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A introduction to Yoga Philosophy and the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Part 1.

Updated: Oct 26, 2023

Introduction to the Yamas & Niyamas & Ahimsa.

As I'm introducing a little bit of yoga philosophy into my yoga classes this month, I thought it might be an idea to expand in a bit more detail here, -for those of you who find it interesting and want to go a little bit deeper.

We've been exploring The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.

A bit of background & history:

Patanjali was an Indian Sage who lived ~2000 years ago. He accumulated lots of ancient Yogic teachings and compiled them into 1200 words split into 196 Sutras; philosophical statements with the maximum amount of information packed into the minimum amount of words.

According to Yogic philosophy there is only one universal consciousness and all things, both physical and spiritual are part of that universal consciousness. Yogis believe that we are all made of the same reality with no distinction between us. In our deepest selves we are divine (our True Self/True Nature) and all living things are divine in their deepest selves.

The Sutras were written to help us find our True Self or True Nature. However, human nature is often quite different and often contradictory from our True Self. Patanjali tells us that the reason we do not see our True Self is because we are caught up in thoughts, feelings, memories, fantasies, sensations, ideas and judgements about ourselves and others.

To help answer those big existential questions that people have asked - who am I? and - How can I be Happy?, the Yoga Sutras offer us a way to see who we really are.

In Chapter 2 of the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali introduces us to The Eight Limbs of Yoga and it is these that I'm introducing in class. They aim to provide the essential tools for personal growth and transformation.

“Yoga is the journey of the self, through the self, to the Self” The Bhagavad-Gita

The eight limbs of Yoga are:

  1. Yamas: moral restraints, ethical code of conduct.

  2. Niyamas: observances, encouraging the well being of ourselves.

  3. Asana: physical posture.

  4. Pranayama: breath control & extension of prana.

  5. Pratyahara: withdrawal/disengagement of the senses, turning inwards.

  6. Dharana: focused concentration.

  7. Dhyana: meditation

  8. Samadhi: enlightenment

Samadhi is not a state to be attained but is our True Nature. It is never far away. Just as the sun is obscured by the clouds on a rainy day, our True Self is obscured by the veils of ego. When ego falls away for a moment we can experience Samadhi. Often we have glimpses of Samadhi, moments where we feel a deep peace and alignment with life for no apparent reason, or suddenly realise that we have never been separate. This realisation might last for a few moments, a few hours or even a few days and it helps us to trust in the deepest core of our being. However, reaching Samadhi is not about escapism, floating away or being abundantly joyful; it’s about realising the very life that lies in front of us. The ability to see equally and without disturbance from the mind and without our experience being conditioned by likes, dislikes, habits or attachments.

The Yamas

The Yamas provide five principles for ethical behaviour. They are a guide on how we can best act towards ourselves, towards others and the world around us. Patanjali realised that without observing control over aspects of our lives and minds we cannot reach the ultimate aim of yoga, Samadhi.

The five Yamas are:

  1. Ahimsa: non-harming, non violence.

  2. Satya: Truthfulness

  3. Asteya: Non-stealing

  4. Brahmacarya: the right use of energy.

  5. Aparigraha: Freedom from greed and desire, learning to let go

1. Ahimsa: non-violence, love in action, kindness

What does it mean? To understand how non-violence can manifest in our lives each day, we must first learn how our daily actions and responses contain elements of violence. Thoughts containing negative responses like disappointment, resentment, guilt or shame are subtly creating violence. If you can’t forgive someone for something they’ve done against you, or if you can’t forgive yourself for something you’ve done, this is an act of violence because it pushes love away. Expecting too much of yourself and putting all responsibility in your own hands is also a type of violence, as is expecting that the world will run according to your design. Violence disguises itself well. It manifests in words, actions and even inner thoughts. Thoughts naturally move into and out of our minds. The thoughts themselves don’t necessarily cause harm. You don’t need to push these thoughts away, just recognise them, observing as they come into your consciousness and then watch as they leave. However, holding onto thoughts and letting them repeat again and again in your mind is what in the end turns into actions or words of violence.

“ The thought manifests as the word; the word manifests as the deed; the deed develops into habit; and habit hardens into character. So watch the thought and its ways with care, and let it spring from love born out of concern for all beings...As the shadow follows the body, as we think, so we become.” Buddha

Putting it into Practice. By practicing yoga, you can confront your own inner darkness impartially and with compassion. This then paves the way for transforming negative emotions and tendencies without acting on these feelings. Yoga creates a way of getting in touch with any violence you hold inside you through non-violent means and therefore allows you to express negativity without hurting anyone, including yourself. Releasing negative energy through positive intentions transcends the negative aspects of yourself, creating peace in the world around you. When we let go of clinging to the expectations of what we ‘should’ be able to do and stop scolding ourselves with harmful thoughts our bodies respond by working with us, not against us. Finding inner peace through ahimsa will in turn allow us to come to peace in interaction with others.

Try acting with warmth and kindness, even when you don’t feel like it. Smile at someone, these small simple acts of kindness slowly and surely change the world.

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