The End of Violence

The first limb of the 8-limbed Ashtanga Yoga vehicle is called Yama.  Yama is often translated as restraints.  It also has a mythological connotation as Lord Yama who is none other than the presiding deity of death.  What is being referred to hear is not death in the morbid sense that you might find in a B-grade horror flick or a sterile tucked away semitary.  Yama in this context is referring to the death of separate existence, the death of ego.

While the five-tenants of Yama practice have very practical applications, and are intended to harmonize our social lives, their ultimate intention is to transform us, to move us from a contracted identity into union with Spirit.

The first of these five-tenants is called ahimsa or non-harming.  Often it is translated as nonviolence, though I consider this to be a limited translation because of gratuitous connotations that often go along with the word violence.  Culturally we tend to think of violence just in physical terms; the most recent car bombing on the evening news or even reruns of Tom and Jerry, all of these are overt examples of violence.

The practice of ahimsa is much more subtle.  It is intended to be practiced on every level; physically, verbally and mentally.  From this perspective, passive aggressive behavior, setting someone up to fail or holding a grudge are all considered forms of violence.

As one begins to consciously take on the practice of non-harming one of the first realizations is how much violence plays a roll in one’s day to day life.  It gets reflected in one’s diet, relationships and image of oneself to name just a few breading grounds of aggression.

At the center of violence stands a sense of separation, a feeling of isolation from the object of disdain, weather it be another person or oneself.  The more our identity contracts the more resentment builds up.  Yoga is the reverse of this process, it promises and requires an expansion of our identity.

The potential for this expansion is boundless. The practice of ahimsa offers a kind of road sign to tell us when we’ve veered off into the ditch of pain and delusion.  Progress is measured one choice or action at a time.  Gradually the practitioner begins to disidentify with thoughts of harm and offers their contracted ego up to Yama, the Lord of Death, the death of the separate self.

Before the Pose

We can engage in yoga practice long before we ever roll out our mat.  As I’ve mentioned in past entries asanas or postures are actually the third out of eight limbs of yoga practice.  So there are many other references points to be had as one travels deeper and deeper upon the path of yoga.

Despite the glossy images in the magazine and the tremendous feeling of integration that can arise through practice, everyone’s passage through life is marked with adversity.  In part, this is why there are so many limbs to yoga practice.  The limbs give us some reference points for how to best maneuver through life’s challenges and achievements and not be defeated in the process.

These core reference points are called Yama and Niyama (restraints and observances) and they are the foundation of yoga practice.  Without them, it does not matter how open our hamstrings are or if we can launch up into handstand.  These practices outline our basic moral instinct and encourage us to challenge our egocentric limitations.  This is how we can practice yoga “off the mat.”

The first rung of our eight-limb yoga latter is called yama or restraints.  Interestingly, the author of this system (a sage named Patanjali born around 200A.D.) begins not by telling us what to do but rather what we should refrain from doing, there by leaving it up to the aspirant to arrive at the appropriate course of action.

These restraints are to be practiced on a physical, verbal and even mental basis.  They offer the student of yoga the opportunity to practice in every aspect of their lives regardless of weather or not they can touch their toes.  The yamas are further broken down into five sub categories, each of them deeply interrelated. The first of these sub categories is called ahimsa or none-harming and it will be the subject of the next entry.

Essential Practices

Yoga practice has the potential to touch upon every single aspect of one’s life.  How is this so?  To begin, we must expand our definition of yoga beyond the postures and begin to recognize the other components of traditional yogic practice.  In-fact, there are eight limbs of practice that constitute a formal system of yoga.  The name for these limbs is Ashtanga Yoga or the eight limbs of yoga.

A complete discussion of each of these limbs is the subject of another entry and I wish to touch upon two of the foundational limbs.  The limbs that have to do with our day to day existence are called yama and niyama or the restraints and observances.

What these two limbs do is give some reference point as to how to conduct ourselves socially, in our actions, in our words and even our thoughts.  Our very lives are constituted by our actions, words and thoughts so the application of yama and niyama will pervade every aspect of one’s life.

I was once having an enduring conversation with a woman in her 80’s.  She was a very sweet soul who I had an ongoing relationship with.  Her name was Vishnu Ma.  We were discussing stories from the past and how people operated. Then she said something in passing that left an impression upon me.
“There are no guidelines anymore.”

I found that to be a resonate, simple and astute observation.  What do we reference as a culture for guidance?

In the coming weeks I’ll give a more detailed account of yogic tenants for living and how they can be applied to life.

The Truth

Our fall training program is underway and the students are deeply immersed in the study of yoga.  As part of our studies we are examining the classical yogic code of conduct called Yama and Niyama.  The idea behind these guidelines is to give the practitioner some reference for how they conduct themselves in the world, away from their mat.

These guidelines, such as non-harming, truthfulness, cleanliness and self study can be referenced in every circumstance and are deeply interrelated.  They are not only intended to harmonize our social relationships but to invoke deep transformation within the practitioner.  These principles can be applied not only to our physical actions but to speech and thoughts as well.

Each student had the opportunity to choose one of these precepts and apply it to their lives.  My group chose “satya” which literally means “To Be” and is more commonly translated at “truthfulness.”  The implication here is that when we are in accord with our essential beingness, truth arises spontaneously and unswervingly.

As part of our experiment we emailed one another daily to report our discoveries.  I thought I’d just share a few of my entries to give you a sense of this experiment.

“I was walking in the park this morning with my young son.  I thought it would take 20min instead it took an hour.  I wanted to go home and complain to Brenna how Rama, took to much time looking at little things!  The complaining functioned at a pretty low frequency of truth and underneath it was more aggression than anything else.  So I refrained.  Lesson: Truth can be not saying something as well.”

“In practicing truthfullness I find myself editing my words and choosing to align myself with my higher ideas, words and actions.  Part of the implication in the reading was that the truth carries it’s own potency.  I can sense this in the small examples I’ve listed and am curious to discover the source of truth itself….

“…This is when the truth flows most easily.  There is no effort or justification required.  At these times the truth starts to look a lot like love, peace and compassion. The truth seems to be a port-hole into a deeper dimension of ourselves.”