Many of us start yoga for a variety of reasons. Maybe we’re trying to lose weight, gain strength, touch our toes, eliminate some physical pain or help reduce our daily stress. All are great reasons to begin. There are so many benefits of starting a yoga practice and we are all seeking different things.
Whether you came to yoga to improve your mobility, physique or mental state, know that there is an enormous pool of tools and techniques that will benefit your quality of life. Yoga is rich with life lessons. It provides us with a blueprint to follow so we can avoid unnecessary suffering.
In its original creation – yoga was solely about meditation and the mind. The body was seen as unimportant. An empty vessel. Over time practitioners discovered that it was difficult to stay still and present when their body was uncomfortable. If it was uncomfortable to sit still – they wouldn’t be able to meditate and reach the states of bliss they were after.
The goal was inner peace, mental clarity and union with the divine. The body was in the way though. The creation of asana was the solution. The yogis discovered that their body was in fact not a useless vessel in the way – but an important tool on the road to self discovery. When they took proper care of the physical health of the body they would then be able to sit comfortably to meditate. Asana literally means “a comfortable seat.”
Once the body was taken care of they could focus on what was actually going on in the mind. It was through this disciplined practice of asana and meditation that much knowledge about the human condition was discovered.
Patanjali wrote the yoga sutras, 2 centuries after the life of Jesus. The yoga sutras were threads of wisdom about the human condition, the nature of the mind and how to live a life free from suffering. In the second chapter Patanjali presents the ashtanga, or eight-limbed system, for which he is now famous for. Many students of yoga are only familiar with yoga asana (the postures), which is only a small part of the whole picture of the 8-limbed path..
In the second chapter of his book Patanjali presents five specific ethical precepts called yamas, which give us basic guidelines for living a life of personal fulfillment. The yamas are rules for us that will also benefit society. How to behave in relation to others and out in the world. He makes the case that if we don’t follow these rules….we will suffer.
The third limb, the yamas are really the first step in a practice that addresses the whole fabric of our lives, not just physical health or solitary spiritual existence. The Niyamas are cause and effect guidelines for us and with us. Our thoughts, behaviors, attitudes, beliefs and personal care. Following the yamas and the niyamas help us avoid suffering. The rest of the limbs are pranayama; breathing exercises; pratyahara; conscious withdrawal of energy away from the senses; dharana, concentration; dhyana, meditation; and samadhi; self-actualization.
The Yoga Sutras are not meant to be an attempt to control our behavior based on moral imperatives. The sutras don’t imply that we are “bad” or “good” based upon our behavior. It’s more of a cause and effect story. They are simply lessons in if we do (a) then (b) will happen. If we engage in certain behaviours, we will get certain results. The sutras are meant to help us understand our own ways of being and how we can alter our daily behaviors and thoughts to obtain a more desired result.
The Yamas (us with others) are as follows:
Ahimsa – Non-violence
Satya – Truthfulness
Asteya – Non-stealing
Brahmacharya – moderation, celibacy
Aparigraha – non-greed
The Niyama (us with us) are as follows:
Sauca – Cleanliness
Santosha – Contentment
Tapas – Discipline
Svadhyaya – Self Study
Ishvara Pranidhara – Surrender to God
By following these guidelines of conduct we open ourselves up to a world of possibility. That possibility is living in peace. Free from suffering and one with the divine. What I love about the yamas and the niyamas is we have a crystal clear plan of how to avoid suffering. It’s all so simple. And if we are ever feeling at unease, or in turmoil – we can turn to the yamas and niyamas to see where we might have fallen off course. Adjust the thought and behavior – and come back to alignment and peace. These lessons are timeless. From thousands of years ago – today and still relevant.
No one likes “rules” no one likes being told what to do. Which is why the yogis simply recommend you read these threads of wisdom. There’s no forced cajoling – just “pssst, hey you….over here. I think you could find more truth over here that can lessen your load.”
They emphasize how everyone can work through these at their own pace in their own time and enlightenment is available to anyone either now, or in the next life.
I’ll follow rules for joyful living any day.
With grace and grit,