Comments On The Yoga Sutras

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Introduction

Familiarization with the Yamas and Niyamas is fundamental to the practice of yoga. These precepts are found in the Pantanjali’s Yoga Sutras, which were written approximately 1,700 years ago. The Yamas and Niyamas set rewarding, pragmatic standards for peoples of all ages, cultures, and faiths. Study of the Yamas and Niyamas remind us of two vital aspects of yoga study: 1. Yoga is much more than a mere physical practice. 2. Yoga was intended to further the evolution of humanity, both as individuals and as a human family.

Yamas                                                                                                              

Ahimsa means not harming other living beings. This is why many yogis become vegetarians, simply because they don’t want to derive their nourishment by extinguishing the life of a fellow sentient being. Ahimsa can also include the prohibition of the use of harmful language and “looking the other way,” i.e. acting as a bystander as others are being harmed. Keep in mind, harming creates a ripple effect. Children, for example, who are abused, are more likely to commit crime as adults, including violent crime, than children who were not abused.

Self-harm is perhaps the most overlooked aspect of ahimsa. The common practice of overeating stresses the system physically and emotionally. Self-harm may also include, exposing yourself to toxic stimuli (people, music, tobacco, food, etc.) as well as “beating yourself up” or engaging in unfair negative thoughts, often based on comparison with others. Self-harm, in my opinion, is one of the root causes of man’s insatiable desire to harm others. For example, if I don’t respect myself, then I will not respect others.

  • An example of ahimsa in the yogashala: Don’t push your body to the point of injury.

Satya means not lying. But not lying is not enough. We should be honest and make our aims and objectives clear. Self-deception is the most destructive of all lies.

  • An example of satya in the yogashala: Volunteering to your teacher any relevant health information.  

Asteya means not stealing. This can also mean the misappropriation of resources or the misuse of power.

  • An example of asteya in the yogashala: A teacher should never misuse his power to take advantage of his students (in many cases, sadly, this means sexually). 

Brahmacharya means sexual continence. We should either abstain or be loyal to our partners. Furthermore, we should also appreciate the value and responsibilities of sex. Sexual union is the microcosm of all creation, and we should never treat it with flippancy.

Brahmacharya can also mean conservation of your energy. We should constantly direct our energies to a higher source, rather than towards the sexual and base. Our bodily energy is not infinite, so we should channel it into purposeful living. The practice of brahmacharya can expand into control over many forms of impulsive and wasteful behavior in our lives. 

  • An example of brahmacharya in the yogashala: Conserve your energy in class. Don’t burn yourself out by pushing too hard.

Aparigraha means non-possessiveness. We shouldn’t compare ourselves to others. We should be content with the gifts that we are given and work on maximizing our God-given abilities. Non-attachment is the next level. At this stage, I recognize that I possess nothing; everything belongs to the Lord.

  • An example of aparigraha in the yogashala: Don’t let your fellow students’ capacities be a distraction. Focus on your own practice. Instead of competing, focus inward.

Niyamas

Saucha means purity. This includes keeping your body, abode, and mind clean. Your food as well should be sattvic or pure (i.e. free from chemicals, pesticides, and preservatives).

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Fresh Malabar spinach, from my small, backyard garden.

  • An example of saucha in the yogashala: Make sure that your intentions for yoga study are clean. Do not attend a yoga class for the purpose of meeting a new dating partner or for business opportunities.

Santosha means contentment. Staying content is a practice. We should not just count our blessings, but we should rejoice in every breath.

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  • An example of santosha in the yogashala: You should rejoice each time you complete a yoga class. Always bear in mind, the scores of people who would like to practice but can’t because of injuries or infirmities. I received a good lesson about santosha as a volunteer teacher (above) in a refugee camp in Thailand in 1995. There were trenches, in case the Burma Army shelled the camp, just outside the bamboo schoolhouse. Food rations and medical care were limited, and suicides were not uncommon. Landmine victims, some of whom were multiple amputees, readjusted to life despite the harsh circumstances. Stepping outside your boundaries and seeing how other people live can help you broaden your understanding of santosha.

Tapas means discipline. There is no other discipline but self-discipline. Some forms of “discipline” utilize punishment for non-compliance, but true discipline is sourced from within, not from without. Tapas literally means “to burn.” We should set high standards for our behavior and focus on following these standards.  Through this process, we can “burn away” that which is harmful or superfluous in our lives. The blacksmith’s hammer of tapas pounds away the alloys in our system, making us more pure, straightforward, and unafraid. We cast aside forever the term “victim,” making great strides up the path of self-liberation with the simple realization, “I am my own captain. I am the sum of my choices.”  

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  • An example of tapas in the yogashala: Come to class or do a home practice at least 3 times a week. No excuses.

Svadhyaya means self-study. This can mean engaging in introspection or the study of the scriptures of your faith. Instead of wagging your finger at others, conduct a self-audit of your own behavior. Remember, the best chance you have of changing someone, is changing yourself. As far as the spiritual is concerned, don’t just blindly follow your imam, rabbi, guru, or priest. Read your scriptures and listen to your inner guidance. Maintain a constant state of awareness that God never leaves us alone – all we have to do is seek.    

  • An example of svadhyaya in the yogashala: Your yoga teacher will not be able to see everything, so study inside; position the body from within to make your asanas stronger. Lengthen the body and breath and adjust beyond what can be seen.

Ishvara pranidhana means surrender to the spiritual. Surrender involves trust. We should trust the Almighty like a child trusts his mother, even without fully understanding the greater plan. In addition, peace of mind and humility flow from one who recognizes the presence of a higher power.

  • An example of ishvara pranidhana in the yogashala: Trust the yoga method. Find a suitable teacher and trust him or her. Finally, trust yourself – your body and your decisions. An existence filled with doubt can be just as destructive as being reckless.