The traditional form of yoga as defined by Sage Patanjali in the sutras is known as Ashtanga Yoga and it has eight facets to it. Here, we discuss the first facet known as Yama. It has five simple guidelines for leading a balanced and stress-free life. These are commonly known virtues, but are presented here in the context of yoga.
According to yoga, we must develop a non-harming attitude in word, thought and deed. Patanjali advocates that we stay away from speaking ill or acting in any manner that may hurt another, be it emotionally or physically. It is because of this aspect of Ashtanga yoga that all yogic texts suggest a vegetarian diet—because killing another living being for food involves himsa or violence. Making this yama a part of your life is essential to developing inner peace and compassion towards others.
But the idea of Ahimsa is not limited towards another—it is equally applicable when dealing with the self. Ahimsa towards self implies choosing to not abuse your body with intoxicants, alcohol or smoke. In fact, this also applies to your yogic practice. When your body gives out signals that it needs rest or when you feel that a certain asana is causing you discomfort, do not ignore those signs and refrain from continuing with that asana.
This implies speaking the truth, but above all, living with integrity. However, if speaking the truth can harm another, then refrain from doing so. According to Indian yogic texts, it’s important to know what to say, when to say it and also how to say it. If the truth could be worse than lying, then choose to say nothing at all.
Again, before being truthful to others, it’s important to ponder if we are being true to ourselves. For instance, you have been asked to stay off sugar because you have diabetes, but you give in to the temptation. Now, you’re not only cheating yourself, but also harming your body.
Of course this applies to material goods, but it extends to realms far wider than that. Taking credit for work that you’ve not done or presenting someone else’s ideas as your own are different forms of stealing. If you have to borrow ideas from another, it is only fair that you give the credit where it is due. Asteya challenges you to use your intellect for thinking original ideas.
Asteya also applies to you. For instance, when you waste your time, you’re stealing from yourself. When you know you have talent but are too complacent to use it, you’re depriving [read stealing from] others the opportunity to learn from you. When you choose to criticise and discourage someone, you steal that person of his confidence and self-worth.
This has been misunderstood by many as celibacy. Yoga does not suggest that you do not indulge in sex. On the contrary, most prominent yogis have been married and had families. One meaning of Brahmacharya is to practise moderation or restraint. It does not mean that you deny yourself sensual pleasures, but avoid over-indulgence. For instance, eating foods that you like, drinking or partying are all fine as long as they are done in moderation. So, if you crave ice cream, stop after eating a scoop instead of devouring the whole tub.
Brahmacharya’s literal meaning is to be connected to the ultimate source. Brahma means the final truth and acharya means to know or to teach. While practising yoga, it is best to keep your thoughts pure and directed towards a higher purpose.
This last aspect of Yama talks about developing an attitude of detachment towards everything—thoughts, emotions and things. It means that if you go through a negative or unfortunate experience, learn from it and let go. For example, if you have a squabble with a colleague or a family member, let go of the negativity and start afresh. It also means to stop clinging to things or relationships. Clinging also creates a feeling of not having enough or of wanting more—it is a sign of insecurity. Giving away something that you own, but don’t need any more to someone who needs it more than you is an act of aparigraha.
Remember, these are not commandments but just gentle instructions. Yama is the first step of Ashtanga Yoga and works like a compass to direct you towards health, happiness and peace.
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