These are observances or self-training practices. Regularly attending temple or church services, saying grace before meals, developing your own personal meditation practices, or making a habit of taking contemplative walks alone are all examples of niyamas in practice.
Cleanliness (Saucha) cleanliness – Here we are invited to cleanse our bodies, thoughts and language/words. Notice how all of these factors interrelate? For instance clean thoughts revert back to do no harm, truthfulness and of course a person who is pure in thought, mind and body would not be likely to steal. OK, it all is circular and rythmatic. Clean
Pure yogis have a variety of ways to clean their bodies such as netti pots, and running string from the nose and out through the mouth or running 32 yards of cotton strip thru the digestive tract8
Contentment (Samtosa) – We humans seem to always be seeking satisfaction in the external world and our internal fantasies. Only when we comfortably accept what we currently have will be able to do the practices that lead to the highest realization. From an attitude of contentment (santosha), un excelled happiness, mental comfort, joy, and satisfaction is obtained.9Tapas: (heat; spiritual austerities) Most simply, tapas is heat, specifically the kind of heat generated by certain yogic practices, or a certain approach to yogic practice. In the early scriptures, which still shape most yoga practiced today, tapas refers to the burning off of impurities. We would refer to it as austerities or discipline. One example of such discipline would be fasting. The painful self-denial of food is an example of how one can use the body to help train the mind. Other examples in addition to fasting are the holding of difficult and often painful bodily postures, vigils kept in the presence of fires or extreme cold, and breath control, or the curtailment or denial of any comfort which in excess becomes actually a bad habit. Gradually, denials can become complete renunciation. This kind of challenge to our habit patterns causes a certain degree of frustration in us, which generates psychic energy that can be used to power the process of self-transformation.
Isvara pranidhana: study of the sacred scriptures and of one’s self – The term literally means ‘one’s own reading’ or ‘self-study’, and has the potential to deepen our Yoga practice way beyond the mat. Reading spiritual literature is so mind expanding. There are many from which to choose. The Gita, Vedas, Upanishads, and many other publications such as those from The Kauais Hindu Monistary in Hawaii. The books they publish cover a vast array of subjects from How to Become a Hindu to studies of the cosmos. They also publish a wonderful magazine called Hinduism Today which keeps up with social and cultural changes as well as vedic education. Of course there are a plethora of U tube talks and presentations on spiritual matters. Literature that mirrors ourselves and helps us reflect and improve is worthy of consideration.
I can also add to this the benefits of seeking like-minded company. A common goal has the benefit of enhancing one’s journey and also strengthening the friendship bond. A definite win-win.
Isvara pranidhana: surrender to God – enough said. However I would add that if one can earnestly and sincerely keep all of the yamas and Niyammas that the surrender is already there. By total surrender to God one gains samadhi or one with the universe.
This is enough for the uninitiated to digest. The yamas and niyamas are only the first of the eight limbs of yoga broken down into their compartments of 5 each. Yoga is a pretty tough practice. It is not about the small you but about the spiritual You and your preparing yourself spiritually and through the physical to attain Moksha.
In a near future issue I will examine other of the limbs to include the one with which many are most familiar, postures, or more correctly, asanas.
Notes and References
1. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: Commentary by Sri Swami Satchidananda
- Page 1
- Copyright 2012 by Satchitanannnda Ashram-Yogaville Inc.
- Print Length: 263 pages
- Publisher: Integral Yoga Publications (October 24, 2012)
- Publication Date: October 24, 2012
- ISBN-13:978-1-938477-07-2 2*Shoplifting Taking an item or items from a store or business and having no intention to pay
3 ibid pg 124
4 The Yamas and Niyamas By Deborah Adele Page 61 Copyright 2009 Print Length: 192 pages Publisher: On-Word Bound Books Publication Date: September 1, 2014 ISBN-13:978-0-9744706-4-1(pbk) ISBN-10:0-9744706-4-3 (pbk) 5 ibid pg 63
6 * Property is theft! (French: La propriété, c’est le vol !) is a slogan coined by French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in his 1840 book What is Property?
8 The Yamas and Niyamas By Deborah Adele Page 106