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The First Limb of Yoga: The 5 Yamas

Yoga is not a passive practice. Nor is it a practice to put down when you roll up your yoga mat. Yoga is, truly, an engaged social justice practice.

Susanna Barkataki, Embrace Yoga’s Roots

As I am writing this, we are going through turbulent times in the US - the COVID-19 pandemic is raging and we are witnessing one of the most unsettling presidential transitions in the country’s history. People are tired and exhausted, opinions are becoming more and more polarized, we are judging and being judged, and there is a sense of collective fear and anxiety seeping into every area of our lives

In times like this I find myself reaching for anchors, reliable constants in my life that bring me back to my center and into alignment with how I show up in this world.

The Yamas of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are one of my anchors. They are the 5 ethical guidelines for how we show up for one another and the world around us:

They are:

  • non-harming

  • truthful

  • non-stealing

  • with moderation

  • non-grasping

Following the completion of my first yoga teacher training I felt a strong pull to explore the Yamas deeper. I enrolled in a 3-months long journey of working with each of these guidelines on multiple levels. This experience felt like I had been handed the keys to unlocking the secret to living a more connected and impactful life.

I came to understand that working with the Yamas is a life-long commitment. There is no level of mastery that can be achieved. Instead, each day, each moment we begin anew.

Sometimes we fail and other times we succeed aligning our actions with these principles. I do not have a hard and fast rule for how I engage with and observe the guidelines of the Yamas. Sometimes I focus on one in particular and other times they all show up together and want to be heard. I pretty much allow life’s current to guide me in where I need to explore more deeply and apply the teachings with heightened attention.

Anchors like the Yamas are abundantly available in all spiritual practices – be it The Four Noble Truth in Buddhism, The Ten Commandments in the Bible, or The Five Principles of Reiki, just to name a few.

While they vary slightly in message and tone, they all concur in their essence and serve the same purpose – to guide us toward actions that are in alignment with and in support of a life that brings forth and sustains goodness, compassion, and care for one another and all beings and thus, ultimately, unity with God. (Please insert here the term that most resonates with you – Source, Universe, Divine, Creator, Higher Self, Highest Truth…)

The challenge lies in learning how to extract the true essence and meaning of these teachings be it from scripture and wisdom texts or oral tradition. Richard Rohr says “Literalism is the lowest and least level of meaning in a spiritual text.” He goes on to explain how it is so tempting to use wisdom teachings to manipulate others and that real truth is to be found once we open up to allowing the spiritual texts and teachings to change us “instead of using them to change others.”

In the case of the Yamas, their mention in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is not more than an aphorism. I remember initially being almost annoyed by this, that there is so little instruction, so little to go by. Now I wholeheartedly embrace this as a blessing as it allows for unlimited opportunities of exploration, like a spring that never runs dry.

I believe we are not meant to use spiritual practices to disconnect and transport us away to an otherworldly realm of bliss. But rather by intentionally bringing spirituality into our everyday life with all its ups and downs, we allow these practices to deepen and transform our way of living and connecting.

It is fascinating to observe how my perception and understanding of the Yamas is changing progressively.

Each time I return to them, it is like another layer of insight and wisdom is added on while the already existing layers are being re-affirmed.

I have come to accept that my life will be too short to experience the Yamas in all they have to offer. But at the same time, I am passionate to keep practicing and opening up to their endless possibilities of bringing forth transformative and liberating action.

Next time we will take a closer look at the first Yama – Ahimsa – Non-Harming.

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