Although there are many branches to the tree of yoga, from devotional methods to more intellectual approaches, from schools that emphasize service toward others to those that focus on physical purification, Patanjali Sutras, clearly defines an eight-limbed path (ashtanga) that forms the structural framework for whatever emphasis upon which an individual wishes to concentrate.
The Yoga Sutras, or “threads,” consist of four books produced sometime in the third century before Christ. Such was the clarity of Patanjali’s vision of wholeness that he consolidated the entirety of yoga philosophy in a series of 196 lucid aphorisms. Each thread of the Yoga Sutras is revealed as a part of a woven fabric, with each aphorism merely a mark or color within the whole pattern.
The threads, however, begin to make sense only through a direct experience of their meaning. This is not a linear process but rather an organic one in which colors and markings gradually become more clear until a pattern forms. And this pattern that Patanjali weaves for us is a description of the process of unbinding our limited ideas about ourselves and becoming free.
The eight limbs of yoga are traditionally presented as a hierarchical progression, but this linear progression toward an idealized goal tends only to reinforce the dualistic idea that yoga is something to “get.” It may be more helpful to imagine the eight limbs as the arms and legs of a body–connected to one another through the central body of yoga just as a child’s limbs grow in proportion to one another, whatever limb of practice we focus upon inevitably causes the other limbs to grow as well. People who begin yoga through the limb of meditation are often later drawn to practice more physical postures. Those who are drawn to vigorous physical practice later find themselves being drawn into the quieter, more meditative practices just as each limb is essential for the optimal functioning of your body, every limb of yoga practice is important. Growth in practice happens naturally when a person is sincere in her wish to grow.
The eight limbs emanating from a central core consist of the following:
Yamas and Niyamas: Ten ethical precepts that allow us to be at peace with ourselves, our family, and our community.
Asanas: Dynarmic internal dances in the form of postures. These help to keep the body strong, flexible, and relaxed. Their practice strengthens the nervous system and refines our process of inner perception.
Pranayama: Roughly defined as breathing practices, and more specifically defined as practices that help us to develop constancy in the movement of prana, or life force.
Pratyahara: The drawing of one’s attention toward silence rather than toward things.
Dharana: Focusing attention and cultivating inner perceptual awareness.
Dhyana: Sustaining awareness under all conditions.
Samadhi: The return of the mind into original silence.
The greater part of this book on yoga will focus on the most down-to-earth practices–the asanas and the practices of breathing and meditation. These form an embodied approach to spiritual practice, where we use the body and all our sensual capacities in the service of regeneration and transformation. This is contrasted to many approaches in which the body is seen as an obstacle that must be transcended. Let us first look at the core principles for living, the yamas and niyamas that form the central vein from which all other yoga practices spring.
The Ten Living Principles
The first limb, or the yamas, consists of characteristics observed and codified by wise people since the beginning of time as being central to any life lived in freedom. They are mostly concerned with how we use our energy in relationship to others and in a subtler sense, our relationship to ourselves. The sages recognized that stealing from your neighbor was likely to promote discord, lying to your wife would cause suffering, and violence begets more violence; the results are hardly conducive to living a peaceful life. The second limb, the niyamas, constitutes a code for living in a way that fosters the soulfulness of the individual and has to do with the choices we make. The yamas and niyamas are emphatic descriptions of what we are when we are connected to our source. Rather than a list of dos and don’ts, they tell us that our fundamental nature is compassionate, generous, honest, and, peaceful.
In the West we are taught from an early age that what we do and what we own sole components for measuring whether we are “successful.” We measure our success and that of others through this limited vantage point, judging and dismissing anything that falls outside these narrow parameters. What yoga teaches us is that who we are and how we are constitute the ultimate proof of a life lived in freedom. If you do not truly believe this, it is likely that you will measure success in your yoga practice through the achievement of external forms. This tendency has produced a whole subculture of yoga in the West that is nothing more than sophisticated calisthenics, with those who can bend the farthest or do the most extraordinary yoga postures being deemed masters. Because it’s easy to measure physical prowess, we may compare ourselves to others who are more flexible, or more “advanced” in their yoga postures, getting trapped in the belief that the forms of the practice are the goal. These outward feats do not necessarily constitute any evidence of a balanced practice or a balanced life. What these first central precepts the yamas and niyamas ask us to remember is that the techniques and forms are not goals in themselves but vehicles for getting to the essence of who we are.
One of our greatest challenges as Westerners practicing yoga is to learn to perceive progress through “invisible” signs, signs that are quite often unacknowledged by the culture at large. Are we moving toward greater kindness, patience, or tolerance toward others? Are we able to remain calm and centered even when others around us become agitated and angry?
How we speak, how we treat others, and how we live are more subjective qualities and attributes we need to learn to recognize in ourselves as a testament to our own progress and as gauges of authenticity in our potential teachers. When we remain committed to our most deeply held values we can begin to discern the difference between the appearance of achievement and the true experience of transformation, and thereby free ourselves to pursue those things of real value.
As you read through the precepts that follow, take the time to dwell upon their relevance to your life and to consider your own personal experiences both past and present in reference to them. You can take almost any situation that arises in your life and consider it from the vantage point of one or more of these precepts. It can also be valuable consciously to choose a precept that you’d like to explore in depth for a month or even a year at a time investigating how the precept works in all aspects of your life. And last, the way in which you approach the practices that follow in this book, and your underlying intentions, will ultimately determine whether your practice bears fruit. As you progress in your yoga practice, take the time to pause frequently and ask “Who am I becoming through this practice? Am I becoming the kind of person I would like to have as a friend?”
Ahimsa–Compassion for All Living Things
Ahimsa is usually translated as nonviolence, but this precept goes far and beyond the limited penal sense of not killing others. First and foremost we have to learn how to be nonviolent toward ourselves. If we were able to play back the often unkind, unhelpful, and destructive comments and judgments silently made toward our self in any given day, this may give us some idea of the enormity of the challenge of self-acceptance. If we were to speak these thoughts out loud to another person, we would realize how truly devastating violence to the self can be. In truth, few of us would dare to be as unkind to others as we are to ourselves. This can be as subtle as the criticism of our body when we look in the mirror in the morning, or when we denigrate our best efforts. Any thought, word, or action that prevents us (or someone else) from growing and living freely is one that is harmful.
Extending this compassion to all living creatures is dependent on our recognition of the underlying unity of all sentient beings. When we begin to recognize that the streams and rivers of the earth are no different from the blood coursing through our arteries, it becomes difficult to remain indifferent to the plight of the world. We naturally find ourselves wanting to protect all living things. It becomes difficult to toss a can into a stream or carve our names in the bark of a tree, for each act would be an act of violence toward ourselves as well. Cultivating an attitude and mode of behavior of harmlessness does not mean that we no longer feel strong emotions such as anger, jealously, or hatred. Learning to see everything through the eyes of compassion demands that we look at even these aspects of our self with acceptance. Paradoxically, when we welcome our feelings of anger, jealousy, or rage rather than see them as signs of our spiritual failure, we can begin to understand the root causes of these feelings and move beyond them. By getting close enough to our own violent tendencies we can begin to understand the root causes of them and learn to contain these energies for our own well-being and for the protection of others. Underneath these feelings we discover a much stronger desire that we all share–to be loved. It is impossible to come to this deeper understanding if we bypass the tough work of facing our inner demons.
In considering ahimsa it’s helpful to ask, Are my thoughts, actions, and deeds fostering the growth and well-being of all beings?
Satya–Commitment to the Truth
This precept is based on the understanding that honest communication and action form the bedrock of any healthy relationship, community, or government, and that deliberate deception, exaggerations, and mistruths harm others. One of the best ways we can develop this capacity is to practice right speech. This means that when we say something, we are sure of its truth. If we were to follow this precept with commitment, many of us would have a great deal less to say each day! A large part of our everyday comments and conversations are not based upon what we know to be true but are based on our imagination, suppositions, erroneous conclusions, and sometimes out-and-out exaggerations. Gossip is probably the worst form of this miscommunication.
Commitment to the truth isn’t always easy, but with practice, it’s a great deal less complicated and ultimately less painful than avoidance and self-deception.
Proper communication allows us to deal with immediate concerns taking care of little matters before they become big ones.
Probably the hardest form of this practice is being true to our own heart and inner destiny. Confusion and mistrust of our inner values can make it difficult to know the nature of our heart’s desire, but even when we become clear enough to recognize what truth means for us, we may lack the courage and conviction to live our truth. Following what we know to be essential for our growth may mean leaving unhealthy relationships or jobs and taking risks that jeopardize our own comfortable position. It may mean making choices that are not supported by consensual reality or ratified by the outer culture. The truth is rarely convenient. One way we can know we are living the truth is that while our choices may not be easy, at the end of the day we feel at peace with ourselves.
Asteya arises out of the understanding that all misappropriation is an expression of a feeling of lack. And this feeling of lack usually comes from a belief that our happiness is contingent on external circumstances and material possessions. Within Western industrialized countries satisfaction can be contingent upon so many improbable conditions and terms that it is not uncommon to spend all of one’s time hoping for some better life, and imagining that others (who possess what we do not) have that better life. In constantly looking outside of ourselves for satisfaction, we are less able to appreciate the abundance that already exists. That is what really matters–our health and the riches of our inner life and the joy and love we are able to give and receive from others. It becomes difficult to appreciate that we have hot running water when all we can think about is whether our towels are color-coordinated. How can we appreciate our good fortune in having enough food to eat when we wish we could afford to eat out more often?
The practice of asteya asks us to be careful not to take anything that has not been freely given. This can be as subtle as inquiring whether someone is free to speak with us on the phone before we launch into a tirade about our problems. Or reserving our questions after a class for another time, rather than hoarding a teacher’s attention long after the official class time has ended. In taking someone’s time that may not have been freely given, we are, in effect, stealing. The paradox of practicing asteya is that when we relate to others from the vantage point of abundance rather than neediness, we find that others are more generous with us and that life’s real treasures begin to flow our way.
This may seem unlikely, so let me share an example. Paul was a medical student and past acquaintance who seemed always to be helping others and sharing his seemingly limited resources. One evening when it became too late for a commute home, I offered Paul my guest room for the night. On awakening in the morning I discovered he had cleaned my refrigerator (“It looked like you’d been busy”). Paul had few financial resources but always seemed to be having wonderful dinner feasts to share with his friends. Later, I found out that he worked late at a local health-food restaurant, and, thankful for the extra hours Paul spent helping out, the owner gave him many of the leftover vegetables, breads, and prepared dishes to take home. When a number of friends joined Paul at a holiday home for a week, Paul initiated a special “clean-up and dust” party that lasted all day (“Just think how great it will be for the owner when he comes back after his trip overseas . . !”).
Paul rarely asked for anything but was always surprising his friends with his new acquisitions. People gave things to Paul all the time–even large items like cars and washing machines–not because they felt sorry for him but because his own sense of intrinsic abundance and his own generosity tended to make you feel that, like him, you had a lot to give.
Not stealing demands that we cultivate a certain level of self-sufficiency so that we do not demand more of others, our family, or our community than we need. It means that we don’t take any more than we need, because that would be taking from others. A helpful way of practicing asteya when you find yourself dwelling on the “not enoughs” of your life is to ask: “How is this attitude preventing me from enjoying the things I already have?”
Another way of fostering this sense of abundance is to take a moment before going to sleep to dwell on at least one gift in your life. This can be as simple as the gift of having a loving partner or loyal pet, the grace of having good health, or the pleasure of having a garden.
Brahmacharya–Merging with the One
Of all the precepts, the call to brahmacharya is the least understood and the most feared by Westerners. Commonly translated as celibacy, this precept wreaks havoc in the minds and lives of those who interpret brahmacharya as a necessary act of sexual suppression or sublimation. All spiritual traditions and religions have wrestled with the dilemma of how to use sexual energy wisely. Practicing brahmacharya means that we use our sexual energy to regenerate our connection to our spiritual self. It also means that we don’t use this energy in any way that might harm another. It doesn’t take a genius to recognize that manipulating and using others sexually creates a host of bad feelings, with the top contenders being pain, jealousy, attachment, resentment, and blinding hatred. This is one realm of human experience that is guaranteed to bring out the best and worst in people, so the ancient Yogis went to great lengths to observe and experiment with this particular form of energy. It may be easier to understand brahmacharya if we remove the sexual designation and look at it purely as energy. Brahmacharya means merging one’s energy with God. While the communion we may experience through making love with another gives us one of the clearest experiences of this meshing of energies, this experience is meant to be extended beyond discrete events into a way of life–a kind of omnidimensional celebration of Eros in all its forms. Whether we achieve this through feeling our breath as it caresses our lungs, through orgasm, or through celibacy is not important.
Given the pragmatism of the ancient yogis, it is hard to believe that Patanjali would have put forth a precept that would be so undeniably unsuccessful as selfwined denial. The fall from grace of countless gurus who, while admonishing their devotees to practice celibacy, have wantonly misused their own sexual power gives cause to consider more deeply the appropriateness of such an interpretation. When any energy is sublimated or suppressed, it has the tendency to backfire, expressing itself in life-negating ways. This is not to say that celibacy in and of itself is an unsound practice. When embraced joyfully the containment of sexual energy can be enormously self nourishing and vitalizing and, at the very least, can provide an opportunity to learn how to use this energy wisely. When celibacy is practiced in this way, there is no sense of stopping oneself from doing or having what one really wants. Ultimately it is not a matter of whether we use our sexual energy but how we use it.
In looking at your own relationship to sexual energy, consider whether the ways you express that energy bring you closer to or farther away from your spiritual self.
Holding on to things and being free are two mutually exclusive states. The ordinary mind is constantly manipulating reality to get ground underneath it, building more and more concretized images of how things are and how others are, as a way of generating confidence and security. We build self-images and construct concepts and paradigms that feed our sense of certainty, and we then defend this edifice by bending every situation to reinforce our certainty. This would be fine if life were indeed a homogeneous event in which nothing ever changed; but life does change, and it demands that we adapt and change with it. The resistance to change, and tenaciously holding on to things, causes great suffering and prevents us from growing and living life in a more vital and pleasurable way. What yoga philosophy and all the great Buddhist teachings tells us is that solidity is a creation of the ordinary mind and that there never was anything permanent to begin with that we could hold on to. Life would be much easier and substantially less painful if we lived with the knowledge of impermanence as the only constant. As we all have discovered at some time in our lives, whenever we have tried to hold on too tightly to anything, whether it be possessiveness of our partner or our youthful identity, this has only led to the destruction of those very things we most value. Our best security lies in taking down our fences and barricades and allowing ourselves to grow, and through that growth becoming stronger and yet more resilient.
The practice of aparigraha also requires that we look at the way we use things to reinforce our sense of identity. The executive ego loves to believe in its own power but unfortunately requires a retinue of foot soldiers in the way of external objects such as the right clothes, car, house, job, or image to maintain this illusion. Because this executive ego is but an illusion created by our sense of separateness, it requires ever greater and more elaborate strategies to keep it clothed. Although the practice of not grasping may first begin as consciously withdrawing our hand from reaching for external things, eventually the need to reach outward at all diminishes until there is a recognition that that which is essential to us is already at hand.
Niyamas-Codes for Living Soulfully
Shaucha, or living purely, involves maintaining a cleanliness in body, mind, and environment so that we can experience ourselves at a higher resolution. The word pure comes from the Latin purus, which means clean and unadulterated. When we take in healthy food, untainted by pesticides and unnatural additives, the body starts to function more smoothly. When we read books that elevate our consciousness, see movies that inspire, and associate with gentle people, we are feeding the mind in a way that nourishes our own peacefulness. Creating a home environment that is elegant, simple, and uncluttered generates an atmosphere where we are not constantly distracted by the paraphernalia of yesterday’s projects and last year’s knickknacks. Shaucha is a testament to the positive power of association.
Practicing shaucha, meaning “that and nothing else,” involves making choices about what you want and don’t want in your life. Far from self-deprivation or dry piety, the practice of shaucha allows you to experience life more vividly. A clean plate enjoys the sweetness of an apple and the taste of pure water; a clear mind can appreciate the beauty of poetry and the wisdom imparted in a story; a polished table reveals the deep grain of the wood. This practice both generates beauty and allows us to appreciate it in all its many forms.
Santosha, or the practice of contentment, is the ability to feel satisfied within the container of one’s immediate experience. Contentment shouldn’t be confused with happiness, for we can be in difficult, even painful circumstances and still find some semblance of contentment if we are able to see things as they are without the conflictual pull of our expectations.
Contentment also should not be confused with complacency, in which we allow ourselves to stagnate in our growth. Rather it is a sign that we are at peace with whatever stage of growth we are in and the circumstances we find ourselves in. This doesn’t mean that we accept or tolerate unhealthy relationships or working conditions. But it may mean that we practice patience and attempt to live as best we can within our situation until we are able to better our conditions.
Contentment not only implies acceptance of the present but tends to generate the capacity for hopefulness. This may seem contradictory but is not. When you are equanimous within any situation, this strengthens your faith that there is the possibility of living even more fully. This possibility is not held out as something to look forward to, nor does it have the negative effect of making you feel dissatisfied until those hopes are gratified. Rather, the ability to sustain one’s spirits even in dire situations, is proof that a central sense of balance is rarely contingent on circumstances. And, sustaining hopefulness, even when there are few signs that things win improve, is one very good way of fostering contentment.
Literally translated as “fire” or “heat,” tapas is the disciplined use of our energy. Because the word discipline has the negative connotation of self-coercion, I take the liberty here of translating this central precept as “burning enthusiasm.” When we can generate an attitude of burning ardor, the strength of our convictions generates a momentum that carries us forward. We all know how even a seemingly boring or unpleasant task like cleaning the house can be transformed when we work with vigor and impulsion. Suddenly cleaning the toilet becomes fun, hauling heavy loads invigorating, and dusting the furniture absorbing. Tapas is a way of directing our energy. Like a focused beam of light cutting through the dark, tapas keeps us on track so that we don’t waste our time and energy on superfluous or trivial matters. When this energy is strong, so also are the processes of transmutation and metamorphism.
We are not all equally possessed of the disciplined energy of tapas. Some people need to work more earnestly to kindle the flames of tapas, and it is at these times that it is helpful to have a kind of parental consciousness coupled with a good sense of humor. Our actions are then guided by a part of the self that knows what’s good for it, which is aided by the ability to laugh in the face of one’s neuroses, lethargy, or addictions. Even the laser minds among us have days when it takes a sheer act of will to get out of bed, turn to our studies, or withdraw the hand that reaches for a second slice of cake. If you have little enthusiasm yourself, it can be enormously helpful to seek the company of those who have this quality in abundance. Attending a class with an inspiring teacher or practicing yoga with a friend who has already established a strong practice can help to stimulate tapas within yourself. Once activated, however, the embers of tapas tend to generate more and more heat and momentum, which makes each subsequent effort less difficult. The analogy of a fire is fitting for this precept. Once a fire has completely died out it can take a great deal of effort to start it up again. When you do get a fire to light, the tentative embers must be fed at regular intervals or the fire dies out again. But once the fire is roaring, it is easy to sustain.
For what greater purpose do we need tapas, or discipline? Pema Chodron, the Abbot of Gampo Abbey in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and the author of many books on Tibetan Buddhism, tells us that “what we discipline is not our ‘badness’ or our wrongness.’ What we discipline is any form of potential escape from reality”. When we’re not living in this disciplined awareness, our willing tactics of avoidance create an endless cycle of more suffering for ourselves. These avoidance tactics may temporarily placate our senses, but they create a deep form of unhappiness. On some level we know we’re not being true to ourselves or our potential. Discipline is having enough respect for yourself to make choices that truly nourish your well-being and provide opportunities for expansive growth. Far from being a kind of medicinal punishment, tapas allows us to direct our energy toward a fulfilled life of meaning and one that is exciting and pleasurable.
Any activity that cultivates self-reflective consciousness can be considered swadhyaya. The soul tends to be lured by those activities that will best illuminate it. Because people are so different in their proclivities, one person may be drawn to write, while another will discover herself through painting or athletics. Another person may come to know himself through mastering an instrument, or through service at a hospice. Still another may learn hidden aspects of herself through the practice of meditation. The form that this self-study takes is inconsequential. Whatever the practice, as long as there is an intention to know yourself through it, and the commitment to see the process through, almost any activity can become an opportunity for learning about yourself. Swadhyaya means staying with our process through thick and thin because it’s usually when the going gets rough that we have the greatest opportunity to learn about ourselves.
While self-study uncovers our strengths, authentic swadhyaya also ruthlessly uncovers our weakness, foibles, addictions, habit patterns, and negative tendencies. This isn’t always the most cheering news. The worst thing we can do at these times is give ourselves the double whammy of both uncovering a soft spot and beating ourselves up for what we perceive as a fatal flaw. At these times, it’s important actually to welcome and accept our limitations. When we welcome a limitation, we can get close enough to ourselves to see the roots of our anger, impatience, or self-loathing. We can have a little compassion, for the forces and conditions that molded our behaviors and beliefs, and in so doing develop more skill in handling, containing, and redirecting previously self-destructive tendencies. The degree to which we can do this for ourselves is the degree to which we will be tolerant of other people’s weaknesses and flaws. Self-study is a big task.
Self-study also can become psychically incestuous when the same self that may be confused and fragmented attempts to see itself. This is why it can be so helpful (not to mention expedient) to secure the help of a mentor, teacher, or close friend to support your self-study. If you’ve ever said that someone “just doesn’t see himself” and watched him enact the same self-destructive behaviors again and again, just consider how likely it is that you too are blind to your own faults. A skillful mentor, and that can be anyone from a wise aunt to a therapist to a bona fide guru, can find loving ways to help you see yourself as you really are.
Ishvarapranidhana–Celebration of the Spiritual
Life is not inherently meaningful. We make meaning happen through the attention and care we express through our actions. We make meaning happen when we set a table with care, when we light a candle before practicing, or when we remove our shoes before entering a temple. Yoga tells us that the spiritual suffuses everything it is simply that we are too busy, too distracted, or too insensitive to notice the extraordinary omnipresence that dwells in all things. So one of the first ways that we can practice ishvarapranidhana is by putting aside some time each day, even a few minutes, to avail ourselves of an intelligence larger than our own. This might take the form of communing with your garden at dawn, taking a few moments on the bus to breathe slowly and clear your mind, or engaging in a more formal practice such as a daily reading, prayer, ritual, or meditation. This practice requires that we have recognized that there is some omnipresent force larger than ourselves that is guiding and directing the course of our lives. We all have had the experience of looking back at some event in our life that at the time may have seemed painful, confusing and disruptive, but later, in retrospect, made perfect sense in the context of our personal destiny. We recognize that the change that occurred during that time was necessary for our growth, and that we are happier for it. The catch is that it’s hard to see the bigger picture when you think you are the great controller of your life. When you are the great controller, you fail to recognize that supposed coincidences, accidents and chance meetings all have some greater significance in the larger scheme of your destiny. When you are the master of your universe, it’s hard to trust anything but your own self-made plans. When we don’t have this recognition that there’s a bigger story going on, we get caught up in our personal drama and a frustrating cycle of resistance to change.
Ishvarapranidhana asks us to go quietly, even when it’s not possible to see exactly where things are headed. At first this can be frightening, like being suspended in the air between one trapeze bar and another, but, over time, this not knowing exactly how life is going to unfold and the giving up of our frantic attempts to manipulate and control makes each day an adventure. It makes our life a horse race right up until the very finish!
Ultimately, ishvarapranidhana means surrendering our personal will to this intelligence so we can fulfill our destiny. The first step in this practice is attuning ourselves to perceive a larger perspective. By setting aside enough time to get quiet and clear, we can begin to differentiate between the cluttered thoughts of our ordinary mind and the resonant intelligence that comes through as intuition. Rather than trying to unravel the mystery, we start to embody the mystery of life. When we embody the mystery, we begin to experience meaning. Where before we experienced numbness. When we drink a glass of water, we taste it; when a cool breeze brushes our bare skin, we feel it; and when a stranger speaks to us, we listen. Everything and anything can become a sign of this intelligence. Eventually we are spontaneously drawn to look at the purpose of our life with a new eye. One starts to ask, How can my life be useful to others? Living the insurance nor a guarantee but it is neither spiritual rain against living a meaningless life, a life that at its end we regret.