Patanjali’s yoga sutras contain simple advice for living a useful and fulfilling life and could be considered as a kind of self help manual to assist us both in our personal development and in our contributions to society. It offers guidance in both ethical behaviour and social conduct, guidance which is equally applicable for individuals and for groups of people in communities, socially and in the workplace. They assist us in finding the real meaning of life and help us to uncover this truth and wisdom and find our true purpose and the joy in life, advice as relevant today as it ever has been. As yoga is an existential, experiential and experimental practice, free from dogma and belief structure. All that is needed is the curiosity, courage, openness and conviction to truly experience all it has to offer. Yoga is accessible to people of all ages and of all walks of life, it precludes none and therefore has something to offer to everyone who wishes to benefit from its wonderful teachings, teachings that have survived the tests of time and are still practiced by millions of people across the globe today.
There is an underlying belief in spiritual traditions that all actions undertaken are ultimately directed at ourselves in that we are all part of the same bigger whole thus any injurious behaviour directed at another will only ultimately hurt ourselves. This is the same principles that we understand today with regard to ecology, put simply any action which harms the environment in which we live will ultimately harm the human race and the planet of which we are an integral part. If our behaviours become increasingly more positive, our actions reinforce each other in a healthy, holistic, expansive and co-creative way. Actions that are born of selfless motivations, truth and look that seek to promote the welfare of everyone assist us both in our personal evolution and that of this beautiful world in which we live.
For the most part in the western world we live in a predominantly capitalist, materialistic culture which can exhibit some of the more negative aspects of human nature; an insatiable craving and greed for acquiring more than others at the expense of others which can result in dishonest and exploitation. We only have to look around us to see exploitation of children in enforced child labour to create cheap goods, sexual exploitation and trafficking, exploitation of human rights, exploitation of Gaia, mother earth herself and her generous gifts which are often deemed to be not enough so we force the soil to produce more, cut down forests and lock animals in cages to meet the demand for cheaper and cheaper produce. Even violence is utilised as a means to acquire the desired status, power and wealth. This by no means applies to everyone but is intended to generalise the prevailing climate underlying life in the west. Today’s news is full of economic doom, climate change terrors, wars in their full technicolor horror are played out before our very eyes if we choose to watch TV; arguments over religion, race, territory, oil, ancient history to name but a few. Innocent people are killed, young children called to arms and women raped as a means of “ethnic cleansing”. Waters polluted, ancient lands pillaged all in the name of profit. Politicians elected to lead us and make the world a better place, prove that they themselves are only human, they too make mistakes, and they too make wrong decisions as demonstrated by regular scandals. We have been lied to and mislead. Is there hope? Is there anything in life worth pursuing other than money and status as our society would have us believe?
I believe there is. More and more conscious, awakening, beautiful people are aware of the damage that is being done to the world and are taking action on a personal and collective scale to create a more harmonious world in which to live and grow together, creating beautiful co- creative, supportive communities, a movement that is rapidly gaining momentum. Guidance expended 1000 of years ago in Patanjali's yoga sutras are as relevant today as they were all those years ago and can help us on our path to personal and planetary transformation and illuminate the way.
Human nature propels us to want to make our lives better and diminish the negativity that we perceive in our everyday lives. Ultimately we all want more happiness, acceptance, love and joy to prevail in our lives yet so often there is a feeling that something is missing, that it’s not enough and life lacks meaning. There has always been over the course of history a need for some form of life guidance on some scale, something to give life significance and purpose. For many this guidance was received from religion. In recent history however there has been a steady decline in the number of people seeking such guidance from the traditional religious doctrines and there has been an increase in interest in new age thinking, eastern religions and philosophies. With the incoming age of Aquarius and its associated breaking with convention, there exists a larger number of people wanting to do it for themselves with a consequent rise in the number of self help books published, psychotherapy being readily available, motivational courses, workshops, retreats etc. etc So many people are looking for alternative life guidance and may find a lot to assist their quest within the yoga sutras.
The Yamas and Niyamas are the first two limbs of the ashtanga system. They are the ethical and spiritual practices, with Asana and Pranayama making up the 2 physical practices and Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi making up the meditation practices. Yoga is so much more than just physical exercises and breathing and is something that is equally well practiced off the mat as on it. They relate to how we interact with ourselves, others and the world at large. Yoga practices enable us to become more aware of these interacting relationships. Yoga philosophy believes that we are all a reflection of the one true Purusha, the universal energy with which we may identify in a variety of different ways according to our own individual beliefs examples would include, Guiding principle, universal energy, Truth, Love, God, nature, Brahman, the way, wisdom, Allah etc . The Isha Upanishad states that
“When we see the spirit in others, we feel no fear because we understand that we are all one. When we have this sense of unity, there is nothing that we can delude ourselves with and we feel no sorrow or grief. We are all filled with the same light, an innocence”
The five yamas sometimes are referred to as ethical self restraints, abstentions of wrong doing or rules of conduct. The yamas are defined by some scholars as the 5 negative commandments, Thou shalt not… However this line of thinking may not always the most helpful with many people being opposed to rules often associated with discipline, restriction and sublimation of personal power thus a list of rules may not be as accessible to people as perhaps would be a list of virtues or pointers. Rev. Jaganath Carrera suggests the yamas may be more properly understood as preparations for actions, attitudes that bring clarity, focus and objectivity to bear on all situations. They are attitudes that strengthen and purify the mind if we allow them to. Patanjali explains how the yamas benefit the individual as least as much as society, each aspect brings us closer to equanimity and yields insight. They are skills we acquire in order to better relate to the world without causing suffering to ourselves or others. They are what makes life delicious and juicy and enable us to interact and flow more fully with life.
Patanjali considers the yamas to be universal, applying to everyone whether of a spiritual inclination or not
Sutra 2.31 “These great vows are universal, not limited by class, place, time or circumstance”.
They are thus guiding principles for each and every one of us, as relevant today as they ever have been; they apply to all regardless of age, race, sex, status etc transcending all circumstances and life experiences.
I would like to suggest that the yamas would be better considered as how to be kind to others, they guide our actions toward the benefit of all things. Alternatives are therefore offered as options to work toward as opposed to away from which in psychological circles is considered to be much more motivational and empowering to individuals. We will discuss the individual yamas in part 2