Updated: Apr 13, 2022
Humans wish to be happy.
This singular desire drives humans to pursue love, wealth, fame, validation, health, and security. It is easy to witness both our willingness to go to extremes to grasp this everlasting felicity as well as our anxieties about having enough of it, and this hope for true happiness appears to elude the best-intentioned efforts of even the most intelligent, capable, and cunning among us.
While most of us, at some point, have felt a state of wholeness, contentment, and even bliss, these ephemeral moments often slip away before we can truly understand the conditions which brought them about in the first place. Being with the experience of our hand on our partner’s beating heart, the smell of a loved one’s cooking, or the inky blue of the night sky dotted with bright stars can fill us with awe and clarity, and for a brief moment we truly experience our own integration with time and place. These moments of clarity and deep connection cannot be bought or given to us by anyone else, though they are always there just as the stars reveal themselves each night, obscured by the intensity of the sun in day, just waiting for us to notice. In hindsight or in times of doubt, anxiety, or despair, these moments of true happiness can feel like a dream.
The word Yoga translates as “to yoke” or “to join” or “union”, to bring together the solid, felt experience of daily life in a body with what is ethereal and sensed in the heart. It is the process of remembering who we are, to open our hearts and minds to our curiosity, to learn discernment and right effort, and to continuously re-calibrate our internal compass as we head in the direction we wish to go. Through our practice we observe ourselves, our actions, thoughts, patterns, reactions and relationships, and gain clarity both for our own experience of life and how we affect others. All of life, not just what we practice on our mats, is an opportunity for a continual process of refinement which allows us to see more clearly. Yoga shows us that all of life is a gradual surrender to the power of our own love.
Yoga as a system is not formulaic, and we do not need to believe or accept anything about this process as true - in fact and in contrast to systems of belief, our faith in practice is built by our willingness to question and explore for ourselves what direct experience in each moment reveals. This work is not about forcing ourselves to give up anything, because that which we naturally discover is no longer nourishing and serving us will naturally fall away without effort. There is no waiting and no delayed gratification, because yoga is both the process and the result, and the seed of all that is possible is present the very first time we step onto our mat, consciously notice our breath, or catch ourselves in unskillful habit. Unfortunately, if we approach and practice yoga with the same mentality of striving, achieving, gaining, force, and self-coercion (“I shouldn’t but I have to” or “I have to but I don’t want to”) that is so pervasive in our culture, we can practice for decades, deepen our habitual defenses (samskaras), and continue to miss the point.
A finger pointing at the moon is not the moon. The finger is needed to know where to look for the moon, but if you mistake the finger for the moon itself, you will never know the real moon. The teaching is like a raft that carries you to the other shore. The raft is needed, but the raft is not the other shore. An intelligent person would not carry the raft around on his head after making it across to the other shore.
- Thich Nhat Hanh
The Yoga Sutras
For practitioners in the west, our main guidebook is Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, which scholars date to around 300 BCE. The Yoga Sutras are composed of 4 books and 196 sutras (1) (threads or aphorisms) through which we investigate ourselves along with our self-limiting beliefs and incrementally find freedom. Common to the many different branches of yoga, Patanjali clearly defines an eight-limbed path (in Sanskrit, “ashtanga”) that forms the structural architecture for development of each individual’s path. It is important to remember that yoga is a non-linear process - meaning that we will have to revisit the same lessons many times - of creating the conditions for arriving in each moment. The process laid out by the Sutras illustrates and enlivens three essential developments: ethical conduct, mental discipline, and development of wisdom. Wherever we are in our journey, whether the very beginning or far down the road, continued development of ethical conduct both sustains and reinforces the foundation of our practice by continuing to remind us to pause and frequently ask, “who am I becoming?” and "how am I moving through the world?".
The first limb, the Yamas, consists of timeless characteristics observed by people of all cultures, races, and religions as being central to a life conducive to peace and inner freedom. They are mostly concerned with how we are in relationship to others, and in a subtler way, how we are with ourselves. The second limb, the Niyamas, is essentially a code for living in a way that fosters our natural capacity for generosity, compassion, and love with the choices that we make as we move through life.
Of course, our understanding of the Yamas and Niyamas is an organic process which develops over time as we discover more about our inner and outer world. I like to remind myself frequently that it is better to observe and notice when I’m maybe not embracing one of these in the moment (and how that echoes in my body and mind) than to try to practice them all at once, which creates too much tension and, ultimately, unnecessary suppression. It is only when we accept our imperfections that they have the opportunity to become our teachers. Remember : this practice is not about forcing ourselves to give up anything, because that which is no longer nourishing and serving us will naturally fall away without effort. There is no waiting, no delayed gratification, because yoga is both the means and the result.
Non-violence requires a continual refinement and awareness of our own inner process. It requires the reduction and eventual elimination of judgement, criticisms, and projections onto others. True non-violence is the development of a positive quality of universal love and not merely the attitude of negating harm to others.
Being truthful has many facets, including following through with our commitments and learning to say what we mean. Truthfulness constructs rather than destroys: it is not the act of angrily stating our opinions or judgements to others, standing by them - and defending them - as fact. It is the act of taking responsibility for our own projections onto others by investigating their source inside ourselves. It is the brave willingness to go within and discover our personal truth, seperate from expectations or desires. When truthfulness is achieved, we discover the power our words have in fruition and manifestation.
When we look beneath the desire of wanting, we often discover there is a sense that we ourselves lack something. Whether it is material possessions or qualities in another, we only want what we feel we do not have. As we develop a sense of completeness or being fulfilled within ourselves, we discover there is no need to compete or criticize. When there is no envy or wanting of what others have, we can delight in their joys and successes as we would our own.
To avoid over-accumulations that cause us to protect and defend. This can refer to our emotional storehouse of memories of anger, resentment, projections and aggressive thoughts towards others. It can also refer to our attachment to personal, ideological, socio-political, religious or spiritual beliefs. When the desire to possess and accumulate is absent, we seek nothing for our separate, individual self. As we develop a sense of true generosity of spirit, of giving, it contributes to a deep sense of trust and non-defensiveness. Non-possessiveness is the realization that little is required for a loving and true experience of contentment.
Commonly translated as sexual celibacy, practicing Bramacharya as a contemporary householder (non-monastic) means that we use our energy wisely. We waste a lot of our potency trying to get what we want in the short term - love, connection, admiration, etc. - instead of directing it to places that truly nourish us. Instead of and all-or-nothing approach, try to understand our sexual energy as an incredibly potent resource that can be used to bring you closer to your self in each moment.
Saucha - Purity
Saucha is about maintaining a cleanliness in body, mind, and environment so that we can experience ourselves with greater clarity. For some, saucha is observed as sobriety, while for others it is interpreted as having less stuff in their home. Practicing saucha, meaning “that and nothing else” involves making choices about what you want and don’t want in your life. Far from self-deprivation, the practice of saucha allows you to experience life more vividly. A palate that is attuned to simple foods enjoys the sweetness of fruit and the taste of pure water; a clear mind can more fully appreciate the beauty of music and the wisdom imparted in a story. This practice both generates beauty and allows us to appreciate it in all its many forms.
Santosha - Contentment
The practice of contentment is the ability to feel satisfied within the container of one’s immediate experience. Contentment shouldn’t be confused with happiness, for we can be in difficult, even painful circumstances and still find some semblance of contentment if we are able to see things as they are without the conflictual pull of our expectations. Contentment should also not be confused with complacency, in which we allow ourselves to stagnate in our growth. Rather, it’s a sign that we are at peace with whatever stage of growth we are in and the circumstances in which we find ourselves.
Tapas - Discipline
Translated as “fire” or “heat”, once activated, the embers of tapas tend to generate more and more heat and momentum for our practice, which makes each subsequent effort less difficult. When we’re not living in this disciplined awareness, our willing tactics of avoidance create an endless cycle of more suffering for ourselves. Discipline is having enough respect for yourself to make choices that truly nourish your well-being and provide opportunities for expansive growth; like a physical fire, tapas also requires space between the metaphorical logs. Give your discipline breaks and allow yourself some time to relax fully to avoid burning through your fuel too quickly.
Svadhyaya - Self Study
Any activity that cultivates self-reflective consciousness can be considered svadhyaya. The form that this self-study takes is inconsequential. Whatever the practice, as long as there is an intention to know yourself through it, and the commitment to see the process through, almost any activity can become an opportunity for learning about yourself. When we welcome a limitation or a sticking point, we can get close enough to ourselves to see the roots of our anger, impatience, or self-loathing. We can have compassion for the forces and conditions that molded our behaviors, and beliefs, and in so doing develop more skill in handling, containing, and redirecting previously self-destructive tendencies. What we see in others is a mirror; the degree to which we can have compassion for ourselves is the degree to which we will be tolerant of other people’s weaknesses and flaws.
Ishvarapranidhana - Celebration of the Spiritual
We make meaning in our lives through the attention and care we express through our actions. Yoga shows us that the extraordinary is actually quite ordinary and vice versa - it is simply that we are too busy, distracted, and often immersed in our own head to see. We have all had the experience of looking back at some event in our life that at the time may have seemed painful, confusing, and disruptive, but later, in retrospect, made perfect sense in the context of our personal journey. Ishvarapranidhana asks us to trust the process and to seek questions over answers when we inevitably experience doubt. Rather than trying to unravel the mystery, we start to see just how beautiful our deeply connected web is. Ultimately, Ishvarapranidhana is about taking time to reflect and reopen our hearts to the world around us.
- Most people find that there are one or two of these practices that they find challenging in everyday life, whereas others are relatively easy. Are there a few of these practices that you find you consistently have more difficulty embracing in your life (or wrinkled at while reading this)?
- In what ways do you see this ethical framework helpful in developing other aspects of the 8 limbs, such as the concentration practices of asana, pranayama, or dharana, or the wisdom practices of dhyana and samadhi?