08 Mar The Most Important Practice of Yoga
I have a couple questions for you. Take a moment before you read on to think of how you’d respond. Or, if you’re the journaling type…
How would you describe someone who lives in integrity with their values?
What are your top three values?
Of the eight limbs of yoga, yama is the first and the most important. The five yamas along with the five niyamas (which we’ll talk about next week) are the value system of yoga.
The yamas are ways to be in the world. I bet they’ll sound familiar: don’t harm, tell the truth, don’t steal, be moderate in your behavior, and don’t take more than you need.
The yamas can be practiced just like the rest of yoga. As you may have noticed, most of them are stated as ways not to be. We can think of them as external abstentions. The yamas say please abstain from violence, being untruthful, stealing, over-indulging, and greed. Sounds reasonable to me. But easy? Like I said, it’s a practice.
More on each of the yamas…
Ahimsa – non-harming, non-violence; don’t hurt yourself or others. Don’t be violent with inanimate objects.
Consider the nuance of ahimsa. Are there little, seemingly insignificant ways we humans casually do harm?
Me, I’ll eat an entire family size bag of chips if it’s in my hands. When I’m nervous I’ll chew my cuticles. If I stub my toe on a door I might slam the door just to show it who’s boss.
If I think of where aggression shows up in my life, I have a hint at where ahimsa could play a role.
Satya – truthfulness, tell the truth unless it harms; if it harms, either find a way to tell it kindly or don’t say it at all.
Again, look for the nuance. Can you think of a time you’ve shared something that turned out to be untruthful? Have you ever told someone a tidbit of information you got from a social media post, but didn’t verify yourself?
Satya is a big responsibility, and important in our age of rampant mis- and disinformation.
Asteya – non-stealing, don’t take what isn’t yours.
This one, like the others, seems so obvious on the surface, but think about what a disciplined practice of asteya would look like.
Crossing a friend’s boundaries can be seen as stealing space that you aren’t entitled to. Interrupting someone in conversation can be seen as stealing their chance to be understood.
As a white person trying to figure out institutionalized white supremacy, I think about ways I’ve taken advantage of privileges given to me that I didn’t earn and frankly wasn’t even aware of until recent years.
In fact, I often ask myself how I can teach and share yoga in a way that isn’t stealing. After all, yoga is a practice that derives from a South Asian heritage that doesn’t belong to me.
Brahmacarya – okay, so honestly this means celibacy. However, modern translations make this a bit more user-friendly and say “moderation of the senses.”
Think about it this way: where your mind goes, your energy flows.
If you’re chasing desire after desire, are you practicing? Maybe, if you’ve consciously chosen your desire and you personally rubber stamp the direction you’re heading.
Then the question becomes about who’s in control. Are you controlling your journey towards what you desire, or is your desire controlling you?
Aparigraha – non-greed, don’t take more than you need.
Do you have a tendency to hoard things? How did toilet paper go for you this time last year? When the shelves are empty, there’s none left for the next person.
If we regard the next person’s needs as highly as we do our own, our behavior might be a lot different. Consider our impact on the environment and the next seven generations!
Some of the yamas might come more naturally to you than others. The beauty of philosophy is that it’s made for contemplation.
It’s an interesting exercise to pick apart one of these concepts. To go beyond the obvious, almost childish set of rules and consider how a practice of, say, non-harming would change the way you show up in the world for your family, friends, and neighbors.
Thus, we have the first limb of yoga: yama. Without these values, all successes gained through your practice are grounded in what?
Perhaps you use the quiet, contemplative demeanor (or even a sexy yoga handstand!) you’ve developed through your practice to manipulate others for your own greed. Find ten popular Instagram influencers that shout yoga and wellness and I bet you can find at least one example of this.
Worse yet, abuse at the hands of yoga teachers and “gurus” is as common in the yoga world as it is in practically every other industry.
People are people and it takes consistent effort to stay centered in our values. This is why practicing the yamas is of upmost importance in the system of yoga for every practitioner always, no matter what level of mastery one has gained.
So what were your top three values you came up with above?
Can you pick one of them or one of the yamas to contemplate for the next week?
Write it in dry-erase marker on your bathroom mirror, make it your mantra, turn it around and around in your head. I bet you’ll have an insight or two. You’ll also be firmly in practice.
For a chance to practice in community this week, you know where to find me.
Tuesday is Active, Wednesday Yin, and Friday Gentle. This week we’ll find ways to involve your body in your contemplation of your values as we move and breathe through class. Each of these classes is free.
Also, this week is Second Sunday, which means Yoga Refuge! Registration info at link.