Yoga Don’ts: Just Say No (Yamas)

First we’ll talk about Patanjali’s suggested abstinences. This is a difficult category for a lot of people who want to do yoga but don’t want to be bound to any restrictions. Again, the abstinences, or yamas, aren’t rules meant to limit you. They are suggestions meant to help you grow by purifying your body and mind. Practicing them can teach you self-discipline. You may also find that you already live by many of them.

Do No Harm (Ahimsa)

The first yama is about nonviolence. “That’s an easy one,” you say? Well, nonviolence means more than keeping yourself from beating up your obnoxious neighbor when he won’t turn down his stereo. We can be violent in many ways, often without realizing it. Ahimsa involves nonviolent actions, nonviolent words, and nonviolent thoughts. Nonviolent actions involve the obvious—don’t physically hurt people. (Not even when they hurt you first.) Nonviolence isn’t exactly about turning the other cheek. It’s more like dodging the punch. For some, nonviolent action also means vegetarianism, because meat was once an animal, bird, or fish that was killed. Killing is violence. But if this step is too big for you, don’t worry about it for now. Concentrate on eliminating violence in other ways. You’ll come to understand the full range of opportunities for nonviolence at your own pace. Nonviolent words are also important. Nonviolent speech means refraining from words that slander, degrade, or hurt another person. A good rule of thumb is to “honey-coat” your words, because you may have to eat them later! But that doesn’t mean lying. You needn’t tell your Aunt Maude that her polyester pantsuit is the most lovely outfit you’ve ever seen—she may give you one for your next birthday! And what if she asks you what you think about it? “Aunt Maude, that outfit is definitely you!” Nonviolent thoughts are equally important. Aunt Maude can’t hear you thinking, “If I had taste like that, I would never leave my house!” The trouble with your thoughts, though, is that they pervade your entire being and are notoriously difficult to control. Having nonviolent thoughts means refusing to wish harm to anyone, even if you really think they deserve it. (Oops! That’s bordering on a violent thought right there!) Let your negative thoughts go, wish your enemies well (even in the privacy of your own brain), and your heart will lighten. According to yoga, we are energy, and our thoughts can be sensed on an energetic level, so they are impossible to hide completely. People sense what you’re thinking, so you’re better off transforming your negative thoughts than trying to hide them. The beautiful thing about yoga is that your awareness becomes heightened and you perceive the thoughts of others more clearly, too (of course, that could reveal some things you’d rather not know, but in the service of truth, we say it’s worth it). And one more thing about nonviolence: Engaging in negative talk and thoughts about yourself (“I am ugly,” “I am lazy,” “I can’t do anything right”) is doing violence to yourself. It counts—don’t do it!

Tell No Lies (Satya)

The second yama involves truthfulness. But what is the truth? You and I have different truths, so isn’t truth changeable? According to yoga philosophy, truthfulness is the result of our mind, speech, and actions being unified and harmonious. According to yoga philosophy, truth does no harm. This results in personal integrity and strength of character. Check out these scenarios and see if any of them are familiar:

Someone confides in you and you promise you won’t tell his or her secret, but then you don’t “count” your spouse or your best friend. You’ve said the words, “I’m not supposed to tell you this, but ….”

You receive an extra $10 bill with your grocery change or at the bank and walk quickly away. After all, you need the $10 more than that big corporation!

You occasionally bend or creatively interpret the rules on your income taxes just a little.

You tell poor Aunt Maude you aren’t feeling well and can’t possibly visit her this week, even though you’re actually feeling just fine.

Most of us have had at least occasional instances when it seemed more convenient, easier, or even kinder to bend the truth (or just snap it right in two!). It isn’t easy to suddenly wake up one morning, vow to act completely truthfully, and then stick to your vow. You can start by becoming more aware of what you’re doing. Ask yourself, “Is this harmonious with all parts of me? Does this do no harm?” If you  aren’t sure, maybe you should hold back. Dig deeper for the real truth in your daily life. Just like everyone around you, you are so much more complex than your outward appearance, your job, the face you show the world, or the opinions others have of you. What seems to be the truth—what is obviously the truth, what you know is the truth—often is not the truth at all. Truth is tricky, but it’s out there, buried under layers of misrepresentations, grudges, low self-esteem, unfortunate experiences, negative input, and discomforts. Striving for truth and bliss in your everyday life will help those layers fall away. Living truthfully takes some effort, but you can do it! There are absolute truths that one perceives in the stillness of one’s being. We’re all searching for truth, and it’s within everyone’s grasp.

No More Stealing (Asteya)

So you think you don’t steal? Just because you’ve never shoplifted a candy bar or a car radio doesn’t mean you don’t steal. The concept is simple, even if the implications aren’t: If it’s not yours, don’t take it. (We assume we needn’t mention that this yama includes no robbing banks or holding up armored cars!) That means no shoplifting, and no taking credit for someone else’s creations or ideas (plagiarizing), or for anything else anyone has done or said. Don’t interrupt people and steal their center of attention. Don’t steal your child’s chance to do something on his own by doing it for him. Your actions affect this world—don’t forget that.

Cool It, Casanova (Brahmacharya)

Brahmacharya is about chastity. No, don’t close the book and toss it aside! This yama doesn’t mean telling your spouse the fun is over and you now need separate beds. Brahmacharya is about virtue, and not just when it comes to sex. Many great yogis are householders, which means they are married … with children. Brahma means “truth,” and car means “to move,” so brahmacharya essentially means “to control the movement of truth.” Lust and desire, in their many forms, obscure truth. Developing the inner strength to control our lusts and desires helps us to see truth more clearly. In other words, brahmacharya is a movement toward responsible behavior and a higher truth beyond the physical, the force of “I want” in life. The Bhagavad Gita describes this yama in the following way: “While contemplating the objects of the senses, a person develops attachment for them, and from such attachment, lust develops, and from lust, anger arises. From anger, delusion arises, and from delusion, bewilderment of memory. When memory is bewildered, intelligence is lost, and when intelligence is lost, one falls down again into the material pool.” Being virtuous means holding the opposite sex in high esteem and nurturing respect for someone you love. It also means holding yourself in high esteem and refusing to let your body be swayed by its every whim, desire, and want, whether that desire is for a person or for power or for a pound of Hershey’s Kisses. Refusing to let your body be swayed by desire certainly doesn’t preclude sex, a good promotion, or chocolate, for that matter. Instead, this yama encourages the kind of restraint and attitude towards those things we tend to desire that will help keep our minds clear and focused. The brahmacharya yama is often described as being about sex, and technically, it does preclude sexual lust—the one-night stand, using people sexually (including yourself), and all the other things we typically associate with the word “lust.” Letting your desire for sex consume you is no way to become self-aware or calm and centered! But brahmacharyaalso encompasses lusts and desires of all kinds. At the very heart of this yama, desire itself, no matter its object, is what keeps us from seeing truth. To master our desires is to gain selfawareness.

Don’t Be Greedy (Aparigraha)

Go to your closet and count the pairs of shoes lined up in there—or the red sweaters or white shirts or ties. Or maybe you can’t even open the closet because it’s bursting with stuff. It isn’t easy to abstain from greed in this materialistic world. With television, radio, and billboards continually telling us what we want and what we must have, it’s hard not to believe some of it. But are you familiar with the feeling of buying something you’ve always wanted, then feeling strangely dissatisfied, as if the funwas in the wanting, not in the actual possessing? That is greed’s payoff—emptiness. Nongreed means living simply, possessing only what is necessary, and recognizing that possessions are merely tools to use in life. Accumulations, whether material things or unnecessary thoughts, tie you down to this world. Simplify your life as you simplify your thoughts. Greed can also surface in less obvious ways. Talking too much, interrupting others, and dominating conversations while barely showing a flicker of interest in the participation of others are all ways greed creeps into our lives through language. Think before you speak, and consider how your words will sound and what effect they will have. Practice listening and being truly present in a conversation, absorbing everything other people are saying. Thoughts can also be a source of greed. How come the Smiths have a swimming pool and a fancy twolevel deck, while you have to sit on the back stoop under the sprinkler? Why did your best friend get diamonds for her birthday when you only got a toaster? Envy and jealousy clutter the mind and can become obsessions. How much better it is to turn those feelings around and feel truly happy for the person who   Has something you don’t have! In fact, once you start to be happy for someone else simply because of their joy, you may become so fulfilled by your happiness that you lose your desire for whatever they have. How much simpler your life becomes when you can be happy due to something beyond your own needs!