As I mentioned in my last post, there are eight specific components that define the practice of yoga:
- Yamas–things we should avoid, there are 5 total
- Niyamas–things we should cultivate, there are 5 total
- Asana–physical postures that strengthen and lengthen the body
- Pranayama–breathing techniques that connect the mind, body and spirit
- Pratyahara–withdrawal of the senses (tuning attention inward)
- Dharana–concentration on a single point of focus
- Dhyana–meditation (letting go of concentration to empty the mind)
- Samadhi–a feeling of peace, bliss, happiness and/or joy as a result of our practice
I think of the 5 yamas and 5 niyamas as the 10 commandments of yoga, and use them as ethical guidelines for my practice and my life.
Ahimsa is the first of the five yamas. The literal definition of ahimsa is non-violence, but it carries a much deeper meaning than than “thou shalt not kill”. It teaches us that every action and thought has consequences. Harm, violence, and negativity (in any form) separates us from God. Just as we should not harm others, we also should not harm ourselves with negative self-talk, thoughts, or physical injury.
As a new yogi, I assumed that I was pretty good at practicing ahimsa. I had never been violent, or hurt anyone, or myself, on purpose. The more I learned about ahimsa, however, the more I realized that I had been inflicting harm upon myself and others for years, every time I compared myself to others, or thought unkind thoughts about anyone.
Embracing ahimsa taught me to let it go. For good. On my mat, and off. That doesn’t mean I never think harmful things, but practicing ahimsa has made me aware of the thoughts, and helped me release them quickly.
Satya, the second of the yamas, literally means truthfulness. It means that we should always tell the truth, but it also means that we must be honest with ourselves. That we must seek clarity in our interpretation of life.
We all have a life story. And to us, it feels like truth. Sometimes, however, our truth is not completely accurate. Our life story is influenced by the voices of other people in our lives. People who have told us that we are “special”, so we must perform at a higher level than others. Or maybe it is voices that have told us we are “not good enough”.
When we hear these stories often enough, it becomes difficult to separate truth from fiction. Satya teaches us to strip away the layers of our story, so that we can see ourselves with clairty, and live with authenticity.
Asteya is defined as non-stealing or non-cheating. On the surface, asteya sounds a lot like “Thou shalt not steal.” More importantly, however, asteya teaches us that we should not be careless or wasteful. We really do not need much to survive, and everything we have comes to us from God, and belongs to God. Therefore, we should only take what we need and nothing more. This is an especially helpful concept in asana practice, as it reminds us to be aware and intentional, and not push beyond our edge.
Bramacharya teaches us to use our energy appropriately. It is often correlated with chastity or appropriate use of sexual energy, but bramacharya can also mean so much more. The discipline of bramacharya teaches us to temper our passions and our senses. We each have a limited amount of energy that we can use for God’s purposes, and it is essential that we are mindful of how we share ourselves, in word, thought, and deed.
The final yama, aparigraha is reminds us that greed and jealousy damage our self esteem. We harm ourselves by coveting other’s belongings, friends, and even their yoga poses. Aparigraha reminds us to let go of our attachments to the world, and live a modest lifestyle. Grasping and acquiring feeds our desire for more, while living simply feeds contentment and peace.
It’s a lot to think about, isn’t it? I’ve been studying the yamas for years, and I still find them confusing at times. I’m okay with that, though, because yoga has taught me to enjoy the journey. It’s ok if I don’t have all of the answers right now, as long as I respect the yamas, and do my best to let go and live well.