The Yamas and my Headstand Practice

I found Yoga Philosophy to be very abstract and difficult to understand when I first came across it during the YTT theory lessons. After thinking them through and reading more about them, I came to appreciate them more and see how they relate to our everyday lives and in my yoga practice.

Particularly, I found myself remembering some of the yamas (Ahimsa, Asteya, and Aparigraha) when I was trying (very hard) to practise my headstand.

Ahimsa – non-violence; to not hurt yourself and others with words or actions

  • I had difficulties in getting both legs up in headstand at first and felt a lot of my weight being pushed onto my head and neck, even though I tried my best to push into my shoulders. I was adamant on getting both legs up that I tried again and again, even when my neck and shoulders were getting sore. I ended up getting a sore neck the following day and I knew that I probably had pushed myself too hard.
  • Remembering ahimsa, we need to take care to not push ourselves over what we can take, and rest when it is needed.

Asteya – non-stealing; freeing oneself of jealous instincts

  • Besides the literal meaning of not committing theft, asteya also means to refrain from coveting others’ possessions, time, abilities etc.
  • In the past, it was common for me to look up from my mat to see how others were doing in a yoga class. Some of them could do advanced poses easily whereas I was struggling as I was not flexible or strong enough. As I grew older (and more mature haha) I began to understand that what others are doing does not matter to me in my own practice.
  • Even so, in trying to achieve headstand, I found myself thinking about how others seem to do it so effortlessly and wishing that I had that ability too. And then I remembered asteya – instead of focusing on my “lack”, I can shift my focus to gratitude. I am thankful that my body allows me to practise yoga and I know it is getting stronger and better every day. Also, as Master Paalu often tells us, we need to believe in ourselves and our capabilities, because it is in us!

Aparigraha – non-attachment; non-grasping; non-possessiveness

  • Aparigraha suggests that we do not accumulate more than we need. This can mean wealth or material goods, or in my interpretation in relation to yoga practice, we do not need to “accumulate asanas”, as if there’s a checklist for us to track how many poses we can do.
  • Greed and accumulation may stem from a fear of not having enough, or not being good enough.
  • Practising aparigraha may also mean reducing or removing the attachment you have to outcomes. Instead of focusing on the destination – a headstand, I can focus on the journey to achieving it. We have been taught in our training that asanas are just the final posture, the movements leading to that are what’s key. And when we have gotten our desired outcomes, we should not be too attached to it and instead remember the journey of getting there (you have worked hard!).

Thanks for reading and hope this will help you to reflect on how you have incorporated the yamas or the other limbs of yoga in your daily life or yoga practice too 🙂

Yoga philosophy: The yamas

The yamas are the the first limb of the eight limb path described by Pathanjali in the Yoga Sutras. They describe the five qualities and principles one should follow in everyday life to guide one’s interactions with the outside world.
There are many interpretations of these principles depending on the lenses, be it cultural, religious or spiritual, through which they are interpreted.
After hearing and reading a few commentaries, it struck me that the interpretations of the yamas can vary greatly and a few points grabbed my attention.
One is a tendency to focus on a negative, constraining interpretation of the yamas, eg. You shall not be violent, lie, steal, engage in sexual relations, be greedy – which undermines the positive essence of yoga and its ability to uplift and transform.
The other, which is sometimes linked to the former, is to be dogmatic and controlling in their interpretation.
As an example, Bramacharya is often interpreted as promoting abstinence and the repression of sexual urges. However when focusing on an energy based lense this yama rather encourages us to manage our energy mindfully and to lift our energy up the spine -from the base chakra to the top one- and therefore transcend the sexual urges.
Bramacharya is the way of life of enlightened beings who transcend their root energy for creativity and spiritual purpose. When understood dogmatically there is a real risk that repression of the powerful sexual urge will create tension and lead to attachment rather than freedom.
Focusing on positive, energy based interpretation of the yamas has definetely brought a new light on these five qualities, highlighting their liberating rather than constraining aspects and I can only encourage you to do the same and consider them through that lense.

Yamas

The Yamas and Niyamas form the first two “limbs” of the eight limbs of Raja Yoga.  They are the restraints and observances that are evident in our behavior and reflect our attitudes about ourselves.  They are a fundamental part of “yogic lifestyle.”
The yamas are the “restraints”.  It is important to note that one must restrain without suppression (rather covert the energy to something positive).  Suppression will lead to frustration and will have a negative effect on the mind as evident in the behavior.  For example, if I tell myself I cannot eat chocolate I will just want it more and more till I eventually eat it and probably too much!  This behavior may not be very destructive in itself, but my attitude is changed for the worst.  I will suffer feelings of loss of control, poor confidence and will mentally feel failure.  A better approach would be to ask myself why I am desiring the chocolate and work from the inside out.  This will take time but the result will be much better.  Pranayama, concentration and meditation would all be useful tools to help me change my behavior.
The yamas include:
1. Ahimsa–Non-violence in both thoughts and actions.  This includes thoughts and attitudes about oneself!  This is the reason yogis are vegetarians and refrain from eating an animal that must be killed for the purpose of consumption.
2.  Satya–Truthfulness.  This is reflected behaviorally in what we say–not telling lies and being pure in our speech.  If our speech is not pure, the mind will not be pure.
3.  Brahmacharya–sublimation of sexual energy.  This not only refers to sex itself but also to lust.  Wanting something so badly that it consumes our thoughts and drives our behavior will not lead to a calm mind.
4.  Asteya–non-stealing, lack of jealousy.  This means we are not to be distracted by what we don’t have.  Covetousness only leads to impure thoughts and discontent.  Being “non-stealing” means that if we want something it must come from pure motive and hard work.
5.  Aparigraha–non accepting of gifts or bribes.  This has to do with our motives.  Motives must be pure–if I am only acting to recieve some reward in return it is not pure and will hind my mind.  This includes self-bribery–“if I eat healthy all week I will buy myself some new shoes.”
The Yamas/restraints are the first step to purifying our minds and transforming ourselves through the practice of yoga.  I feel it is important to remember that it is a process and we must patiently transform from the inside out.  With a clear conscience and pure thoughts we will begin the pathway to peace.  Practicing the yamas will help anyone enjoy a better lifestyle whether or not they choose to continue further the practice of yoga.

The Yamas in Everyday Life

I’ve been living separate lives.
Within my yoga practice, there exists a harmonic sanctuary where I am blissfully content and aware of Yamas. In the room, practicing with others or on my own, I am awarded the peaceful mind that is congruent with the principles of Ahimsa, Asteya, Sattya, Brahmacarya and Aparigraha. On the mat I can become focused and controlled in these disciplines, bringing my mind and breath and body together in focus. The challenge of social discipline rarely affects me in the company of fellow yogis and yoginis.
But then I step outside, onto the pavement of the real world, where instantly I begin to check my work email, attempt to cross the road, compete to hail a taxi and negotiate how to plan my time to best accomplish the challenges of that week.  Stepping in puddles, getting upset with my taxi driver for taking the long way home, feeling annoyed at the external pressures of life, it’s almost an immediate undoing of all the Yamas I have just practiced.  I am reminded that everything is a measure of productivity and results. And once again, I’m critical and judgmental, struggling to find the social discipline the Yamas provide.
A rough definition of “yoga” is “union”, yet here I am, a splintered person, confining my Yama practice to a room of like-minded individuals, on a safely-harbored yoga mat.  How have I become a Yama practitioner for merely an hour or so per day? It’s such a convenient life, but also a very unbalanced one.
In a rushed city such as Singapore, which is undergoing such rapid change and improvement, it’s easy to ignore the Yamas. In Aparigraha, or the principle of not coveting things that aren’t essential to one’s life, we face the challenge of walking a fine line between greed and profit making.  Another example is Ahimsa; we are instructed to not harm others, but really, isn’t the practice of losing patience with others a form of harming them?  And by ignoring the Yamas, we are essentially betraying Sattya, or truthfulness, because we are being totally inconsistent with ourselves.  These are just a few of the Yamas, but you kinda get my drift here.  It’s not easy following the social discipline prescribed to us in the Yamas.
Admittedly, it’s an everyday challenge to live the Yamas outside of the yoga studio. The pursuit of joining these “separate lives” together in balance will continue to baffle me.  However, now equipped with the knowledge of the Yamas, I have a better chance in consummating my separate lives. Talk to me in a few months. Maybe you’ll see a certain sparkle in my eye that’ll secretly tell you my double life is over.
Stay bendy everyone.