If someone were to ask me, “What is yoga?” asanas, or the poses we do in class, would not be the first thing to come to mind. Yes, asanas are what make up a physical yoga practice, but they aren’t what define yoga as a whole.
Back in the second century, B.C., a sage named Patanjali compiled the yoga sutras in order to define and detail the yogic life. This practice of yoga is known as the 8-fold path. Upon following this path, a person can attain enlightenment through personal growth, self-knowledge and realizing the one-ness of everything.
What we do in our yoga classes, the asanas, are just one fold of the path. The fundamental principles, or the Yamas and Niyamas, make up the code for going forth on this path. Without the Yamas and Niyamas, the path is unstable.
Because these essential building blocks can be expansive within themselves, we’ll focus on the Yamas first and continue with the Niyamas on February 18th.
The Yamas – The 5 Moral Conducts of the Yogic Path
Ahimsa (Non-Violence) The practice of ahimsa is about more than resisting the urge to punch someone who cuts in front of you at the bank. It’s about being physically, mentally and emotionally non-violent towards others as well as yourself. It’s one thing to treat others with non-violence, but to be kind to yourself is a whole different ballgame. Practicing Ahimsa means being understanding with yourself and with others. It’s about not being hard on yourself or others when things don’t go as planned. It’s about relinquishing control and letting things just be. It’s like that saying, “Treat others as you would treat yourself.” When you treat yourself with non-violence, you’ll be more able to treat others with equal love and compassion.
Satya (Truth) Again, the practice of Satya deals with being true to others as well as yourself. It’s about listening to your needs and understanding your limitations. When you are true to yourself, you can be true to others. This is why the path of self-realization is so profound. Oftentimes we don’t realize that the harm we cause towards others is a harm that we inflict upon ourselves. Be truthful to yourself and it will manifest in your relationships with those around you.
Asteya (Non-Stealing) Non-stealing can be as obvious as not stealing a Picnic bar from the shop, or as ambiguous as not stealing time by always being late. Material things and money absolutely fall into this category, but there are many other ways that things can be stolen without it being a conscious effort. Time is one of the biggest things that is often stolen. When someone is consistently late, they are stealing the time of whomever they’re meeting. Furthermore, Asteya can be practiced by not taking more than you need. For instance, when you go to the coffee shop and get a latte to-go, ask yourself if you need 10 napkins, or if 1 or 2 would do. It’s likely that taking 10 napkins for a single coffee is taking more than you need.
Brahmacharya (Celibacy) Classically, Brahmacharya is the practice of remaining celibate and abstaining from sex. But this isn’t necessarily how it is practiced today. Practicing Brahmacharya today is more about spending your energy wisely. Not doing too much of one thing, and making sure that your energy is dispersed in ways that are beneficial for you and those around you. Sex does fall into this, and it can be a good exercise in not constantly letting go of that root energy so that it can be used for other things, such as creative projects, learning, conversation, sports, etc. Disperse where you pour your energy and use it wisely.
Aparigraha (Non-Possessiveness) Non-Possessiveness is about letting go of possession of things, people, places, and the like. It’s about not hoarding or being greedy with people, places and things. Letting go of clutter, not buying 10 of the same pairs of shoes, and not wanting to possess another person’s time, energy, or spirit, are all ways of practicing Aparigraha. When you can simply be content with your own self, your own skills, and your own world, then you are practicing Aparigraha.
These 5 essential codes of conduct can also be practiced in your yoga practice. While doing your asana work, practice Ahimsa by being non-violent with your body; Satya by being truthful about your limitations; Asteya by being early or on time to class; Brahmacharya by devoting a balanced amount of time to your practice; and Aparigraha by being content with where you are in your own yogic path.