It is NOT: dusty, dry, intellectual, irrelevant, boring.
It IS: alive, juicy, inspiring and definitely relevant. And difficult. But not difficult because we need to learn difficult concepts, it’s difficult because we cannot study it with the intellect alone. Yoga philosophy is all about the heart and what moves it. So sometimes I write a blog and try to convince you to give it a chance.
We talked about Patanjali and introduced the concept of nirodha back in November. Here’s the link to that blog if you’re interested:
Patanjali was a very wise and intelligent man, and his insights have inspired many generations of soul-searching yogis not to give up. If you don’t feel like reading the whole abovementioned blog, here is Patanjali’s definition of yoga:
Patanjali defines yoga in 4 words: yoga chitta vritti nirodha. Chitta is our consciousness. A vritti is something that arises within this consciousness, like ripples and waves on a lake. Nirodha is the key (often translated as controlling) as it carries a much subtler meaning. It is the capacity to still something and influence it in the direction we want it to go. Patanjali defines yoga as the practice that can influence, direct and ultimately control all of the fluctuations in our own consciousness.
First Level of Nirodha: Yamas
So the key to yoga is nirodha and as we told you before, there are eight aspects to practicing nirodha. They are maybe the most well-known of Patanjali’s concepts, and you can find much information about them in books and online.
The very first of these Eight Limbs of Yoga according to Patanjali is called ‘yamas’. The yamas are concerned with our outward behavior, with how we act in the world and our relationships with others (yamas means ‘to rein’, so this is the stuff we really should control). They are sometimes known as the don’ts, the stuff we should refrain from doing. Every tradition and religion will have a set of those, of course. The subtle difference is that Patanjali never talks about punishment or hell or sin. Those behaviors will lead us to suffering if repeated, and as such it is better for us to avoid them. There are 5 yamas:
Do No Harm
The very first yama is called ahimsa and literally translates to non-violence. It right away establishes a basic line of ethics “harming others is harming yourself”. The instinct of using violence to achieve what we want will bring us trouble every time simply because of the universal law of karma: we will never escape the consequences of our actions. Yogis of course do not consider this life to be the only place where justice can be met so if we don’t face the consequences in this life, they will be waiting for us in the next (and the next and the…you get it!). Also, if we are to live in a civilized society, we just can’t go about knocking down everybody who displeases us. And then there’s violent behaviour towards ourselves, an even harder issue to address because most of the time other people can’t see the shit we’re dishing out to ourselves in our heads, it doesn’t have to be physical to be violent.
The second yama is satya which means truthfulness. Of course, truthfulness is much more than not lying, It’s just easier to remember the yamas as the “do nots”. Being truthful is fundamental if we are to create an environment of trust and peace around us and inside us. It means taking responsibility for your actions and not making up excuses for your behavior. It also means that you stand for what you believe in and don’t pretend to be someone you are not. Vivekananda says “it is better to be an atheist than to be a hypocrite” and we could exchange atheist for almost anything.
If You Don’t Have It, You Don’t Need It
The third yama is asteya aka don’t steal. Not only is stealing very disruptive for social and community life, it also reinforces a sense of lack “someone has something I don’t have and I should have it”. When I steal, I am saying the Universe has it wrong and I should have it. Whereas if I truly trust that what is mine by karma and merit will find its way to me eventually, I don’t need to go about taking what’s not mine.
Don’t Let Sex Rule Your Life
Brahmacharya, the fourth yama, is the practicing of willingly controlling our sex drive for periods of time. Sex can be great fun and a huge source of energy and pleasure, but it can also go terribly wrong. Sexuality is a power that cannot be suppressed, as scandal after scandal should have taught us by now. Although it can’t be suppressed, Patanjali says it must be controlled so we can use it and enjoy it without getting entangled or obsessed.
Don’t Be Greedy
Aparigraha means not-coveting, or desiring – it slowly frees us from needing luxury or too many ‘things’. This one is sooo relevant for our time. We are so obsessed with having things, lusting after the newest phones or clothes or gadgets, without stopping to realize that this stuff never, ever leaves us satisfied for long. Even if we don’t buy it, this habit of desiring things disturbs our minds and makes us resentful and envious towards others.
Guideline vs Dogma
Now, if you are attentive, you probably noticed that you could find exceptions for most of these yamas. There are wars that are justified – the Bhagavad Gita takes place in one – and there may be instances where stealing or lying might turn out to be the right course of action. The yamas are not dogmas but guidelines of behaviour. Ultimately, it is the motivation behind the acts that will determine if an act is correct or not. As the mind gets cleared of clutter and pollution, we get to perceive with clarity our own behavior and direct it toward where we want to go – nirodha all the way.
Photo by Jon Tyson