Yoga has grown into a multi-million-dollar industry in the west. Teachers are inventing new ways to attract students to class. You can do everything from goat yoga, to wine and yoga evenings where, you’ve guessed it, you can enjoy your favourite glass of merlot while doing warrior pose.
The idea behind this is to get people on the mat, to create a space where they feel comfortable and accepted. The ethics of getting drunk while doing yoga is a story for another day. But I get it, attending your very first yoga class could seem a bit intimidating. We are bombarded with images of the ‘perfect’ yoga body, clad in Lulu Lemon, looking calm and serene. We have this idea that you have to look and behave a certain way in order to be a good yogi.
What we forget is that yoga is a practice. There is no final achievement. It is all about becoming a better and healthier person in mind, body and soul. And some days we mess up… and that that is ok. During your asana practice you will find that some days you feel healthy and strong and that you can go deeper and deeper into certain poses, while other days you might need to spend most of your time in child’s pose. And that is ok.
What we forget is that the asana practice is there to lead us into deeper things . It is a way to connect our minds with our bodies and our inner space. It is the tool we use to connect with something bigger than ourselves. Read all about how I first realised this and how I discovered a world beyond yoga class here.
No, you don’t need to chant ‘ohm’ every morning or do say 108 mantras every day – although these do have benefits. If you dig a bit deeper, you might realise that the ‘spiritual’ part of yoga is less foreign and more natural than you thought.
The yogi Maharishi Patanjali spoke about the 8 branches, or limbs, of yoga. Adhering to these 8 limbs is believed to lead you to enlightenment. I hear you say: ‘Enlightenment, that is super spiritual whoo-haa! I knew this was a trick, I just came for the wine’. But that’s just the thing: these 8 limbs are things we do naturally in order to live an authentic and harmonious life with others and ourselves.
Rather than being steps towards enlightenment, though, they are best practiced in conjunction with each other, much like the branches of a tree are entwined. The also do work as the rungs of a ladder. As you become more experienced in practicing one limb, it helps you to practice the other ones.
The eight branches of yoga include Yama (social rules), Niyama (rules of personal behaviour), Asana (seat or position), Pranayama (mastering the life force), Pratyahara (turning inward), Dharana (mastering attention and intention), Dhyana (developing witnessing awareness) and Samadhi (being fully aware). Let’s explore one of these branches the yamas – and how to bring them into our everyday lives… off the mat.
The Yamas are guidelines for you to live in harmony with society. They are the general rules that we follow in order to fit in with other people. Instead of being a list of ‘shoulds’ and ‘should-nots’ the Yamas is a natural state of living for enlightened beings. Yogi’s subscribe to the belief that we are all connected to everything in the universe – that there is a oneness that underlies everything. From this point of view, one naturally pursues a life that does not cause harm to others or themselves.
While the Yamas might seem quite straight-forward: don’t steal, don’t cause harm… we need consider something called klishta or colouring. Here is where you really get to dig deep into your soul. Instead of just saying: ‘I don’t hurt other people, so I am already practicing the first yama’ you need to start looking at your sub-conscious thoughts. These thoughts might be negative or violent, they might even be hurting you.
Practicing right action spontaneously – and keeping with natural law – is called Kriya Shakti. Kriya means action – but in this case it is action conducted without personal consequences (as opposed to karma where every action has a reaction). Shakti means that we create no resistance. So, in essence Kriya Shakti means behaving in a manner that does not cause resistance. We often refer to this as ‘being in the flow’.
When you practice the yamas you need to do so with your actions, your words and your thoughts. While all of these are independent practices, they relate and affect other people.
Our actions are the easiest to notice – I mean you have to physically move your body to preform an action. It only takes a little bit of awareness to pay attention to what we are doing. It takes a bit more to pay attention to our words – how often do we say something that we don’t mean or without thinking about it? The more difficult of the three is becoming aware of our thoughts. We can do this by practicing mindfulness and, once we become aware of our conscious thoughts, we can start to explore our subconscious thoughts. If you want to see and experience the change, you need to go deep into the rabbit hole, Alice.
Here is how the yamas helps us to create a life in the flow.
Practicing nonviolence or non-harming (ahimsa)
‘A’ means ‘not’ and ‘himsa’ means ‘hurt’, the word literally means do not hurt. That seems pretty easy and straight-forward. Do not hurt others or yourself. It also means that you need to pay attention to your thoughts so as not to have negative or harmful thoughts about others and yourself – raise your hand if your internal voice is a mean bully sometimes – especially towards yourself.
On the yoga mat practicing ahimsa means listening to your body and being gentle with it. It means not going deeper into a pose when it doesn’t feel right and backing off when you need to. It is about paying attention so as not to harm yourself.
For some ahimsa means not eating meat. This is filled with controversy. If not eating a certain food causes you harm, then that goes against practicing ahimsa. In the book The Secret Life of Plants , authors Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird speak about how plants have feelings and can even feel pain. If this is true then it is not realistic to think that we can sustain ourselves while not causing harm to anything -unless you become a breatharian, of course. I believe a balance here is to honour the soul of what you consume, to be thankful and to put that energy to the best possible use.
Practicing truthfulness (satya)
Practicing truthfulness means not lying to other people or to yourself. It is about facing the truth, even, and especially the truths that are hard to acknowledge and to accept. On the surface this could simply read as not telling lies, but as with all the yamas this goes deeper than that.
‘Sat’ means ‘pure essence’, it is a fundamental truth that is unchanging. The way we perceive things and experience life is tinted by our thoughts and emotions, by our conditioning and the knowledge that we have gained so far in our lives. These are all constantly changing things. By paying attention to these changing things we start to see how they fluctuate all the time. And then we start to realise our deeper truths, the pure essence.
When you are on the yoga mat or practicing meditation, you connect with that pure essence. It is a moment when all your thoughts, judgements and conditioning falls away. Taking the mindfulness that you learn during yoga and meditation practice into your daily life you create more and more opportunities to live a life connected with the universal truth that underlies everything.
Being honest or non-stealing (asteya)
Non-stealing does not only mean not taking something that does not belong to you. It also includes coveting and our constant need to reach for more. Asteya looks at the reason why we are in a space of constantly desiring more. This sprouts from a feeling of lack and that others have something that we don’t – and we want it. This creates a feeling of emptiness, a void that we are not sure how to fill. We do not trust ourselves to be able to fill this void… to be enough. So we turn outward to look for things to fill it.
Pursuing asteya is to learn that we are whole and full in ourselves. Only by connecting with our higher selves can we reach the fulfilment we seek. Once we have achieved that we will no longer be grasping at outside sources to fill the void.
Practicing gratitude in your daily life teaches you that you have exactly what you need in every moment. It helps you to become appreciative for what you have and makes you realise that you do not need as much as you think you do. Eventually with practice you will cultivate a feeling of wholeness that comes from within, instead of grasping for more and more external things to fill the void.
The right use of energy (brahmacharya)
Sometimes this is also referred to as exercising appropriate sexual control or celibacy. Wait before you scroll down, convinced that this is not for you! Traditional yogi’s believed that they could store their sexual energy in order to use it to help them along their spiritual journey.
No, I am not saying you should become celibate. What I am saying though, is that we need to be more discerning in how we spend our energy (and especially our sexual energy).
Achara means ‘pathway’ and brahman is the ‘unity consciousness’ or ‘divine’. Brahmacharya thus means ‘behaviour which leads to divine’. The goal then, of Brahmacharya is to conserve and use your energy to align with the higher power.
When you practice brahmacharya you start to pay attention to where you direct your energy. You might notice that most of your energy is directed at external factors, things that you cannot control. Once you know where you spend your energy, you can consciously re-direct it to where you want it to be… to where it will do the most good for you and others.
By practicing brahmacharya you align with the creative energy of the universe. The most crucial creative energy in the universe is sexual. We have all been created into physical beings through it. Just let that sink in for a moment… we are all here because of the power of sexual energy. We hold immense power in this pleasurable act. Are you treating it with the sanctity that it deserves?
‘Graha’ means to take while ‘pari’ means from all sides. The ‘a’ as a prefix makes the word a negative – so essentially aparigraha means ‘not to take from everywhere’. It teaches us to only take and use what we need in each moment, and to let go of that which no longer serves us.
A mentor of a friend of mine once said: ‘do what you love, and the success will come’. This encompasses the practice of aparigraha. Place your focus on the action, on the now, without attachment to the outcome.
An easy way to practice aparigraha in your daily life is to clear out your physical space. Let go of everything that no longer has a purpose – that dress that you hope to wear someday, the stacks of books that you have been meaning to read for the past five years, all the little things that you keep ‘just in case’. Holding on to things that you do not need, or use creates a feeling of lack. You are essentially telling the universe that you do not trust it to provide you with what you need when you need it. Letting go of things creates space for abundance to enter. It allows space for the things that you need in this moment to come to you.
More difficult is letting go of habits, emotions and people that no longer serve you. This is a difficult practice and it takes time to get into the space where you are no longer attached. Keep in mind that as you clear the space, you make room for more and better things.
The yamas are a set of guidelines to follow in order to live a harmonious life with others. It speaks about how individuals can interact with others to create a peaceful society. While most of the yamas seem pretty straight-forward, once you start to meditate on each of the yamas you will learn that each of them is a multi-faceted and multi-layered practice.
Practice of the yamas is just that, a practice. It is a dedication to the pursuit of becoming a better person. One step at a time. One moment at a time. On and off the mat.