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Introduction to the Yamas
In the Western world, most of us are familiar with the Ten Commandments, based on the Bible of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Yoga, which derives from a similarly venerable body of literature, has its own version of these precepts, the yamas and niyamas. Numerically, the traditions are the same, as there are five yamas and five niyamas. The organization, however, is a bit different: the yamas detail five areas where the yogi/ni is obliged to refrain, while the niyamas are a list of areas where the yogi is expected to persist.
The yamas, which are part of the Eight Limbs of Yoga, are listed in the second chapter of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the classic yoga text dating from the fourth century after the birth of Christ. They are also discussed in other Hindu texts, such as the Rig-Vega and the Upanishads. It is important to remember, however, that these teachings are universal in nature, and yoginis are not required to become Hindus.
The first of the yamas is ahimsa, or nonviolence. The second is satya, or avoidance of lies. The third precept is asteya, or non-stealing. The fourth is brahmacharya, or the forestalling of physical excess. The fifth and final yama is aparigrapha, or non-possessiveness. Each of these suggests a perfect state of being, and all are more complicated than would first appear. For example, bramacharya, which is usually simplified to mean ‘chastity’, also applies to the way in which the yogi/ni approaches food, exercise, and other addictive behaviors. Similarly, aparigraha can refer to physical covetousness, but it can also be applied to one’s envy of other’s position, popularity, or abilities.
When first confronting the yamas, it’s easy to feel despair at how far one’s experience is from the absolute adherence to these precepts. But no one is perfect, and nobody is expected to demonstrate perfection in each of these areas. The idea is to move forward, which sometimes means giant leaps but also includes three steps back followed by a return to the baseline.
One way to start working with the yamas is to consider one’s behavior and thinking connected to yoga classes. This small (in terms of time) area of one’s life is a good indicator of how the other hours are lived. Is one violent when thinking about her own “performance” on the mat? Does one mentally criticize the others in the class? These are violations of ahimsa. How about one’s desire to monopolize the teacher’s time and efforts? This points to asteya. Dishonesty in one’s conversation about experience or ability also refers to satya. Envy of the teacher’s flexibility is counter to aparigraha, and a person’s tendency to overdo it is a violation of brahmacharya.
It helps to work on a single small, incremental goal at a time. Choose one of the yamas, and focus on how that single precept works during asana practice. Train the mind while training the body, and see how this can bring about more union between the two areas. Remember that yogic thought pre-dates Descartes’ separation of the mind and body, and that the word ‘yoga’ means ‘union’. Working with the yamas is one way to encourage the development of the ‘bodymind’, and to achieve more integrity in the way one lives.
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