This summer I’ve been running monthly workshops to delve a little deeper into the subject of yoga. The theme of the workshop series has been the ‘yamas’ – the code of good personal ethics set out by Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras text, which form the first limb of the eight limbs of yoga. Along with the next limb, the ‘niyamas’ (a set of personal observances that we should also follow), I would argue that these two limbs are possibly the most important of the bunch – before we can expect to attain any of the headier heights of stilling the fluctuations of the mind, union with the divine and cosmic bliss, we need to learn the fundamentals of, well, being a good person really.
Of course, it’s not that linear and straightforward, as the more you bring any of the other limbs into your life (such asana or pranayama or meditation practices) then the more the yamas and niyamas will creep into your life anyway, without you even inviting them in. This is seen in more ‘conscious’ decision making, for example being more choosy about eating healthy food, making more ethical choices relating to your purchase of material goods, choosing to spend your time in beneficial ways, being more thoughtful in your interactions with other people etc. But, nevertheless, the yamas are definitely a really good area to focus on, at any stage of your yoga journey.
The five yamas given by Patanjali are as follows:
- Ahimsa – non-harming
- Satya – truthfulness
- Asteya – non-stealing
- Bramacharya – once interpreted as celibacy, now generally re-interpreted along the lines of ‘restraint’, and making wise choices about your use of sexual energy
- Aparigraha – non-grasping
Each one is a huge topic worthy of much contemplation in its own right, and the more you contemplate them, the more you realise they are all are beautifully interwoven and interrelated. So my best advice is to take a yama and give it some thought, chew it over and turn it around in your mind to see what it means to you and how you can nurture it in your own life. To get you started, I’ve given some pointers and food for thought on each one below, which will hopefully begin to show that there is more than meets the eye with each yama; each one contains many layers of increasing subtlety, and the more you focus on this, the more precious the jewels each one will yield. For a start, try thinking about how you apply each one in thought, action and deed. So this means being mindful of not just the things you do, but also what you say and, even more tricky, the thoughts you have…
Ahimsa – non-harming
- OK, so it’s easy to understand that we shouldn’t harm others, but also you need to make sure you don’t harm yourself. So, try monitoring your thoughts when you first wake up. How long is it until you have an unkind thought about yourself? Notice your negative dialogue and try and reverse the unkind thoughts for kind, helpful ones. Talk to yourself in the same way you’d talk to a close friend, not as an enemy!
- Are you kind to your body by giving it nutritious food, enough sleep and rest and exercise?
- Do you gossip about others behind their backs? Try not getting involved, when those around you start to gossip and notice how you feel.
- How much do you judge others harshly, even if you don’t speak the words? Again, notice these thoughts and try and reverse them to thinking positive thoughts about others, and watch how your interactions become easier and more pleasant.
- Are you kind to your body in your yoga practice or do you push too hard?
Satya – truthfulness
- Do you feel you live your truth or do you feel you’re not showing the ‘real you’ to the world? Do you even know what your personal truths and core values are? Maybe spend some time really thinking about this, and see how you can make changes in your life to align yourself with your core values better.
- Do you exaggerate or are you falsely modest? Try saying the truth, with sensitivity, whenever you can, and see how less complicated life becomes!
- Examine some of your negative beliefs about yourself and others – are these true, really? Try stating the exact, positive opposite of those beliefs, and you’ll be surprised how they are often just as plausible. It’s all about our perspective on things…
- In your yoga practice are you honest with yourself about where you are, and what is good for your body and mind?
Asteya – non-stealing
- OK, so we all know we shouldn’t steal from others. But how about stealing time? Are you considerate when asking favours of friends and family or taking their time up to complain about your problems?
- Are you stealing time from yourself by avoiding facing up to issues you’re having in your life?
- Are you ‘stealing someone’s thunder’ by putting them down and always trying to be better than them?
- Are you a hoarder or someone who’s a bit stingy? If so, you could be ‘stealing’ from someone who could benefit from your un-needed possessions and cash. Try taking some old clothes to a charity shop, or buying the Big Issue, and see if you feel a lightening of your load.
- Do you share your talents and skills and experience with others? If not, you’re denying the world your own abundance, which is a subtle form of stealing.
- Do you feel a sense of lack in any area of your life? If you do, this will probably prompt you to do some form of stealing, to get what you think you lack. Try focusing instead on the areas of your life where you feel you have abundance, and sharing that abundance with others, and see how this abundance flows right back! For example you could spend time helping a friend, or share your excess tomato crop with a neighbour.
Bramacharya – ‘restraint’ or conserving your sexual energy wisely
- Have a think about your relation to your sexual energy as it usually tells you a lot about your relationship with yourself. Do you use it in a way that makes you and others feel good, or do you use it to manipulate or cause bad feeling, in yourself and/or others?
- Notice your thoughts, words and not just actions. For example, do you tell lots of ‘dirty’ jokes that could be offensive to others?
- The best explanation I’ve heard for how to contemplate bramacharya recently, is this: ‘Am I using my sexual energy in a way that celebrates the divine in me and the divine in others or not?’ If you’re not, have a good think about the reasons behind this – warning, this stuff tends to be pretty deep!
Aparigraha – non-grasping
- Similar to asteya (non-stealing), grasping or greedy behaviour comes from a sense of lack. We cling on to things that we think we need to feel good about ourselves, when in fact we have all we need already, inside us.
- Try de-cluttering your house and putting unwanted goods up for grabs on Freecycle or similar, or sending to a charity shop.
- Try also de-cluttering your mind by throwing out unwanted negative beliefs about lack and not having enough. It is often said that ‘you get what you give’, i.e. the more you give out (e.g. time, money, teaching, love, friendship, gifts of all types) the more these things flow right back to you. I have also heard ‘whatever you lack, give out’, which is an interesting one to consider.
- In your practice are you always ‘grasping’ for the more difficult posture? Try changing your attitude and being happy with wherever you are, right now – it’s exactly where you should be.
So there are just some ideas off the top of my head, but really the possibilities to enhance our lives and develop ourselves positively that are held within each one are enormous. I would recommend focusing on one for a week, or maybe a few weeks. Begin each day by bringing the principle to mind, and how you would like to reflect it in an ideal view of yourself, then go about your daily business, but keep checking in with the yama in focus. For each thought, word or deed, you can pause and consider: ‘is this in line with xxx?’ At the end of the day, review how the day could have gone better had you made different choices more aligned to the yama in question, and congratulate yourself for situations where your yama focus helped you to make a more positive choice. And good luck – breaking old patterns is hard, but just having the intention to change means that change will happen, so keep on trucking!