Patanjali's Yamas - First limb on the path to enlightenment.
Updated: Oct 15, 2019
Patanjali is known as the Father of Yoga. His Yoga Sutras set out the path of Yoga we are all interested in today, the active path of Yoga. Patanjali, by no means, invented Yoga but he was one of the first sages to write the teachings down.
Patanjali’s story starts thousands of years ago. The story goes that Patanjali’s mother, Gonika, was a powerful Yogini who was desperately lonely and wanted a child. She sat by the river praying for a son, her hands in Anjali mudra - hands together at her heart. All of a sudden, a tiny snake fell from heaven and into her hands. “Pat” in Sanskrit means to fall. This little being fell - pat - into Gonika’s hands - in Anjali mudra - and turned into her child. This is where his name comes from, Patanjali.
Patanjali set out the Yoga Sutras in 4 books or chapters and it is a manual on how to be a Yogi and live a Yogic lifestyle. His 8 limbed path to Enlightenment is described in the second book, Sadhana Pada, the chapter on Practice.
First off, Patanjali sets out a ONE step path to enlightenment which is to just surrender. He says if you can surrender all your stuff, accept everything as it is and be in the moment, you will be happy. But, when you get down to it, we’re all quite attached to our stuff, so letting it all go is quite difficult. Patanjali then sets out his 8 limbed path to enlightenment which gives us more guidance and practical steps to take to become happy and content in our lives.
These 8 steps don’t have to be done step by step, they can all happen at the same time. You don’t have to master one thing to move onto the next one, you can do all these practices simultaneously, on the mat and out there in your everyday life. They are all PRACTICES - so sometimes we mess up, and that's okay, we’re only human. The important thing is that we’re trying.
The 8 limbed path to enlightenment starts out with the Yamas. Yama means restraint and it refers to how we should be restraining our actions towards others. The Yamas set out an amazingly kind and respectful way that we should treat one another. As much as these compassionate characteristics are directed at others, we need to also make sure that we are demonstrating them to ourselves as well.
There are 5 Yamas, as follows:
Ahimsa. In my opinion the most important practice of Yoga. Ahimsa means non-violence. This characteristic embodies kindness and compassion and the ability to cultivate respect for ALL living beings and for all life. Ahimsa is about making sure that your thoughts, words and actions are conscious and non-violent, that they are not hurting anyone, in any way, including yourself. The Yoga Sutras say “When you stop harming others, others cease to harm you”, which is a really beautiful and powerful way to live your life and contribute to much-needed peace on our planet.
Satya. Truthfulness. The Yoga Sutras say “When one does not defile one’s speech with lies, the words one says are listened to and acted upon in a positive and immediate manner. The speaker will be able to say what they mean. What one says comes true.” This is a very powerful characteristic to develop. When we are dedicated to speaking the truth, magic happens. We become very discerning as to what thoughts we allow into our heads and what words we allow out of our mouths. As you become more dedicated to truthfulness, the more people will really listen to what you have to say and the words you speak literally make things happen.
Asteya. Not stealing. The Yoga Sutras say here “When one stops stealing from others, prosperity appears (material, mental and spiritual)” We are all guilty of taking what does not belong to us, including material things, other people's ideas as well as stealing other people’s time. Taking what does not belong to us or what has not been given freely creates the energy of lack, that we don’t have enough and we want what someone else has. In committing to asteya, not stealing, we are telling the universe that we are happy and satisfied with what we have, and we don’t need to take what is not ours to find happiness. In not crediting others for their work or ideas, we take a little bit of who they are without acknowledging them as creative humans and we disrespect them. The same goes with stealing other people's time, we show that our time is more important than theirs, and they don’t matter as much. For example arriving late, overstaying your welcome or taking up more time in conversation than is freely given. When we start to become mindful of other people's boundaries around their stuff, their ideas and time we show them that we see them and we respect them. Then, a beautiful thing begins to happen and they start to treat us the same way.
Brahmacarya. Sexual respect. This Yoga Sutra states “When one does not misuse sexual energy, one obtains enduring vitality resulting in good health.” The scriptures of old speak of Brahmacharya as complete abstinence from anything sexual. Redirecting the energy “wasted” through sexual pursuits to focus on enlightenment and finding happiness within. Nowadays, it’s referred to more as sexual respect for others and for oneself. It’s about understanding consent, healthy communication between partners and being truly respectful of other people's bodies, opinions and boundaries.
Aparigraha. Greedlessness. I truly believe that the mess we are in as a society and as the human race is because of greediness. It’s because of our constant need to consume more than what we actually need. It’s about unhealthy attachment and the unnecessary want of things. In being greed-less we focus on what truly makes you happy, it’s using the practices of gratitude to realise that you have all that you need and there is more than enough to go around for everyone. Having a lot of stuff will make you happy for a moment but that happiness is fleeting. You have everything inside of you right now to be happy and content and grateful. You just have to learn how to find it.
These 5 Yamas are very simple yet amazingly powerful techniques to use to start to become more conscious of our thoughts, words and actions. They are amazing practices to adopt to work through your own emotional stuff and start to dictate the life you want instead of being the victim of the life you have.
I challenge you to start to mindfully incorporate these teachings into your daily life. Give it try and see if there are shifts in energy or changes that happen. Turning your awareness and focus inwards on to yourself gives you the opportunity to have a close look at yourself and learn so much about yourself. It gives you the opportunity to look at these little elements of yourself and decide if they are aspects and characteristics that you resonate with, that serve you and help you grow. If they aren’t you can let them go and come one step closer to understanding who you really are.
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