December 19, 2007

Patanjali's Yoga Sutra

The practice of yoga is an art and science dedicated to creating union between body, mind and spirit. In short it is about creating a balance so we can live in peace, good health and harmony in connection with the greater whole. This art of right living has been practiced in India for thousands of years. The foundations of yoga philosophy were written down in The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, approximately 200 AD. This ancient text provides an eight-step path for controlling the restlessness of the mind and body and codes to help us enjoy lasting peace. The core of Patanjali's Yoga Sutra is an eight-limbed path that forms the framework for yoga practice. Each is part of a holistic focus which eventually brings completeness to the individual. Because we are all uniquely individual, one can emphasize one branch and then move on to another as they deepen their understanding.

In brief the eight limbs are as follows:

    1. Yama : Codes for living peacefully with others
    2. Niyama : Codes for living soulfully with ourselves
    3. Asanas : Physical postures/exercises
    4. Pranayama : Breathing exercises, and control of prana, the vital life force of energy
    5. Pratyahara : Control and cultivation of the senses
    6. Dharana : Concentration and cultivating deeper inner perceptual awareness
    7. Dhyana : Devotion, Meditation on the Divine
    8. Samadhi : Union with the Divine

The first two limbs that Patanjali describes are the fundamental ethical precepts called Yamas, and the Niyamas. Yamas and niyamas are the suggestions given on how we should deal with people around us and our attitude toward ourselves. The attitude we have toward things and people outside ourselves is yama, how we relate to ourselves inwardly is niyama. Both are mostly concerned with how we use our energy in relationship to others and to ourselves. The Yamas are broken down into five "wise characteristics." Rather than a list of dos and don'ts, "they tell us that our fundamental nature is compassionate, generous, honest and peaceful."

First, we will focus on the Yamas, and they are:
I. Yamas (Codes for Living Peacefully with Others)
    1. Ahimsa - Compassion for all living things
    The word ahimsa literally means not to injure or show cruelty to any creature or any person in any way whatsoever. It also means kindness, friendliness, and thoughtful consideration of other people and things. In addition it has to do with our duties and responsibilities. Ahimsa implies that in every situation we should adopt a considerate attitude and do no harm. This includes not physically, verbally or mentally doing harm to ourselves or others.

    2. Satya - Commitment to truthfulness
    Satya means "to speak and live the truth," yet it is not always desirable to speak the truth on all occasions, for it could hurt someone. We have to be considerate in what we say, how we say it, and in what way it could affect others. In some cases it is better to say nothing. Satya should be ruled by ahimsa, therefore being silent is more appropriate than speaking the truth
    IF the truth causes harm. This is based on the understanding that honest communication and action form the base of any healthy relationship; whether it be personal, community, or government, and that deliberate deception, exaggerations, and mistruths harm others.

    3. Asteya - Non-stealing
    Steya means "to steal"; asteya is the opposite-to take nothing that does not belong to us. This also means that if we are in a situation where someone entrusts something to us or confides in us, we do not take advantage of him or her. The practice of asteya implies not taking anything that has not been freely given, or taking more than what we need, for in effect this is stealing from someone who may need it more. One of the common ways to practice asteya is to be conscious of how we ask for others' time; for demanding another's attention when not freely given is, in effect, stealing.

    4. Brahmacharya - Sense control
    In the ancient yoga texts brahmacharya is used mostly in the sense of abstinence, particularly in relationship to sexual activity. Brahmacharya does not necessarily imply celibacy. Rather, it means responsible behavior with respect to our relationships and our journey in life. Practicing brahmacharya means that we use our sexual and physical energy to regenerate our connection to our spiritual self. It also means that we don't use this energy in any way that might harm others.

    5. Aparigraha - Non-grasping
    Aparigraha means to take only what is necessary, and not to take advantage of a situation or act with greed. We should only take what we have earned; if we take more, we could be denying someone else. Perhaps the most challenging aspect of aparigraha is the implication of letting go of our attachments to things and an understanding that impermanence and change are the only constants.

Our next installment in the philosophy corner will cover the Niyamas.