Our daily choices create effects in the world that we may never know. This may be the most important reason for embarking on a path of awakening. When we are conscious of our motivations, we can choose wisely. When we choose wisely, our lives and the lives of those around us are more harmonious. We cannot know how many lives we nourish by living consciously.
In 1993, the National Demonstration Project to Reduce Violent Crime and Improve Governmental Effectiveness conducted an experiment in Washington, D.C. The study brought 4,000 students of the Transcendental Meditation and TM-Sidhi programs to the capital city for two months to help reduce stress through group meditations. At the end of the period, the study found a significant reduction in violent crimes correlated with the size of the study group, which varied from week to week. In the final week, when the number of participants peaked, the study recorded its highest percentage decrease in violent crime at 23.3 percent.
In the beginning and in the end, the fruits of our yoga practice are manifest most significantly in how we live. The amazing physical feats we perform on the yoga mat mean little if we are not carrying consciousness into our daily work and relationships. This is why precepts for ethical behavior are the cornerstone of every spiritual system. The first limb of ashtanga yoga is yama, five guidelines for living harmoniously in the world. They are ahimsa, non-harming; satya, truth; asteya, non-stealing; brahmacharya, wise use of energy, including sexual energy; and aparigraha, non-greed, or generosity. The mind is not likely to settle into stillness if our relationships are in disharmony.
Just as we can see to the bottom of a lake when its water is still, when we quiet the mind we see the situations that arise in our lives with greater clarity and can make wiser choices.
The Buddha outlined five precepts, almost identical to the yamas of Patanjali, which he taught as a basis for practice. About these precepts Jack Kornfield writes, “The positive power of virtue is enormous. When we don’t live by these precepts, it is said we live like wild beasts; without them, all other spiritual practice is a sham. Imagine trying to sit down and meditate after lying and stealing. Then imagine what a different world this would be if everyone kept even one precept—not to kill, or not to lie, or not to steal. We would truly create a new world order.”
We can see how the limbs of yoga practice relate to each other in our practice of the yamas. When we endeavor to behave ethically in the world, there is less agitation present in the mind. Just as we can see to the bottom of a lake when its water is still, when we quiet the mind we see the situations that arise in our lives with greater clarity and can make wiser choices. Our worldly relationships are a reflection of our practice. When we cultivate our minds through practice, our lives become more peaceful; as our lives become more peaceful, our minds settle.
As with all the eight limbs, practicing the yamas is a lifelong process of refinement. After several years of asana practice, you might notice that your body has changed and is able to relax more deeply into certain postures that may have previously seemed impossible. In the same way, we continually refine our understanding of the yamas as we act within their framework. It is easy to look back from our present level of understanding and see how we might have behaved differently in the past, if only we knew then what we know now. This is a natural part of our evolution; it tells us that we are indeed evolving.
The yamas are guidelines, a framework from which we can begin a process of inquiry. They are not commandments, nor are they intended to be followed mechanically. Practicing the yamas simply because they are written in the Yoga Sutra does not lead us to greater wisdom. Understanding of the yamas comes from considering them in the context of each situation that arises in our lives and being mindful of the consequences of our actions.
Understanding of the yamas comes from considering them in the context of each situation that arises in our lives and being mindful of the consequences of our actions.
As in all other practices, we will sometimes stumble or fall. Conscious reflection helps us to see where we might have altered our behavior. The yamas are like any other skill we want to develop: we must practice. Over time, with conscious practice, our understanding of the yamas becomes more refined.
When people embark upon a formal Buddhist practice, they begin by committing to follow the five ethical precepts outlined by the Buddha. In the same way, as we commit to practice yoga we can set the intention to let the yamas guide our life choices. Jack Kornfield describes the evolutionary process of practicing the precepts: “At first, precepts are a practice. Then they become a necessity, and finally they become a joy. When our heart is awakened, they spontaneously illuminate our way in the world. This is called Shining Virtue. The light around someone who speaks truth, who consistently acts with compassion for all, even in great difficulty, is visible to all around them.”
Sutra 1.1, as translated by Alistair Shearer, says: “And now the teaching on union begins.” At first glance I discounted this sutra as a throwaway verse. In revisiting it later in my Sutra study, I saw this verse as the setting of intention. Intention is the impulse that precedes all action and colors everything we undertake. When we see our intentions clearly, we can more easily determine whether actions we are considering will bring happiness or harm.
Intention is the impulse that precedes all action and colors erything we undertake. When we see our intentions clearly, we can more easily determine whether actions we are considering will bring happiness or harm.
For example: I feel an impulse to share. My motivation might be political—I’d like to ingratiate myself with someone because she has something to offer me. Another motivation might simply be the impulse to give, free of any expectation. While the act of giving is virtually the same in both scenarios, differing motivations color the results. Knowing our intentions can help us understand the possible fruits of our actions. As we grow in mindfulness, we see our intentions more clearly and can make choices accordingly.
The only moral dictum I ever heard my parents repeat (and they did so frequently) was the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The yamas can be seen as specific guidelines that teach us how to practice this universal precept. When we are faced with a moral question in our lives, it can be helpful to consider the possible viewpoints of all beings involved. The next time you have a difficult decision to make that will affect someone else, put yourself in the other person’s place. When you reverse your perspective, note what you feel. What emotions arise? Can you accomplish what you want in a way that is sensitive to the needs of everyone? Changing your viewpoint can help you clarify a skillful course of action.
We are not alone in this world, and everything we do has an impact. Being aware of the yamas and solidifying our intention to practice from their foundation allows us to live wisely and compassionately. The fruit borne through actions rooted in the yamas is sweet, nourishing the earth and all its inhabitants.
Yoga in Action
When we cultivate the niyamas, we clear our environment as well as our bodies and minds of those qualities that create agitation, while we strengthen those qualities that uncover our essential quiet mind.
The second limb of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra is niyama, five daily practices which taken together form a solid, fertile foundation in which to cultivate the settled mind. They are shaucha, purity; santosha, cultivation of contentment; tapas, simplicity, discipline, or enthusiasm; svadhyaya, self-study and the study of sacred literature; and Ishvara pranidhana, surrender to grace.
In T.K.V. Desikachar’s Sutra translation, he describes the yamas as “our attitudes toward our environment,” and the niyamas as “our attitudes toward ourselves.” In her book Yoga Mind, Body & Spirit, Donna Farhi titles the section addressing the niyamas “codes for living soulfully.” I see the niyamas as daily practices that, when undertaken with intention, clear a path for spiritual evolution.
The niyamas are practices that help us clean and cultivate our physical, mental, and emotional palates. When we tend a garden by feeding and watering the plants we wish to cultivate, and weeding out those that compete for nutrients in the soil, our chosen plants grow strong and healthy. In the same way, when we cultivate the niyamas, we clear our environment as well as our bodies and minds of those qualities that create agitation, while we strengthen those qualities that uncover our essential quiet mind.
Previous to my first yoga retreat at the Last Resort Retreat Center, with my teachers, Pujari and Abhilasha Keays, I had no idea that yoga extended beyond my asana practice. Observing them living a yogic life, and experiencing a week devoted entirely to practice, gave me a new understanding of yoga. In addition to two daily sessions of intense asana, we practiced pranayama and meditation and took invigorating hikes in the surrounding mountains. Rather than being a how-to course on the minutiae of correct asana practice, the retreat focused on the process of living a yogic life. We devoted retreat time to real-life subjects such as right livelihood and right relationship. Most days included a class on natural nutrition and the necessity of nourishing the body in order to maintain mental equilibrium.
I returned home from the retreat inspired and somewhat overwhelmed by the vast scope of what I now understood to be the yogic life. As good as asana practice made me feel, performing poses for an hour a day and then stowing my mat and sleepwalking through the rest of my life was no longer an option. I had to ask myself how, as a city dweller with a full-time job, I could let my practice infiltrate my life so the whole thing became an expression of yoga. I found out that the most practical answer to this question is: gradually. Patience is a necessity. Changing ingrained habits requires commitment. It also requires compassion. Whipping oneself into living a yogic life is impossible.
In one nutrition class, Pujari and Abhilasha suggested setting aside one day each month as “goop day.” On that day you get to eat a corn dog, a chocolate bar, or a pizza with extra everything—joyfully, without guilt or self-judgment. This outlet tends to defuse the temptation to indulge at other times and often takes a bit of the sheen off your forbidden fruit. For many of us, prohibition often renders something more attractive than it would be otherwise. Removing the glamour lessens the desire.
The occasional goop day reminds us that what’s most important is not what we do once in a while but what we do day to day. Those habits we cultivate every day become the substance of who we are. When our daily practices are aimed at promoting a settled mind, we can step off our path once in a while and not be thrown out of balance. With the niyamas as our foundation, we can sustain the occasional physical, mental, or emotional goop day (or goop week) without losing our center.
Like the yamas, the niyamas are not intended to be unbending law. As with anything we choose to practice, over time our relationship with the niyamas will evolve. How we express the niyamas ten years from now may bear little resemblance to how our practice looks today. Remaining open to the myriad ways of interpreting the niyamas to fit our individual journey allows the practice to stay vital.
When practicing yoga’s ten ethical precepts I have found it helpful to focus on one yama or niyama at a time for as long as it takes for me to integrate it and its effects. Try this for yourself. Choose one to practice for a period of time—a week, a month, or a year. At the end of that time, decide whether you’d like to continue with the same principle or if its momentum is strong enough that you’d like to add another. As always, be patient. The yamas and niyamas are lifelong practices. Watch how your understanding of these precepts evolves. Like anything to which we apply ourselves, practice eventually becomes more effortless as these qualities become the ground on which we live and grow.
Excerpted from Charlotte Bell, author of Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life, has been teaching yoga since 1986. She blends the practice of yoga with insight meditation. For more information, visit www.charlottebellyoga.com.