Introduction // The First Limb of Classical Yoga
It's important to start this Yama Series by clarifying the purpose of these practices in our lives. The big picture of why we do yoga keeps our practice grounded and informed. Whether this is shoulder-opening exercises or examining our emotional habits, it is essential to keep our eye on the prize of why we are doing the work. For most of us, we come to yoga because we want better health, more peace of mind, or just to relax. In our own unique way, we are each just trying to figure out how to be happy. In the ancient yogic texts, this purpose is defined in slightly different terms, that the work of yoga is to bring about the end of suffering. In our day-to-day experiences, we have a variety of names for such suffering: anxiety, nerves, fear, longing, anger, distraction, numbness, etc. These experiences provide us with the motivation to start finding more productive ways to get what we want in life. Yama is a means to this end. It is the first of eight stages or limbs of Classical Yoga from the ancient text, "The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali".
Yama begins the path of spiritual practice not by reaching for ecstatic states, but by refining our relationship to the world and our lives. The word "Yama" is often translated as abstentions, or restraints. Similar to other spiritual traditions and religions, yoga's first stage is one of morality. This first step of yoga is considered essential for all members of society, not just those on a deeper spiritual path. This ensures that the society at large can flourish and exist harmoniously.
On the individual level, the yamas specifically outline what actions to abstain from, and by doing so, cultivating higher virtues such as compassion, honesty and generosity. The ancient yogic texts consider these virtues to be intrinsic to all human beings. However, when undeveloped, these qualities remains dormant within us, waiting to be cultivated and brought back to life. The yamas do just that. Initially they provide overt guidelines of how we can get along with others (don't steal, don't kill, don't lie, etc.), but over time they open us to the much subtler nuances of our thoughts, words and action. The yamas help us examine all the areas in our lives where our values and our actions don't align, as well the continuing exploration of what those values really are to us.
The five yama are Ahimsa (non-harming or non-violence), Satya (truthfulness), Asteya (non-stealing), Brahmacharya (celibacy, conservation of energy), Aparigraha (non-possessiveness). Through the course of this series we'll explore each of these five yamas and the practical tools they provide in the bigger picture of our suffering and the road to happiness.
Homework // Practice
1) Be mindful of the ways you suffer in your life on a daily basis. These moments may be obvious, overt things, or small subtle moments. See if you can observe these experiences when they arise and simply allow the feelings and thoughts around them. Be curious about the suffering. What is it? What are the different components that come together to create the experience of suffering? Where does this experience live in your physical body or is it more a state of mind or emotion? Are there any "add-on" layers or compensating thoughts or actions? For example, when you feel depressed, you also judge yourself for being depressed again. See if you can simply watch all this without the need to change anything or any judgements - simply observe what is coming up for you.
2) Think or write about what is most important to you in your life. What or who do you value most in your life? These list might include people, relationships, material things, certain skills or qualities. Here are some examples:
"It's important to me to be independent and make enough money to take care of myself. It's important to me to have nice, beautiful things."
"The most important qualities to me are intelligence, kindness and the capacity to keep the peace. Nothing is more attractive to me that someone who is well educated."
"I'm here to help people. It doesn't matter what form it takes in my life, this is what makes me feel worthwhile and useful."
"Family is the most important thing to me. Above all, I am a mother and care-taker. Everything else revolves around this."
"My career comes first. Any relationship has to fit in around my work hours."
"I surround myself with people are are inspiring and creative, rule-breakers. I don't care about what I own, or meeting my parent's expectation rules of success. Freedom and creativity are the most important things in my life."
"I can't stand it when someone is too serious to take a joke or play around. If we can't have fun, what's the point?"