Back to the Basics- the Yama of Ashtanga Yoga

Yoga as Life — By on December 2, 2008 12:20 PM

By Miriam Stollar

Reflecting on this events of this past month and on the coming season, I decided it was a time to take a deep breath and go back to the basics.

It seems all around to be a time of contemplation and inspiration.

For Moslems, September 30 marked the last day of the Ramadan fasting, the end of a month of grueling no-food, no-water fasts from sunrise to sunset. During Ramadan, I am continuously in awe at the willpower of so many dedicated Moslems in non-Moslem countries, that manage to keep their total fast not in a secluded mosque or monastery or ashram far from temptation, but in the very midst of the bustling and culinarily decadent non-fasting society all around them.

The Ramadan fast is a strong ascetic practice, using fasting based on devoted faith and determined willpower, to strengthen the control of the senses and purify the mind of negative thoughts.
Coinciding this year with Ramadan, the end of September also marked the Jewish New Year or Rosh HaShana, leading up to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Again, control of the senses withdraws the mind from worldly affairs, to a state of introspection, a time to appraise oneself and one’s actions, purify the mind of negative thoughts and actions, and put in place a positive framework for the future year.

Looking forward,Thanksgiving marks the practice of giving and of appreciation, a great time to practice generosity and helping others, as well as being thankful for what we have.

Looking more ahead, in December comes Christmas, a deeply religious holiday, despite all the glittering lights. This year however, in light of the financial tremors felt around the world, I imagine that also the glittery commercial image of Christmas, that Christmas tree with piles of wrapped gifts under it, will maybe also be, this year, inspiration for a little ascetic renunciation.

Thinking through these times that are pointing to some good old soul searching, or navel-gazing, it’s a good time to take a deep breath and get back to the basics. Which basics ? The basics of yoga, that is, the basics of a calm and disciplined and contented mind.

In the Yoga Sutras of India, over 2000 years ago, the saint Patanjali defined yoga as the cessation of all mental fluctuations. He defined the raja yoga practice (raja means royal, or highest) as having eight branches, the system of yoga practice thereby called ashtanga, or the eight limbs. It is these eight limbs of practice of Ashtanga Yoga which are the basis of Raja yoga, or Patanjali yoga, and of all yoga philosophy and practice.

These eight branches are the code of self-restraint, the code of proper conduct and practice, practice of physical postures, breath regulation, withdrawal of the senses, one-pointed concentration, meditation, and the super-conscious state, or Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi. While at least the third of the eight, Asana (physical posture in which we should become at ease), should be familiar to most people practicing yoga, to understand the full essence of yoga, every yoga practitioner should strive to understand all eight of these branches. Notice that Asana, or physical posture, is only third out of eight, and is considered an important but beginning step in the higher goals of sense withdrawal, focused concentration, and absorbed meditation.

Does all this seem somewhat complicated rather than basic ? The ideas are high but the steps are basic- lets go back to the first step, Yama, the five restraints every yogi should know by heart, as I was told by a yoga teacher, even in their sleep.

The five Yama are Ahimsa, or non-violence, Satya, truthfulness, Asteya, or non-stealing, Brahmacharya, celibacy, and Aparigraha, or non-covetousness. These are considered the five prerequisites for the tranquil mind needed for further practice of yoga. While literally defined as non-violence, Ahimsa goes beyond the idea of non-violence to the idea of no-harm and full compassion for all beings, making us aware of even the violence in killing a mosquito. Satya aims for the truthfulness of our words and, in aspiration, the purity of our thoughts. Asteya is taking nothing that is not ours both in action and in thought. Brahmacharya, defined as celibacy, is also interpreted as correct sexual conduct, and Aparigraha or non-covetousness is the mental renunciation of greed.

Yama is the first branch of Ashtanga Yoga, and as such is its beginning and most basic step, that code of Thou Shalt Nots which forms the base of every religion. Yet the five Yama should not be easily passed on for more interesting things, as the Yama have great depth, and the depth and nuance of each can only be discovered in the highest stage of the path, not in the beginning. We start with Yama (which, incidentally, is mountain in Japanese, for anyone interested) but they carry us to the end. As one teacher liked to say, ‘Have the five Yama on the tip of your tongue even if I wake you up in the middle of the night.’

In which branch faith does step in? Patanjali doesn’t need to mention faith here. It is faith itself which moves one to practice yoga. Then it is the practice itself, the experience, which continues to build the faith.

The five Yama are not simply the beginning step. The eight branches of Ashtanga yoga practice weave into each other interdependently. Each of the five roots of Yama are the seeds not only of our actions, but reaching down to the roots of our actions, reflect also our speech, and ultimately, our thoughts.

Behavior, speech, or thoughts ,of anger or harm, lying or mistruth, stealing or envy, sexual misconduct, and greed and desire, constantly distract our minds and prevent us from developing the one-pointed concentration levels of bliss and insight, or even from focusing our mind at all for more than a moment or two. With a mind distracted by these thoughts, words, or actions, even the real tranquility of asana, or physical posture, cannot be reached, no matter how flexible we may be.

The practice? To be aware of not only our actions, but our speech and our thoughts, throughout the day, not only in meditation or in asana yoga practice, but in day-to-day life. What to do when we catch an angry, jealous or greedy thought, word or action? No self-harm- don’t hit yourself, physically or even mentally, or curse yourself verbally! The more we become aware of our thoughts, the more negative thoughts might seem to pop up, but don’t take it badly. It is simply that before, they passed through the mind mostly unseen and unchecked, going straight ahead to cause us miserable feelings and sometimes regrettable words and actions to others. Now suddenly we put up a checkpoint, a border crossing, taking all the negative thoughts aside for some self-questioning, with the ultimate idea of transforming them into blissful thoughts of compassion for all beings, non-clinging and generosity, respectful love, truth, and contentedness. It’s only natural that they sometimes seem to be gathering en masse, or keep coming back to demand passage. Its not easy to change the habits of the mind that actually thinks it enjoys to hold grudges and resentments against others, or to dwell constantly on the things it desires. To start becoming aware of the thoughts that are the roots of our feelings, words and actions, is a big step forward, though it may sometimes feel like a step backwards. Remember that compassion and understanding go to ourselves as well, not only to others, and that contentedness means also understanding acceptance of who we are. Only in accepting who we are now, can we practice yoga positively.

Let’s take a collective deep breath – from the belly, as my older-sister guru recently reminded me (see YogaBean, issue…) – and get back to the basics.

Now who remembers the five Yama?

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