YAMAS: YOGA’S ETHICAL GUIDELINES FOR SELF-REGULATING
How often do our very thoughts lead to actions to harm ourselves before we even harm another?
A woman I’ll call Joan has practiced this yama for a while now. Her focus has been on those internal words she shares when she sees herself in the mirror. Being complimentary in a loving manner has helped her to be kinder and more appreciative of how she sees herself. There is one time of the month that is more of a struggle. It happens around when her period is about to start. She notices she can be more irritable and unforgiving of herself. Sharing her feelings in her journal, she sorts out how to have supportive declarations that feel more loving and kind to herself during these days. They are now taped on her bathroom mirror. She repeats them when she can feel that tension on those days. She likes how she feels when she states them out loud.
In addition, she finds adding more time in meditation and makes sure to not miss her exercise regimen. Being more careful with her diet with little to no caffeine or processed food has also benefited her mind and how her body feels. Listening to the cues of the body as to whether more sleep is needed or simply time to do nothing has helped her as well.
I find this to be often true for women. We, too often, internalize our pain without acknowledging what the current stressors are for that day or the week prior to that most difficult day at work. The yoga practice of non-violence, or ahimsa, is one that can help.
I find this to be often true for women. We, too often, internalize our pain. The yoga practice of non-violence, or ahimsa, is one that can help.
This week, we’ll begin a series that takes a closer look at yoga’s ethical guidelines for living. These are called yamas, and they fall under Raja Yoga, the branch that governs the disciplines about controlling the mind and senses. The first two branches on Patanjali’s eightfold path are yamas and niyamas.
Simply put, yamas are things not to do, niyamas are things to do. Yamas can be thought of as practices of self-restraint, while niyamas are virtues to cultivate, or observances.
Yamas (Yoga Sutra chapter 2, verse 30) are ethical principles for each of us to live by to increase our ability to observe ourselves. These principles aid us to make choices that increase our sense of harmony in ourselves and with those we interact with, which includes our environment. The beauty of this approach is its inclusivity. Patanjali viewed these ethical principles as “nonnegotiable” and that they were “universal, not limited to place, time or circumstances.” (YS 31)
The first yama is ahimsa, often simply translated as non-harming, non-violence.
The Sanskrit meaning of ahimsa is “not to cause pain.” Ahimsa’s true meaning is “being devoid of violence or committing no violence in any way.” This is our ability to restrain ourselves from our more primitive instincts.
Taking this powerful word into your life would mean not hurting any being with our thoughts, words nor deeds. This, of course, would include yourself in this most sacred process into your life.
If you struggle with allowing thoughts in that are harmful, the way to begin is to notice the pain and be with it.
If you are unable to do it on your own, find a friend to support you or a therapist who can be that mirror of positive self-reflection. One day you will be able to do it on your own.
If you truly notice your internal banter and begin to discern or focus the intent of those thoughts, you then begin the steps towards increased awareness. Self-compassion is most necessary here with the growing self-awareness. Your being loving and kind as you notice your internal banter allows for a gentleness towards the change in thought pattern towards being more compassionate.
This is where you begin the change that impacts your life, your well-being as well as those around you. This “pebble” in the lake reverberates into the whole world when you take action of being non-harmful with your thoughts, words and deeds.
This is something Christ and most of the leaders of the monotheistic religions spoke of. There is a prayer we offer in the Catholic tradition that asks for forgiveness with these very words. The key is in the daily and moment to moment practice of ahimsa that often trips us up. Yet, there is where the possible “treasure of heaven” of which Christ spoke.
How this operates beyond yourself also requires compassion and tolerance. Bringing in forgiveness at some point is most important to be able to move past the perceived slight or insult. To paraphrase a Buddhist aphorism, see that person in your life as a teacher and discern what the lesson was to you. This process is so important as it turns the focus back to you in a compassionate, loving and tolerant way.
Consider the question: What lesson is there for me to learn here today? How can I hold this space to be more compassionate towards them and myself?
In the current environment towards people of color and of Asian descent, this principle could have a cathartic approach to how we move forward from this most painful of places in our culture. Naming what the harm has been is so important for all of us to understand what needs to change. What are each of us needing to learn so that our culture is more inclusive, restorative and honoring of all human beings? I would like to suggest that prayer is one step with the other being small, conscious actions in your part of the world. For me, I am listening more, talking less. And praying.
Within ahimsa is the concept of prayer for the happiness of all sentient beings. Of course, this includes Mother Earth.
Loka Samasta Sukhino Bhavantu is a simple mantra that encompasses these most amazing, life-affirming, life-giving words. Imagine saying this mantra/prayer every time you become angry or jealous or fearful or envious or whatever negative, selfish emotion we can conjure up on a given day.
Another mantra to consider is Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti Namaha (Peace offering) or one prayer or phrase in your faith that shares the concept of peace into this moment. “May the peace of God be with you.” If peace, love and contentment are present within you, it is hard to stay in that negative emotion you have had for so long in your life.
Come back to this blog next week, when I’ll go into the second discipline in the yamas, satya, or truthfulness.