Monday, July 16, 2007

Off the Mat -- Reflecting on the yamas and anticipating the niyamas

(This is another post in the series of dharma talks I've presented to my yoga students.)

Off the mat: Reflecting on yamas and anticipating niyamas

We’ve now reviewed each of the five yamas (ethical practices for interacting with external world): ahimsa, satya, asteya, brahmacharya, aparigraha, non-harming, truthfulness, non-stealing, mindful sexuality, non-grasping.

Not really the part of yoga you see in magazines or on television.

But as soon as Patanjali finishes outlining the yamas, he then describes the niyamas -- the personal disciplines of Yoga: saucha or purity, santosha or contentment, tapas or self-discipline, svadhyaya or self-study, and ishvara pranidhana or surrender.

At this point, you may be thinking, “gadzooks! Isn’t there any strength and flexibility and pretzel poses to Yoga, after all?”

Of course there are, and we’ll get to discussing them in a bit. But there’s a reason Patanjali starts with the yamas and niyamas: to take the physical asana practice from a peculiar kind of exercise and turn it into a path of liberation, we need to understand it as more than simply a three-dimensional performance of muscle and bone. The first two limbs of yoga help us to develop the understanding and the discipline that create the sensitivity and the perception we need to make better use of the posture and breathing practices of Yoga.

I read from Rolf Gates and Katrina Kenison’s Meditations from the Mat: Daily Reflections on the Path of Yoga, this past week and was impressed by their insight regarding the yamas and niyamas:

The yamas are in many ways the hardest work on this path [of Yoga], for they confront us with the enormous challenge of rechanneling our spiritual energies. The yamas form the very bedrock of our existence. Before encountering the yamas, we are prey to the whims of our minds. Our minds tell us we are good, so we feel good; our minds tell us we are bad, so we feel bad. Our orientation is outward; we continuously compare ourselves to others, and most of the time we find ourselves lacking. We search outside ourselves for the validation we crave. And since we have no control over this validation, we can never truly be at peace or gain access to our true power in this life. The yamas change all of this. The energy we have poured into fruitless effort now becomes redirected into a process that gains us lasting peace and freedom. The yamas are the fundamental renunciation of a life based on fear. They are the change. The niyamas are the fundamental practices that sustain a life based on love. They sustain the change.
p. 83.

I especially liked their point that practicing the yamas lets us stop living a life based on fear – fear of perceived threats by others, fear of truth, fear of not having enough, fear of not being loved, fear of letting go. Each of those fears affects not just our thoughts, but our entire lives. Also, each one tends to contract us more and more tightly around what we think of as our “me,” our “self,” the part of us that wants to be validated, protected and preserved. Yoga doesn’t teach us that the self is a bad thing (though as one continues practice, the concept of “self” tends to change rather dramatically) – but rather Yoga allows us to see the self and its actions in brighter light. The renunciations of the yamas – of violence, of falsehood, of taking what is not offered, of sexual misconduct, of grasping and clutching – are all practices that work counter to our instinctual patterns of “self”-building and “self”-protection. Why? Not to annihilate the self – Yoga isn’t about self-hatred. But rather to free the self from those behaviors that work like addictions.

Within its context, each of these practices appears to give one a degree of control, a way to protect the self. Violence seems to lead to dominion. We tell lies to control others by controlling the information they receive. Taking others’ belongings seems like a way to become wealthy. Sexual exploitation seems to provide control and power. Grasping is, invariably, an effort to control something that is going to change (or, more frequently, has already begun to change, despite our clutching). Like other addictive behaviors, following those paths actually amplifies the need for more of them. So rather than alleviating our fears, they increase them. The only way to get to the end of a circular path is to step off of it. Pursing such courses in seeking freedom from fear only perpetuates it.

So the yamas help us extricate ourselves from the paths that lead on and on, but never really get to where they promise.

Once free from – or, more realistically, just aware of – those unfruitful circles, we’re able to start sharpening the tools that will be required for the next steps. And the tools are, of course, aspects of the mind-body itself – the ways that we approach ourselves. Implementing them, as we’ll discuss in the coming weeks, has a sharply different focus than the yamas, and a very different feel. Implementing the yamas may require some re-tuning of our minds and attitudes, but to one degree or another, each of the yamas is already assumed as basic good conduct within our society. The niyamas, on the other hand, begin to shift our attention from external to internal, and our society has a lot less to say about how we approach ourselves.

Yoga teaches us to engage each being we encounter with compassion. That includes the beings we encounter inside each of us. The niyamas enable us to act toward that being, and all others, with compassion and clarity.

Reflections on the yamas, so far?