In my last post on the “branding” of America I suggested that it would be beneficial to become acquainted with ethical principles promoted in yoga philosophy as dependable tools for living well. In the coming weeks, I will present my understanding, one at a time, of the five yamas (social restraints) and five niyamas (personal observences) as behavioral guideposts for those searching for greater meaning or deeper contentment.
For me, living well means finding balance and harmony in an increasingly stressful world. The pressures of living in a culture of consumption, competition, and self-promotion can be soul crushing. The logical extension of branding and marketing everything from relationships to our ship of state is that success, measured in dollars (no one cares about cents anymore) goes to the highest bidder. If that notion troubles you, read on. Yoga philosophy offers a way out, a way toward integrity, fulfillment, and happiness.
The Yamas and Niyamas originate from the oral tradition of yoga, dating back 8,000 years or more. Eventually, they were codified in an ancient text, “The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali,” most likely written by the sage, Patanjali, and his followers over the course of several hundred years. So important were these ethics to the practice of yoga that they were considered preliminary to the physical practice we identify as yoga today. In other words, behavior and attitude training were essential to yoga’s ultimate goal of achieving unity and bliss.
Unity and bliss … today, these words seem fantastical or achievable only fleetingly through the consumption of material goods, alcohol or drugs, possibly sex. But, yoga teaches that they are attainable and enduring through sincere and enthusiastic practice, beginning with behavioral restraints known in Sanskrit as yamas.
The first of the yamas, according to Patanjali, is “ahimsa” or “non-harming.” It strikes me that the concept of ahimsa is particularly timely, considering the recent emergence of hate crime, racism, terrorism, and the threat of nuclear war. Ahimsa instructs us to carefully observe our day-to-day behavior, our thoughts, attitudes, and speech. We are guided to recognize that harm comes in many forms from physical to psychological to spiritual. We can engage in self-harm, harming others, and more subtly, wishing harm on self or others.
Harming need not express itself overtly. Self-harm can manifest as eating or drinking in unhealthful ways, procrastinating, or overworking. Harming another can be as subtle as not listening, or disrespecting her needs, or talking about him behind his back. Harming a group can come from failing to act or speak in their defense, as in not standing up to bigotry.
Ask yourself, how would life be different if everyone practiced ahimsa? By the way, yoga recognizes that perfection is beyond the scope of human capabilities. Ideally, a world-wide practice of ahimsa would result in world-wide peace but … and this is important … it is unreasonable to expect perfection on the material plane. Human nature guarantees fallibility which is why ahimsa is a practice, not a trait. So, how would life be different if everyone put forth an honest effort to practice non-harming? What if you began each day with a vow to practice hon-harming throughout the day? The practice would likely sensitize you to the many ways in which you routinely subtly harm yourself and others through speech, behavior, and thought.
What if you promised that each time you noticed yourself inflicting harm you would instantly stop and replace it with acceptance, love, compassion, or generosity? Does it seem inconceivable? Is it too much work? Too obsessive? What if it were a part of our cultural ethos? Would it really be any more challenging than clawing your way to the top or pulling others down as a way to succeed? In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “Satisfaction lies in the effort, not in the attainment, full effort is full victory.”
It seems to me that our current cultural notion of success, focused on money, acquisitions, and power, puts us at risk of mindlessly stepping onto a path of self-destruction or at the very least, chronic dissatisfaction. Dissatisfaction leads to resentment, resentment soon becomes anger, anger likes to blame … usually the other. Blaming the other person or group for our own emotional state leads to some form of harming, whether blatant or subtle. Our contribution to our society becomes harmful.
Again, I offer the wisdom of Gandhi, “Non-violence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind. It is mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man.” Practice ahimsa, for even moments a day. It is an experiment worth trying. I challenge you.
Inner Reaches Blog
Dee Gold M.A., ERYT-500
Dee is owner and director of Inner Reaches Yoga & Health. She has been teaching yoga and practicing healing arts for over 40 years.