Yama – the five vows of the seeker
ASHTANGA YOGA SERIES
What if someone told you there was a simple set of practices that could help you manage every aspect of your daily life, and at the same time take you to a level of human potential beyond your wildest imagination? Would you be interested? Most people would at least be curious.
That is in fact an accurate explanation of the practices of Yoga, but most people don’t realize it. Yoga includes a holistic set of practices for overall self-development and the well-being of the body, mind and soul. A few thousand years back, the great sage Patanjali compiled the current yogic practices of that time into a simple framework consisting of eight parts or limbs, and that framework is still used today. It is known as Ashtanga Yoga.
But the practices of Yoga have evolved since Patanjali was alive, in response to the needs of the time and especially during the last 150 years. So in this series DAAJI explores each limb of Yoga in the light of the modern day yogic practices of Heartfulness. He shows us how to integrate inner spiritual practices with living in the world and refining our personality, so as to create that true state of Yoga – skill in action and integration of the spiritual and worldly as aspects of life.
Yama is the first of Patanjali’s eight limbs of yogic practice. DAAJI expounds on this very first rung of Ashtanga Yoga, and explores its importance in self-development and the path of enlightenment.
Why does behavior matter so much in the spiritual field? And does it matter only in the spiritual field? Human beings have always valued nobility of character, kindness, generosity and humility. We have also always venerated the people throughout history who embody those values or principles.
When you remember the meaning of the word ‘Yoga’ it becomes clearer. Yoga means union, integration, oneness, including the integration of our inner and outer states of being. We cannot be saintly on the inside and also greedy, arrogant or angry in behavior – that would be a lack of integrity. That lack of integration is not natural and leads to personality disorders; it is the opposite of holistic. Ultimately, there is no inside and outside but one fluid state of being. So if we are going to embark on a spiritual journey, our character must go with us.
In today’s world, this aspect of Yoga is not wellunderstood by Hatha Yoga practitioners and meditators alike, who are often happy just to do their practices. Why? Maybe because it means looking in the psychological mirror in order to change. Spirituality is not a path for the faint hearted. Swami Vivekananda once said, “I need lions not sheep.” Have you ever wondered why such a great being said this? It is because every single moment we must work on ourselves to refine our lifestyle if we wish our consciousness to blossom.
While meditation with Yogic Transmission transforms us swiftly from the inside, melting away obstacles to progress, stripping away our limitations at the very root, life demands something more of us. Our inner world may be expanding and evolving, but if our personality and lifestyle lag behind then we will remain spinning, like those little mice in their running wheels. We will not be able to move forward on the journey.
So what sort of a lifestyle is demanded of a seeker of the light? When Patanjali formulated his Ashtanga Yoga some thousands of years ago, he naturally included the refinement of personality and lifestyle as part of yogic practice, and he did so in the two limbs known as Yama and Niyama. Here we will explore those fundamental qualities espoused by Patanjali in this first limb, Yama. I like to describe them as the five oaths of a seeker.
The word ‘Yama’ has different meanings. In Sanskrit, it means ‘regulation’ or ‘self-discipline’. Ram Chandra of Fatehgarh wrote,1 “Giving up untrue feelings and untrue thought is Yama. Yama means to give up. Yama is the giving up of unwanted things from the heart.” So Yama is the removal of everything that is unnecessary for our spiritual journey.
In Hindu mythology, the God of Death is also called Yama. How to reconcile this idea of death being intertwined with the refinement of lifestyle? One answer lies in the right understanding of life itself. Physical life begins with conception and ends with the withdrawal of the soul. This does not mean suicide. The real secret is to ‘die’ while still alive, transcending ‘I’-ness to become universal. Meditation is also the process of consciously transcending the individual self, so that we can merge with the universal consciousness.
Another way of saying it is: live as if you are going to die the next moment. This constant reminder of Yama as death may on the surface sound morbid, but there is tremendous wisdom in this idea, which is to transcend the ‘I’-ness of the ego with love. The ego can be a very restrictive force – it doesn’t let life blossom – but when this transcendence happens the ego becomes our ally and evolutionary in its purpose. The willpower of the ego moves from being self-centered in individual consciousness to being in tune with universal consciousness.
Where we go wrong is in thinking that this is all about physical death. Here death is not of the physical body, but of our self-created accumulated identity in the subtle body – the layers of our persona. Transcendence means such refinement of the subtle body that it becomes pure and expansive, without individual heaviness.
There are basically two aspects to this refinement. The first is the removal of all the heaviness from the subtle body – the impressions we have accumulated from our own past – so that it becomes so light that consciousness can soar higher and higher. These impressions are called samskaras in Yoga. This process leads to the death of our own individual network of complexities – beliefs, emotions, fears, habits and desires. Many people try to let go of the past through psychoanalysis and personal therapy from the mental level, whereas in Heartfulness the practice of Yogic Cleaning removes the very root of the problem, the samskaras, by directly cleaning the subtle bodies. This process is so effective that the impressions from one lifetime can be removed in one meditation session with a trainer.
But if we don’t also then work on removing the behaviors that are the outer manifestation of those impressions, we end up re-creating the same heaviness again. Like the mice on the wheel, we go round and round, removing, re-creating, removing, re-creating. It is a neverending cycle unless we make behavioral and lifestyle changes.
The second aspect is the further refinement of the four main functions of the subtle body – consciousness, the thinking mind, the intellect and the ego:
With meditation on the heart, the mind deepens from thinking to feeling, to simply being, and then finally to unbecoming or unknowing, towards nothingness. It refines towards the subtlest state possible.
The intellect deepens to intelligence to intuition to wisdom and also finally to a higher state beyond wisdom, known as unknowing or higher ignorance – again it zeroes out. Guidance henceforth will descend from beyond.
The ego moves from a selfish focus on ‘I’, gradually refines to selflessness and generosity of heart, then absolute humility and acceptance, and finally only the finest state of identity remains.
As these three subtle bodies are refined, consciousness is untethered and is able to expand into its infinite state, merging with the universal consciousness.
If this could be achieved only through spiritual practice, everyone would reach the destination in no time at all. But does the ego easily move from selfishness to generosity of heart? Not without a fight! Do we easily trust the wisdom of our hearts, happily residing in a state of unknowing, dependent totally on something higher? That would mean ignoring the pros and cons of the rational mind that are dictated by our own principles and constructs. It takes time to let go of all this and let consciousness soar into universality. It is a process that requires Yama and Niyama side by side with practice.
Yet with this transcendence we experience real aliveness for the first time. What is aliveness? It means to live life with the heart; a life that is now connected to the eternal and the immortal; a life where there is neither bliss nor sorrow, neither pleasure nor pain. With such a transformation comes the wisdom to conduct life with selfdiscipline or Yama.
That is why in Heartfulness we start with the last three limbs of Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga – dharana and dhyana, culminating in samadhi – so that we develop the inner capacity and aliveness to then develop self-discipline and nobility. Inner transformation is the catalyst for bringing outer change. The other five limbs are then naturally supported by the newly cultivated balanced tendencies of the mind.
This sequence is more practical than trying to refine character from the outer perspective of changing the persona, because behavioral change is most possible in someone with a welldeveloped manomaya kosha or mind sheath. It is certainly not possible for anyone who still has a heart full of the samskaras of desire, worry, anger, fear or guilt. It cannot be imposed artificially from the outside and be real.
This state that Yama brings of self-discipline is beautifully described in the yogic literature as being in this world but not of this world, symbolized by the lotus that lives in the mud but is not polluted by it, instead radiating purity and beauty. So these five vows of a seeker are for living life bravely and not straying away from a noble life.
Let’s explore them in more detail.
The purpose of embracing truthfulness, nonpossessiveness, moderation, honesty and nonviolence is to allow peace to prevail within. Peace is always there. It is our nature. It is only when we embrace lies, dishonesty, cruelty, violence and selfishness to possess things that we lose peace. Moreover, if the peace becomes a means to achieve something else, then that very act will become a hindrance to our evolution.
The first Yama begins with love. The fundamental divine law that governs life is “Love all”. If the idea of hurting anyone or anything remains in the heart, we fail at the first step itself. People who intend to hurt others can easily become demons when they develop capacity, so it is important to love selflessly, unconditionally and joyfully. This is the essence of ahimsa. But I feel that there is something more to ahimsa. Practiced ahimsa may not permit you to hurt, which is fine, but there is a greater need to be compassionate, taking action so that the other is not only not hurt, but out of compassion the other is comforted.
It is a simple matter to understand that liking someone ultimately culminates in love. When we love all, where is the question of being violent or hurting others? When we love, we are ready to sacrifice our comforts, our possessions and ultimately ourselves. Is this not compassion? It is sad that under the spell of hatred, people destroy each other.
Be truthful: Satya
The second Yama is to be true to yourself. We all know the famous statement by William Shakespeare: “This above all: to thine own self be true.”
Be genuine, original and authentic. Say what you mean and mean what you say. No hidden agendas. No masks. No hiding faults and no camouflages. There is childlike innocence, purity and simplicity in truthfulness. Being truthful, while at the same time ensuring that the truth never hurts the heart of another person, is only possible if ahimsa becomes a part of us.
When we do not follow the heart, we will sometimes follow wrong guidance. We suffer from an untruthful heart and the coercions that result from it. This leads to a lack of authenticity. Then our inner environment is messed up and wrong habits develop. Hence, always be truthful and nurture the purity within.
When we do hurt others, even unintentionally, guilt often develops, and the removal of guilt is an important aspect of Yama. It cannot be done through meditation or cleaning, but can be done through a genuine prayerful state of repentance and letting go at bedtime. This is one important aspect of being truthful – to accept our own failings with humility and genuinely offer them in a prayerful state. It purifies our system of guilty feelings, which are the hardest impressions to remove.
Honesty (not stealing): Asteya
When we have love in the heart and tread the path of truth, honesty then radiates in our existence. Our existence in thought, word and deed will be a manifestation of honesty. Then our very presence will give an impetus to the moral compass of everyone around us. Honesty is the result of a life led with non-violence (ahimsa) and nurtured by truth (satya). In particular, we have no interest in coveting or stealing anything that belongs to anyone else. At least, minimally, we should not take from others or hurt them. If we could be compassionate and do much more than just not taking and hurting, maybe others would feel more at ease and comforted. Is it enough that we do not snatch away food from the hungry? Surely we can be compassionate enough to ensure that the hungry receive what they need.
Moderation of the senses: Brahmacharya
Brahmacharya has been narrowly understood to mean celibacy, whereas it really means a state of moderation across all our faculties. The term is composed of Brahm + charya. ‘Charya’ means to dwell, so ‘one who dwells in Brahm’, is aptly called a brahmacharya. To pretend to be a brahmacharya by imposing rules from outside is like putting the cart before the horse; it is artificial. We achieve moderation as a result of purifying the inner condition through the Heartfulness Way and bringing a state of balance and moderation.
When we dwell in that state, all our actions and thoughts naturally have the quality of Brahman. Such a state of moderation is achieved through the practice of regular meditation on point A and cleaning of point B in Heartfulness practice. For such a person, procreation is a natural and sacred act. Procreation is beautiful, as long as our desires do not become a slave to it.
Attitude of non-possessiveness towards worldly things: Aparigraha
The fifth Yama is non-possessiveness. It is the culmination of the other four: love, truthfulness, honesty and moderation. We start to exist as if we are in the world but not of the world, like a lotus. It simply means that even if you have something in you, you are not possessed by it or affected by either its presence or its absence. Imagine the arrogance and pride of a sannyasi who seems to have renounced all desires and possessions but is proud of his renunciation! He may have renounced, but he possesses a lot of pride and arrogance. He is now possessed! This ego will be fatal. Such an ego will be unproductive and will turn out to be invalid currency in the Higher dimension.
Imagine the emotional gap created by the two different ideas of belonging versus possessing. When one has the sense of belonging, there is pride. When there is a sense of being possessed, there is a tremendous gap! Let us visit the daily scenario where our mother makes meals for us and serves us with so much love. Now think of the other scenario, where our mother has gone somewhere and we may have to dine out at some friend’s place. We become so grateful to our friend’s mother. Take another scenario: it is raining and you find shelter under the canopy of someone’s roof. You are so grateful to the house owner. Do we express such gratitude towards our mother or our home? Mostly no. Why? Is it because we take them for granted, as we have the sense that they are ours. Possessiveness somehow creates a distance. Belongingness brings us closer.
We naturally develop an awareness of our duties, not in an enforced way but because we put others first as the result of an inner generosity of heart. The natural etiquette of caring and putting others first emerges in our behavior, as our thoughts and actions are no longer based on personal desires. We are no longer pulled by likes and dislikes for people, places or things. We simply live our life with devotion, developing an unattached state naturally and spontaneously. It is not that we are detached but that we love everyone and everything without discrimination, universally. In Heartfulness practice, meditation on point A helps develop this virtue.
These five qualities depend on love. A loving, cheerful and contented heart creates the environment for the blossoming of life itself, without any force or pretense. A spiritual seeker who fulfills the five attributes of Yama will not be burdened by egoism. Be it exhibiting miracles or showing off possessions, he or she will not be self-centered, covetous or greedy.
And when do we become so interested in these five qualities that it is a joy to pursue them? When we realize their essential role in preparing our heart for one purpose only: the purification of consciousness. These five qualities form our spiritual foundation. In fact, no spirituality is possible without them, and they prepare us for better and nobler experiences. Only when we want nothing from anybody, including God, do the doors open.
These five qualities form our spiritual foundation.
In fact, no spirituality is possible without them.
Becoming or imbibing these qualities prepares us for
better and nobler experiences.
It is very much like a bank. When you are in dire need of money, banks generally will not help you, whereas when you have absolutely no need of money the bank will solicit your business. Likewise, when God finds a contented soul He gives more. Heavenly gifts descend on those who renounce power itself. If we ask for it, then it is denied. Nature is similar: powers descend automatically on one who says, “I do not need it.”
If you feel daunted by the call of these five vows, I leave you with the lines of the poet H.W. Longfellow, who said,
Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each to-morrow
Find us farther than to-day.
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