The Foundation of Ashtanga Yoga

The first limb of Ashtanga Yoga is Yama - ahimsa, satya, asteya, brahmacharya and aparigraha - or not causing harm, truthfulness, non-theft, sexual continence and non-greed.

Ahimsa - Non-Harming or Non-Violence

The first yama - ahimsa encapsulates the other four: dishonesty, theft, lasciviousness and greed are all forms of harm.

Non-violence also informs, or is the foundation of all the other limbs of yoga - the niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahra, dharana, dhyana and samadhi: If one is tainted by violence, none of the other limbs can be attained.

There are three main ways that yama can be violated - through thoughts, words or actions.

If the purpose of yoga is mediation and Self realization, it can be understood, that even thoughts cause harm: they cause disturbance to the tranquil state meditation is intended to produce.

Words are powerful. They have the capacity to cause more harm than an individual's actions since they can incite others to perform innumerable harmful deeds. They also have the capacity to impart intense violence and pain directly to another person.

It is impossible, while embodied, to avoid causing all harm. Even plants have life that we destroy when we harvest them for food. It is also impossible to avoid killing insects and other small creatures while cultivating and harvesting plants for food.

But just because it is impossible to follow ahimsa perfectly, does that mean we should not try our utmost and cause the minimum amount of harm possible? Of course, we should.

As we know, all life is interdependent. The natural harmony in nature is underpinned by everything being food for some creature. Even those highest on the food chain are food for other creatures - for parasites, bacteria and after death their bodies are also consumed and recycled.

But while animals have no choice about what they eat and are driven purely by instinct, human beings have the capacity for choice. So we have the option to cause more suffering or to minimize suffering for other creatures.

Although plants have life and some say they also have rudimentary consciousness, lacking a nervous system or brain, their capacity for emotion and pain is surely less than that of animals. So, a vegetarian diet causes the least amount of suffering.

However, farming practices can also cause environmental damage. Use of pesticides, deforestation, plastic packaging, pollution cased by mechanized transportation and cultivation all cause environmental damage. Therefore, organic local produce has the least negative impact.

Harm is often caused by our ignorance or by looking the other way. So informing ourselves is also a key to minimizing harm.

Informing ourselves about the impact of foods on our body and mind is another important factor. Some foods are beneficial for one person but harmful to another. Some foods cause disturbance to any person who wishes to establish a calm state of mind suitable for meditation.

There is a yogic principle - all food is good for some creature. It is better not to judge others - judgment is another form of harmful action.

There are many types of harm we can avoid and some we cannot avoid. We can avoid harming the environment, we can avoid harming other people and we can avoid harming ourselves. We cannot do any of these things perfectly - perhaps we can balance out the harm we do by performing other virtuous or beneficial actions.

Most of us need to travel using motorized transport that causes harm to the environment. If we do work that benefits others, perhaps we can balance out the environmental damage we cause to some extent. However, if we do work that does not benefit others, or that harms others, this will totally undermine our attempts to practice yoga.

Work that suits our constitution, that is not motivated by financial greed but that also benefits others can be deeply satisfying and can itself lead to balance and harmony in the human system, leading to a natural peace of mind and easy access to meditation. Whereas a job that is unsuitable to the constitution, is performed in a toxic environment and that is fueled by greed will totally undermine the ability to have tranquility of mind suitable for yoga.

We spend most of our day working, so one's job has a great impact. If one finds the right work, it can, itself be yoga.

Satya - Truthfulness

Truthfulness and not causing harm have a difficult relationship. The yoga shastra say: "Speak the sweet truth. Don't speak the truth that hurts. But do not lie no matter how sweet it sounds."

Yogis recommend remaining silent as much as possible to avoid causing harm. Chit-chat, gossip and bad-talking other people is obviously harmful. Talking just for the sake of talking destroys the power of the tongue: such a person's words will have little positive power.

There are two types of truth according to the yoga shastra - satya and rta. Satya is relative truth, truth that can be spoken, whereas rta is the absolute truth - truth related to the nature of reality - this truth cannot be spoken.

Satya in the yogic context means to speak truth that leads towards rta - towards the absolute truth. It means speaking truth that supports others on the path to realization. Such truth speaking would lead the listener to greater feeling of peace and tranquility - it is not speech that inspires awe, that dazzles or impresses - it is speech that leads towards an experience of calmness and quiet.

However, sustained painful experiences can often lead to numbness, dissociation, suppression and denial. Self-delusion is a protection against pain. When another person speaks truth, with the intention of helping such a person, this truth may reveal the underlying pain that has been caused by another factor. Such truth telling is often unhelpful but sometimes necessary.

It is sensible to try to assess if such truth telling will cause harm or benefit. A doctor, having examined a patient and having determined that the patient will die very soon has the quandary - should he inform the patient of his imminent death?

A patient with a robust character could use this as an opportunity to tie up loose ends, to resolve unfinished business, to say goodbye to his loved ones, while a fragile person would maybe die on the spot from shock!

Sometimes truth telling supports one group of people and causes pain to another group. An example of this is speaking about Pattabhi Jois' sexual abuse. On the flip side, suppression of this evidence has caused great harm to many people and has supported the psychological and economic wellbeing of another group.

Lies are never sanctioned on the path of yoga, nor is violence or sexual assault.

Asteya - Not Stealing

What do we actually own? Our minds and bodies belong to no one else - or at least they should not belong to anyone else! But can we actually possess anything else?

Are our thoughts our own? Do objects actually belong to us? Do our children belong to us? Our husbands or wives?

Kahil Gibran:

"Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you.
And though they are with you, they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
Which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite.
And He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer's hands be for happiness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
So He loves the bow that is stable."

If I had quoted this without an attribution and given the impression that these were my thoughts, that would be theft. Not stealing also means to avoid plagiarism - to acknowledge the source.

According to yoga, each person is born with access to a certain amount of resources. Some have access to a large quantity of wealth while others a minimal amount. Wealth does not bring happiness. It is often a burden, it often brings a great deal of misery - and for the yoga aspirant great responsibility.

In India there is a saying: Health is Wealth!

Another type of wealth is knowledge, even physical strength is a type of wealth, a resource, a good family or home is also wealth.

What happens if you struggle so hard to attain a level of wealth and then you die before you can appreciate it? Would it have been worthwhile? Would it not be better to live simply and enjoy what you have? Yogis recommend possessing only what is essential. Objects do not bring pleasure, in fact, more often they bring misery.

True happiness comes from inside - possession of a desired object only brings temporary relief of stress - the happiness experienced as the result of obtaining the object is coming from inside. Happiness is innate, one experiences it only when the outer stresses are relieved temporarily, then afterwards it gets covered over again.

Rather than trying to get happiness through objects, it is better to be content and to enjoy what you have.

Brahmacharya - Sexual Continence

Our desire for pleasure and happiness is also often fixated on treating others as objects. In today's world, nowhere more so than in the treating of others as sexual objects.

Apart from the harm this evidently causes to others, the amount of time and energy that goes into the pursuit of sexual gratification has become a human (if mostly male) disease that few people can escape.

Because sex has been placed in such a central position in our culture it is not only very difficult to disengage from sexual desires, it also seems unhealthy or unnatural to do so.

If you look at animals, and on an organic level we are just animals, apart from pets that have lived in very close proximity to humans, such as dogs, animals in nature only engage in sexual activity at certain seasons of the year. At other times they display no interest in sex.

Humans on the other hand have elevated sex to the level of entertainment - something to be engaged in for the sake of distraction or relaxation. However, the attainment of satisfaction through sex is mostly frustrated. There is so much more longing and thinking about it than actual gratification and satisfaction through it. When it happens it is also very often disappointing and not satisfying.

Yoga teaches that the pursuit of sex is a major distraction to meditation. Healthy loving sexual union is wonderful, even yogic in nature, but the frustration and harm caused by indiscriminate sexual desire is a huge affliction to modern humanity.

Unless one is in a harmonious and loving relationship, fasting from sex, from thinking about it and from being stimulated by it, is a liberation from an affliction that causes a great deal of suffering and frustration. It is a kind of siddhi - a yogic power that results in peace and potency.

Aparigraha - Non-Grasping or Non-greed

The last yama is aparigraha - non-attachment or non-greed. All the yamas are related and overlap to some extent. In some texts, such as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika or the Yogayajnavalkya Samhita, ten yamas are listed. Non-attachment is one of the central themes of yoga practice.

All eight limbs of ashtanga yoga lead towards non-attachment. In the Samadhi Pada, Patanjali explains that eliminating the vrittis that cause distraction in meditation is achieved by two principal methods: abhyasa and vairagya.

Abhyasa means practice, continuous effort to establish tranquility of mind. Vairagya is another word for aparigraha - non attachment. These are the two means by which samadhi can be achieved.

We are so attached, so passionate and so reactive when we don't get what we want. How could we attain peace and tranquility unless we reduce our passions, unless we reduce our attachments?

Most often the things we care passionately about are beyond our control. When we do not get what we want we experience frustration, pain and disappointment.

There are, of course, so many things that are wrong with this world, things that make us angry. If these things motivate us to action and to initiate change, they have a purpose. But if we just find ourselves frustrated and impotent as a result, we are in constant pain.

Reducing passion and attachment does not eliminate the recognition of right from wrong. It does not eliminate the love one feels for family and friends. It does introduce an element of calmness and balance and it allows one to act with discrimination and effectiveness rather than blind fury or desire.

Many people worry that reducing passion will render one inhuman, will make one into a machine, however, non-attachment allows us to act with discrimination, with balance, with intelligence, rather than blind passion.

guy donahaye