Many (many, many) moons ago, Patanjali compiled the Yoga Sutras, considered one of the foundational texts of yoga. When we think of yoga, we often think of the physical poses that comprise the asana practice. But the yoga tradition is much more – it’s a systematic science that enables us to realize and embody our true authentic self. Yoga is the process we can leverage to experience a life free from any false conceptions or illusions created by our environment and learned by our mind.
Why is this important?
Because the separation from our true self, our authentic nature, created by delusion or misconception causes suffering.
We spend our days bombarded by stressors, constant messages, moving in unnaturally fast paces setting almost unattainable standards. Without awareness, our minds can start to process and interpret these days in illusory ways. We make assumptions about the way things appear to be, how others are thinking, what may or may not happen. And then we brood, taking on these thoughts, far far away from our true self.
Patanjali states that ‘Yoga is the restraint of mental modifications.’ It’s the experience of disassociating the ‘thinking’ mind and allowing the deeper layers of consciousness, the more authentic mind, to shine through. Tapping into these deeper layers gives us the ability to identify and become aware of false thinking, judgements and assumptions. This is considered one of the fundamental definitions of yoga, embraced by many of the yoga traditions.
Patanjali lays out a map, or a guide to understanding the process of yoga organized into eight limbs or steps. This ancient text has been interpreted many ways and while seemingly esoteric, the Yoga Sutras offer valuable principles that can help to navigate our intricate lives.
The first limb or step is the yamas which address the restraints necessary to live within a community or family. Restraining from violence, greed, truth and possessiveness are necessary to live a life free from harm and fear and they can also offer guidance and compassion during our meditation practice.
The Yamas are comprised of five core restraints:
Ahimsa (non-harming) While traditionally referring to nonviolence, the meaning and application can be broadened to encompass a mind without violent or hurtful thoughts. We can often be hard on ourselves during meditation – frustrated with a wandering mind, lack of concentration or success leading to forceful meditation. This frustrated or even hurtful thought pattern disables awareness – when we are forcing we are not feeling. Meditation is the practice of coming back to yourself, and this does require discipline. But when you become aware of your drifting mind, compassionately call yourself back, without harm and without judgement.
Satya (truth) Honor your feelings, your thoughts, words and deeds. Not just with others, but with yourself and your meditation practice. If you are struggling with your practice try to lean into the challenge. Recognize and assess what is going on. Do you have to try a different meditation approach? Do you have to process and address something that is unpleasant and uncomfortable? Do you need to recommit to your practice? Honesty will only serve you in your meditation practice.
Asteya (non-stealing) It’s easy to think of the material things here, the tangibles like food, money, clothes, cars, etc. But when thinking of asteya, it is important consider why there is a perception that stealing is necessary and that does not only pertain to tangible things. Asteya is about the fallacy that we cannot create what we need leading to a sense of scarcity, greed and hoarding. In the context of meditation it can be a significant leap to realize that so much is within and that our wanting is really the illusion that we are lacking. When we judge others and ourselves, we are stealing away from our true self, creating a story based on assumptions that fill a superficial longing. In our practice, it’s hard to let go of the expectation or judgment of what meditation should be, should feel like, should accomplish and this can steal from the presence that grounds our meditation.
Brahmacharya (celibacy) Buzz kill right? But let’s be real – we’re not renouncing. But like Asteya, there is more to this principal. Think of it as preventing the exertion of one’s precious energy through the misuse of the senses. Your personal energy, your currency to get through life is precious and shouldn’t be ruled by superficial urges. This principal is more important than ever today – think of the overstimulation we deal with everywhere. Our diet, media, marketing, multi-tasking, fast-paced lives are seeped in overstimulation – everything is overdone. Because of this, we actually struggle to unwind, unplug, relax or vacation (buzz kill for real on this one). We feel this in our practice – one of the biggest challenges is to just ‘be’ and that is what meditation is. To just be. Without judgement, without attachment, without a constant stream of thoughts that rivals your twitter feed. So. Much. Distraction. It’s also why we need meditation more than ever. Recognize the forces fighting for your energy and keep coming back to your practice.
Aparigraha (non-grasping) Or more simply, letting go. We only have so much precious energy and when it is consumed by the ‘old junk’ that doesn’t serve us, there is nothing left to seek what does serve us. We hold on to illusions that serve our thought patterns or need to believe a certain way. While meditation is our best anecdote, holding onto these false thought patterns can be such a barrier to our practice, they keep us stuck in the superficial layers and prevent access to the deeper layers that make up our core, our true self. Let this come up in your meditation but don’t let it block your practice. Let your meditation confront these un-serving thoughts.
Yama means ‘bridle’ or ‘rein’ which accurately represents the the ‘restraints’ we should willingly epitomize as we seek a fulfilling life. Think about these yamas in the context of your meditation practice and how they can contribute to your journey.
Meditate & be well.