Many are familiar with the sage, Patanjali, and his prescription for the attainment of Yoga through an eight-limbed approach called Ashtangha, expounded upon in a concise little book called The Yoga Sutras. These sutras, or aphorisms, are presented to us as an instruction manual on the way to self-mastery.
Patanjali had an interesting idea, one that deviates from modern practice in so far as it was the mindful attention to lifestyle that was to be addressed first, long before the yoga mat was ever approached. In this sense, he reminds us of the stereotypical master of life who urges the pupil to learn how to make, and enjoy, a proper cup of tea before being invited into the deeper mysteries of whichever artform was being pursued. Patanjali was just such a master.
The first limb of Patanjali’s Ashtangha are the Yamas. These are moral disciplines, or a code of ethics which the aspirant to enlightenment is to follow in order to purify and prepare the body/mind vehicle for the lessons to follow. There are five yamas:
- Ahimsa – Non-violence, in thought, word or deed
- Satya – Truthfulness
- Asteya – Non-stealing
- Brahmacharya – Celibacy, or ‘the right use of energy’
- Aparigraha – Non-greed
Examine those for a just a moment. I challenge you to sit with those ideas and ponder your own relationship to this set of ethics and acknowledge the depth and breadth of your own personal practice. Feel the meanings and imagine the vast array of application of these ideas in your moment to moment. It was Patanjali’s contention that the student of the Way of Yoga should master such a mindset before proceeding to the second limb.
But like most students, we beg of the master. “But Master, I want to learn how to meditate! I want to merge with the Infinite and feel that universal bliss! I want siddhis and vast awareness! I want Kung Fu! Isn’t that the way of all children though? They have an eye to the prize and nary an idea of what it really means to obtain it.
To be established in a practice that takes you beyond a bit of peace of mind in the moment, situational mindfulness, or core fitness results, is to be possessed of a rather stalwart determination that underscores the deepest of motivations. Indeed nothing less can see you to the Goal.
Why is it that we believe ourselves capable of flipping to the end of the book to receive the findings and join a discussion based on experiential achievement while the research that gets us there is ignored? It’s not arrogance, or even ignorance so much as a travesty of education that has left us bereft of the emotional fortitude that enables patient persistence even at the expense of immediate gratification.
Perhaps I’m being overly harsh. Maybe it’s only projection on my part, the part of a perfectionist that has set his own personal standards so high that he advises his masterclass students to take in the lessons in 5-minute chunks and sit with them for a couple of weeks before moving forward for the next nugget. Inconceivable! I want what I want and want it NOW! Show me the miracle NOW! If I am such a Creator, co-creator with God, then I want that miracle NOW! After all, it’s my birthright, right!? Well, yes, but, erm, no. There’s work to do on the way to that recollection, and mastery of that particular skill set.
If one were to set aside Patanjali’s Sutras for a moment, hoping for respite, or a clue to a shortcut around the master’s teaching and look into, say, Sandilya Upanishad, one would suddenly be confronted with a set of 10 Yamas, rather than the 5 the master prescribed. Now what? You peruse the list.
6. Ksama (Forgiveness)
7. Dhrti (Fortitude)
8. Daya (Compassion)
9. Arjava (Integrity, or non-hypocrisy)
10. Mitahara (Measured Diet)
And in the Upanishad, Aparigraha (non-greed) has been eliminated in favor of 11. Saucha (Cleanliness). If we have even a little #9 in our bones then at this point we will sheepishly put down our copy of the Upanishad and with lowered head humbly re-approach the Sutras.
The Yamas are the first limb of Patanjali’s approach to the attainment of Yoga, an approach designed for masters, not beginners. Patanjali was a teacher of sages. Look at the Yamas again and acknowledge the profound implications that a dedication and devotion to only this limb would have on your life.
Now let yourself only briefly consider that there are 5 more limbs to get through before one might be considered ready and able to engage in a proper meditation at limb 7 on the way to Samadhi. So what is it that everybody’s actually doing when they say they’re meditating these days? Of course, we live in a time of my way, my truth, and nobody’s arguing the validity of that either; but it sure seems there is something to be said for tradition when aspiring to select outcomes.
Feel free to pick up a decent translation and commentary on the Yoga Sutras from the Public Resources section under Classical Yoga.
…is a Saiva Tantrika, Gyana Yogi and founder of Uma Maheshwara Yoga & Ayurveda. David has an MA in Semiotics, lives in Japan with his family and works as a coach in L & D, devoting his time to developing science-based tools and programs that help people reach the fullest potential of the human condition.