The first limb is made up of the 5 Yamas or Restraints and according to the yoga sutras they are ‘universal’, meaning they are for everyone to practice regardless of age or station in life and they are timeless in that they remain relevant and essential now and always. To devote your life to practicing them constitutes a “Maha Vratam” or Great Vow.
For me the image of the ‘real’ yogi comes to mind when I imagine what it would be like to fully succeed in following the Great Vow. By real yogi I mean someone who has given up everything, including:
A) Ceasing to harm any living being
B) To know and live by a strict code of absolute honesty and accountability
C) To refrain from stealing, covetousness, or taking anything that rightfully belongs to someone else
D) To pull back energetic sensuality
E) To give up all but the barest minimum of possessions and to let go of all possessiveness.
The yogi who really follows the yamas could very well be a homeless ascetic who wanders burdened with only the barest material possessions. The yamas highlight the fact that essentially yoga is about rejecting the entire material world and turning away from whatever is part of the cycle of life and death in order to identify with our true eternal identity as Spirit or Pure Consciousness.
Even though most of us begin yoga without giving much or any thought to the yamas eventually we open the door to contemplating and even putting them into action. Most of us learn to approach the yamas gradually over the course of many years of yoga training. We use the training wheels of asana and pranayama (limbs 3 and 4) to ready us to handle the rigorous mental and physical challenges of aligning our thoughts, behaviors, and actions with them. Below I give you tips on how you can begin to approach and benefit from practicing this potentially overwhelming limb.
1) Practicing Yamas is not an all or nothing affair
Begin by contemplating the yamas. Familiarize yourself with the definition of each one. Contemplate the concept of yama as a Great Vow and begin to know the individual character or flavor of each yama.
2) Confine your practice of Yamas to your practice of asana and pranayama
At first be more concerned with practicing the Yamas on your mat then off of it. Devote yourself to entering into an entirely new relationship with your reaction patterns. As you work through your asana puzzles attempt to reclaim knowledge of how you are feeling and thinking. If you are a more beginner student here are some ideas about how you can begin to work with the yamas during your practice:
A) Ahimsa (non harming): Restrain the urge to be overly aggressive, not bullying, criticizing, or denigrating yourself when you practice.
B) Satya (truth): be honest about the feelings that are coming up for you while you practice, like anger, inadequacy, envy, lethargy, or carelessness.
C) Asteya (non stealing): cease to want a different body, set of circumstances, or what someone else has.
D) Bramacharya (restrain the senses): try to keep your gaze contained within your body or investigate how you use your energy. Is there wasteful energy, movement patterns?
E) Aparigraha (non possessiveness): refrain from seeing asanas as trophies to be gained or accumulated.
3) Divide the Yamas into 5 types
Working with one ama at a time can help you to focus in on the exact nature of each one then you can better pinpoint the symptomatic reactions and/or behaviors that necessitate using a yama as an instrument of restraint. Each yama highlights a particular type of faulty response that needs to be observed, interacted with, questioned, and checked. Practicing a yama is like applying a psychic probe to your internal world. You are trying to shine a light into your murky, dark, obscure interior world of emotion. The yamas give you five different probes to help you sort out and distinguish the different emotions that may be arising within you at any given time. At first when looking within it can feel like your emotions are all merged together into one jumbled, impenetrable mass but by using one yama instead of another you can start to follow more subtle threads of emotion, motive, and desire.
4) Begin to use Yamas off of your mat
As an intermediate student you start to view your asana practice through the lens of the yamas. You quickly learn to spot when you are approaching a posture aggressively, greedily, or possessively. You become skillful at restraining unconscious responses and start to transfer this skill to other areas of your life. Your practice expands to observing and mining your mind throughout the day. You gain skill in navigating the complex ever changing seas of your mind and learn how to deal with your emotions more consciously and productively. You assess the quality of an emotion or thought and learn how to estimate its value and this leads you to encourage or eliminate it. You start to understand what DEAD END thinking is. In yoga there is a word for such dead end ways of thinking and responding—Samskara. There are two roots to the word:
1) Sam –perfect
2) Kara- maker.
Samskara means “perfect making”.
At first it can feel contradictory to think of your dead end repetitive habits as an attempt to reach for perfection. But if you can reorient your view and see those habits as attempts towards perfection you are then able to see the limits of your mind. Having this perspective shows you that the mind has an inherent ‘dumbness’ or ignorance and you cannot depend upon your mind in some of the ways you have come to rely on it. There is a necessity to use a different sort of awareness, a discerning consciousness that steps in to steer the mind more accurately in its attempt at perfect making.
Mind control in yoga is to take control of certain aspects of the thought process. There is a part of the mind that does things by rote, unthinkingly, like a soldier follows order. This part helps you to become, do, or believe, whatever you allow it to repeatedly think about. Through practicing the yamas you can train your mind to become perfect at emptying out, allowing difficult emotions to arise and be dealt with, and finally, you can direct your mind towards contemplating the sacred invisible and eternal soul that is your true identity. You can use the mind power and mental discipline that you gain from practicing the yamas to embody and express the accurate perfect making that you truly desire.