The Yamas and Niyamas are often overlooked, but are arguably one of the most useful parts of the practice of yoga. Though in 2016 in the United States, we tend to focus on the asana (posture) practice, Patanjali (in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, one of the most referenced books about the classical practice of yoga) lays out seven other limbs to the system of yoga. The first one is Yama.
Yama translates literally as restraint. (Think pranayama, restraining of the breath or controlling of the life force.) We often think of the Yamas and Niyamas as the dos and don’ts of yoga, or the ethical guidelines for living a yogic life. This is a pretty straightforward shorthand, but if we reference back to the first section of the Sutras, we’re reminded WHY we practice yoga: in order to see ourselves clearly, in order to reconnect with the truth of who we really are. (Sutra 1:3 Tada Drastuh Svarupe Avasthanam--Then the Self abides in its own true nature.)
The yoga practice, then, is one of clearing away all that is not that essence, that inner light, and the Sutras explain how to do so. The second sutra explains that yoga is a stilling of the fluctuations of the mind (Sutra 1:2 Yogash Citta Vritti Nirodhah--Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind-stuff). All the practices of yoga, not just the asanas, are leading us towards a mind that is still and quiet.
The fact that Yama is the first limb of the eight-limb system of yoga is telling. Through this Patanjali says, don’t start with your body, or your breath, or any of the higher realms. If you want your mind to be clear, start with your relationships. Begin with how you interact with others.
The first yama is Ahimsa, non-harming. Recollect an incident in which you harmed someone else. Remember back to that time. Consider the ripple effect that harm might have had on your mind, your heart, your ability to see yourself clearly. Harming another living creature creates a disturbance in the mind that is hard to let go of. Similarly, if you’ve been harmed by another, this effect may be amplified even more. Consider also the effects of negative self-talk and other self-harming behavior.
We practice ahimsa, non-harming, not only because it meets the moral guidelines of the Sutras and of our internal compass. We also practice ahimsa because harming clouds the mind, and a cloudy mind is moving away from a state of yoga. Non-harming brings us closer to a clear and quiet mind, which allows us to see ourselves clearly, to connect to the divine that lives in each of us.
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