Yamas & Niyamas
To be a true yoga master, you need to master the art of negation. That’s Patanjali’s idea, from the Yoga Sutras:
2.33 Vitarka badhane pratipaksha bhavanam
The practice of pratipaksha bhanavam prescribes that, when disturbed by negative thoughts, opposite thoughts should be brought into awareness.
It takes a good amount of logical and spiritual training to know how to approach the art of negation. It’s like when you were studying algebra, and you learned how to use the order of operations. When you are solving for x, you need to understand the operations and their inverses, and figure out where the parentheses are, to really figure out the value of x. And just like algebra, it takes a good amount of practice to do it consistently well.
I propose that as twenty-first century yogis, we approach the yamas and niyamas with a methodology akin to Carter’s in The Sweet Spot – with trial and error, practice, a recognition of the nuances inherent in Patanjali’s precepts, and, most importantly, a fairly constant self-assessment that considers all ten precepts. Because finding the sweet spot in embodying this portion of Patanjali’s philosophy requires balancing ten tenets that can sometimes conflict. Are there times when the truth might cause harm? Are there moments when we must sacrifice some contentment in the name of self-discipline? If and when it becomes an ingrained part of one’s daily habits, a full and fulfilling yama/niyama practice can exist with some ease, but it will never be easy.
It's time to get dirty; not between the sheets, but in the ledgers of the spiritual gains one can achieve when ardently practicing brahmacharya. Techniques for self-restraint, preservation and control of one's own potent powers (ojas) are documented in memoriam across virtually all religious systems. We find it as well in the practice of the science of yoga. Yes, this science recommends going for the gusto; brahmacharya means going after Brahman, or highest spirit. Often treated like the pariah of the eight limbs, the bane of Western feel good yogic culture, the dreaded yama of brahmacharya is less about saying "no", and more about saying "yes".
Satya is the second in the list of yamas, the five ethical practices that form the first branch of Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga. In researching satya, I find my usual sutra guide, Sri Swami Satchidananda’s The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, impractical. Satchidananda translates Patanjali’s words on satya as “to one established in truthfulness, actions and their results become subservient.” The very datedness of Satchidananda’s commentary on this sutra (he uses examples like how to become comfortable smoking a cigarette and growing to like eating candy) makes me reflect on the impermanence and plurality of what we call truth. It may be an unpopular opinion in some yoga circles, but even in reading ancient texts – perhaps especially in reading ancient texts – I come to the conclusion that change is the only truth that we can rely on.
Aparigraha, or non-hoarding, is a yogic Yama, an observance for a higher standard of living. This concept simply defies everything we are conventionally taught today in America. We are conditioned to feed our needs and desires, entitled to do so excessively by our own means. Wall Street, capitalism, free markets are all about growth through excessive consumption. If there is not constant-consumerism, whether it be material items, entertainment, or information, it would be hard to see how our country would stay afloat. It is impossible to stave off our own hunger to have and to hold: property, possessions, not people.
Because of terminology and some translation choices, the yamas can be read as “what not to do” – don’t harm, don’t steal, don’t tell lies – and that’s not necessarily incorrect. I just prefer to think of them more as positive guides for action rather than restrictive codes against certain behaviors. As often happens when I have a topic in mind to write about, resources show up in my life to help me gain perspective (I am not alone in this, it’s a universal phenomenon for writers and speakers). In this case, I visited a new yoga studio this week and before class we had a short dharma talk by Joshua Greene (Yogesvara dasa), author of The Gita Wisdom. When asked about the incompatibility of war with the yogic principle of ahimsa, Greene offered what he felt from his studies was a more community-oriented definition of ahimsa: that of “non-aggressive participation.” His point, which resonated with me and other questions I have been having about the use of my yoga practice for anyone but myself, was that ahimsa is broader than the individual avoidance of causing harm; it includes the active participation in preventing injury and injustice to others.