Our Old Friends, The Yamas

This week I had the honor of meeting up with an old friend.  We met back in the day in an organic chemistry class.  She was the best kind of friend to have.  We would (secretly) compete for the highest grade in the class.  I kept her close by.  No one better to learn from than the top of the class ;)

Boy, does it seem like have our paths diverged.  She went on to live in Caribbean, travel the US, and take on med school.  I went on to become a mom and fall in love with Vedic studies. 

The conversations have been such a pleasure given our diverse experiences over the past few years.  There’s something about old friends that is so comforting.

That brings me to today’s topic.  The first step in Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga – The Yamas.

 
yamas.jpg
 

Yamas are like our old friends.  They give us the guidelines which remind us of who we really are.  From here we can find that positive personality through our journey to wellness. 

When I came to yoga, I was far from a saint.  I still am.  But it is these guidelines that have proven invaluable to improve my relationship with myself and others.

When I first heard of these 5 old friends, I thought they seemed rather old-fashioned and perhaps even patriarchal.  I also thought they would be easy to implement, because they’re just so basic.

I quickly learned that simplicity does not equal ease of adaptation.

So what are these old friends?

In order, as taught by Sivananda, Patanjali, Pattabhi Jois and all of the great Yogis:

  1. Non-injury (ahimsa)

  2. Truthfulness (satya)

  3. Non-stealing (asteya)

  4. Energy management, or traditionally referred to as sexual restraint, although not suppression of (brahmacharya)

  5. Self-restraint, Non-covetousness (aparigraha)

Ahimsa

We start with ahimsa. Non-injury in thought, word or deed.

What does this mean?  It suggests not injuring another being.  And here we open acan of worms.  This is *the* principle yogis all over the world argue about. 

[Yes, yogis argue]

Is it more ethical to be a vegan?  Or perhaps follow the Jains, who wear masks not to injure the microscopic bugs they may breathe in? 

Or perhaps a middle path as a vegetarian or a pescatarian?  After all, Jesus ate fish.  And so did the Essences of the ancient Jewish esoteric tradition.  One might argue that it is helpful to remember that they were in a very different culture.  One in which the oceans were not becoming depleted.

My dear teacher, Swami Sankarananda, has shared this sentiment:  It used to be there were three things you didn’t talk about in polite conversation; politics, religion and sex.  These days we’ve added a fourth, food choices.  Therefore, I will leave this part of the discussion up to you to debate.  It really is only the surface level of the argument.  I am sure we will touch on it again as we dive deeper into the teachings.

Ahimsa truly starts with the mind.  If even your thoughts cause injury to another, then there is work to be done.  This is where I began on this journey.  At the time, I was eating raw, whole foods, and practicing yoga 3-4 times a week.  But internally, I was not practicing yoga.  I was judging and criticizing those around me.  I was thinking mean and hurtful thoughts.  Those thoughts were not just injurious to others, but they came back at me tenfold. 

If our goal in our wellness journey is to find Bliss, then we have to stop engaging in behaviors that veil Bliss. 

The Vedic sciences promise us that Bliss is our true state.  It is there behind all of the drama we cause ourselves.  Ayurveda is a science of personal empowerment, but also of personal responsibility.  If we are to see reality clearly and experience the Bliss within, we must start with the fundamentals.

Satya

Which brings us to our second step on the ladder to Bliss, satya.

Satya means truthfulness. 

I have a challenge for you.  For one whole day, just notice how many lies you tell. I bet there is more than you would expect.

I was a total liar-liar-pants on fire.  I am still surprised to this day at the silly lies that come out of my mouth.  No judgment, just the recognition that there is work to be done.

We tell lies about the most ridiculous of things. 

I used to do things like call my mom and say, “I’m so sorry I’m going to be late to Sunday dinner, I got home at 4:30 and have barely had time to get ready”. 

Lies.  I got home at 2pm and was too busy playing around on my phone to get moving.

By beginning my yoga practice and recognizing these habits from a non-judgmental place, I began to notice that lies made me feel heavy, anxious and unable to freely be me.  Because, let’s be honest, my mom knew I was lying, but she was going to love me anyway. 

My grandma always told us that she just couldn’t lie, because it’s too much work to keep it all straight!

Surprisingly though if you are caught deep in the traps of a lying personality, this can be a hard habit to break, so I empathize.  But don’t let that be an excuse to keep you from reaching your highest potential!
Break free from the traps! 

There was a study done by Notre Dame that asked participants to reduce lying for 10 weeks. Truthfulness proved clinically to be better for your mental health. [1]  It is not a far stretch to see that less emotional worrying would lead to lower blood pressure and less production of the stress hormone, cortisol. 

Asteya

Non-stealing.  This is easy, right?  Ha, not.  Remember, this is in word, thought and deed.

How often do we take from the office without permission?  Or from your parent’s house?  These small actions create disharmony in ourselves.  The message we are send ourselves is that we are not complete without this small thing.  How often would your parents or boss say ‘yeah, that’s fine’ if you just asked. Do you realize the mental pressure you add to yourself?  It may be repressed and ignored, but none-the-less it is still there. 

Remember, as much as these principles are for the greater good, they really are selfish.  They are principles to align you with who-you-really-are.  And who you are is complete, and doesn’t need to steal. 

Another way that Swami Sivananda mentioned asteya is in the form of hoarding. When we add to our wants and desires we have stuff that someone else could NEED.  As modern humans, we have wayyyyy too much stuff. Gandhi has reportedly said ‘mankind’s greed and craving for artificial needs is also stealing.’ 

On a subtler level, by stealing we are creating a mental environment of lack.  By feeling lack, we lose contact with the Bliss (Ananda) within.

Brahmacharya

This is another can of worms, like that of ahimsa. 

Traditionally brahmacharya is translated as sexual restraint.  In our day, free-love seems to be the cultural norm.  This isn’t so much an ethical point as it is practical. 

In Ayurveda, shukra is semen or the creative fluid of the body.  In it’s subtlest form, it creates ojas, or the immunity and rejuvenate fluids.

Ayurveda is concerned with proper management of the body’s energies for health and well-being’s sake.  Basically, do you deplete yourself day in and day out by completing endless tasks?  Or are you able to gracefully flow from one project to the next, full of energy and enthusiasm?  If we are engaging in too much of any energy expenditure, including sex, we have less to give the world through creative endeavors.

Aparigraha

Overcoming the need for possessing objects.  To covet is to yearn, to desire.  In all yoga teachings we discuss desire as the root of all suffering.  As long as we are not content, as long as we yearn for more than what we have, we are unable to feel that we are whole and complete.

Think about the unhappiness and suffering that we as a wealthy, first-world society experience.  We have giant cars and giant homes.  Filled with stuff we don’t need, nor do we use.  We work extra hours and rack up extra debt to impress people we don’t like.  We normalize these actions through statistics of the ‘average-American’ with debt owing $16,000+ [2].  We pay more for medical care than ANY other nation [3], while the health of our life span is decreasing for the first time in years [4].  The US uses more pain killers than any other country [5], and we’re at the top of the list for drug, alcohol abuse and depression and anxiety [6].

There has to be a better way.  A way that empowers ourselves and our communities, rather than creates a culture of victimization to the powers-that-be.

We complain about being ‘green’, the pollution of our planet, yet our desires keep increasing.  Therefore, the supply increases to meet these demands.  And do we know what the consequence of this extra supply is?  Extra use of energy, of natural resources, of waste!

If you made it this far, you realize the importance of these practices.  The time is now for self-empowerment, self-improvement and self-responsibility.    If for nothing other than to be an example for those around us.  The examples we see on TV are what most people aspire to.  But what they don’t understand is that they are aspiring to a lie. 

If you’re looking for an amazing program to help you become content financially, please look to Dave Ramsey.  My sister, who is a financial planner, introduced his program to me - Financial Peace University.   His work has added so much depth to my yoga practice, specifically related to asteya and aparigraha. 

Take it from me, you will be ridiculed if you follow these disciplines.  I have been ostracized from many groups when I decided I no longer wanted to participate in gossip, live above my means or participate in a culture of delusion.  But if you quit looking for validation and approval from outside, you will find that the reserves inside are more than you could have ever possibly imagined. 

I have lots of work left to do.  But the carrot on the stick is that I have lots of peace left to gain.

While many of these guidelines may feel restricting, it is through self-discipline that we experience the true Self and experience freedom.  The yamas are really just old friends, the ones who keep us connected with who we really are as to not get lost under the veil of who we are not.

And so I will leave you with these quotes of inspiration.

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Om Namaḥ Śivāya

ॐ नमः शिवाय

lokāḥ samastāḥ sukhino-bhavaṁtu 

लोकाः समस्ताः सुखिनो भवन्त

Peace Peace Peace

 
No person is free who is not master of himself. - Epictetus


Happiness is dependent on self-discipline. We are the biggest obstacles to our own happiness. It is much easier to do battle with society and with others than to fight our own nature. - Dennis Prager

Self-disciplined begins with the mastery of your thoughts. If you don’t control what you think, you can’t control what you do. Simply, self-discipline enables you to think first and act afterward. – Napoleon Hill

Mental toughness is many things and rather difficult to explain. Its qualities are sacrifice and self-denial. Also, most importantly, it is combined with a perfectly disciplined will that refuses to give in. It’s a state of mind-you could call it character in action. – Vince Lombardi

Self-discipline is crucial to a simpler, more contented life. – Dalai Lama

Serving one’s own passions is the greatest slavery. – Thomas Fuller

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit – Aristotle