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As yoga teachers, we have a choice. We can live and teach the whole of yoga as delineated in Patanjali‘s Yoga Sutra, or we can simply focus on the physical practice of asana. If we choose the whole of yoga, the first two steps on the ladder of the eightfold path are the yamas and niyamas. These ethical and spiritual observances help us develop the more profound qualities of our humanity.
The name of the first limb of the eighfold path, yama, originally meant “bridle” or “rein.” Patanjali used it to describe a restraint that we willingly and joyfully place on ourselves to focus our efforts, the way a rein allows a rider to guide his horse in the direction he would like to go. In this sense, self-restraint can be a positive force in our lives, the necessary self-discipline that allows us to head toward the fulfillment of our dharma, or life purpose. The five yamas—kindness, truthfulness, abundance, continence, and self-reliance—are oriented toward our public behavior and allow us to coexist harmoniously with others.
“What the teacher is, is more important than what he teaches,” wrote Karl Menninger. The best way—perhaps the only true way—to teach the yamas is to live them. If we practice them in our actions and embody them in our manner, we become models for our students. We teach without even trying. Still, there are some specific ways to integrate discussions of the yamas into an asana class.
Ahimsa traditionally meant “do not kill or hurt people.” This can be extrapolated to mean that we should not be violent in feelings, thoughts, words, or actions. At root, ahimsa means maintaining compassion towards yourself and others. It means being kind and treating all things with care.
In class, we often see students being violent toward themselves—pushing when they should be pulling back, fighting when they need to surrender, forcing their bodies to do things they are not yet ready to do. When we see this kind of behavior, it is an opportune time to bring up the topic of ahimsa and explain that to be violent to the body means we are no longer listening to it. Violence and awareness cannot coexist. When we are forcing, we are not feeling. Conversely, when we are feeling, we cannot be forcing. One of the main purposes of yoga is to cultivate feeling and awareness in the body, and violence only achieves the opposite result.
Satya means “truth,” or “not lying.” Practicing satya means being truthful in our feelings, thoughts, and words, and deeds. It means being honest with ourselves and with others.
When a student with stiff hips who can’t do a backbend properly puffs out her chest to pretend to do a good one, this is a lie. This is being dishonest because a part of her body is actually not doing the pose at all. Teach your students to always assess themselves honestly, and to work at their own level, without need for apology. Encourage them to look at the whole of their pose, not just the flattering parts (nor just the unflattering parts). Teach them that a pose is too expensive if it is bought by selling ahimsa and satya.
Asteya, or “not stealing,” refers to the stealing that grows from believing we cannot create what we need. We steal because we misperceive the universe as lacking abundance or we think that there is not enough for everyone and that we will not receive in proportion to our giving. Because of this, asteya does not only consist of “not stealing,” but also of rooting out the subconscious beliefs of lack and scarcity that cause greed and hoarding in all their various manifestations.
When students hold back in a posture, or when they don’t work to their full capacity, they may fear that there is not going to be enough energy to do the next pose. Teach your students that each pose gives the energy required to do it. It is only when we persist in feeling a lack of abundance that we hold back and do not put our whole selves into every pose.
We practice brahmacharya when we consciously choose to use our life force (especially the energy of sexuality) to express our dharma, rather than to frivolously dissipate it in an endless pursuit of fleeting pleasures. Brahmacharya reminds us that our life force is both limited and precious, and sexual activity is one of the quickest ways to deplete it. As yogis, we choose to use the power behind sexuality to create, to fulfill our mission, to find and joyously express our inner selves. The practice of brahmacharya is not some archaic form of moralizing, but rather a reminder that, if we use our energy wisely, we possess the resources to live a fulfilling life.
We can teach brahmacharya by helping our students learn to use the minimum energy to achieve the maximum result. Teach them not to use small muscles to do the work of large muscles, and to bring their minds into the poses so that their bodies do not become fatigued. Also, teach your students to channel lines of force and internal power, which will add energy to their lives.
In all poses, teach students to keep the lift of the pit of their abdomen, and explain to them that this actually conserves the life force. Tell them that dropping the lower belly splatters our life force out in front of us. Once conserved, this pelvic energy can be channeled up to the heart. In this way, we can continually teach brahmacharya in class, encouraging students to lift the pelvic energy toward the heart center, the home of the indwelling Self. After all, isn’t this the true purpose of a complete yoga practice?
Aparigraha means not coveting what isn’t ours. It is different from asteya, which asks us to avoid stealing that is motivated by a greed springing from a perceived lack of abundance. Aparigraha is the greed that is rooted in jealousy. The Mother used to say, “Jealousy is a poison that is fatal to the soul.” Jealousy means that we desire to be what someone else is, or to have what someone else has. Rather than finding who we are, we look at someone else and say, “I want to be that.” Aparigraha, in its essence, helps us discover our own selves so that we no longer feel the need to covet what someone else has, or be what someone else is.
Teach your students to always do their practice alone, even in a large class. Tell them not to look at others in the room and compare. When they compare, they start to covet the way other students do the asanas. Remind them to keep their gaze inward. This way, they will be working in their own body, at their own capacity, and not coveting what someone else has.
Kindness, truthfulness, abundance, continence, and self-reliance—living and teaching these yamas puts us on the fulfilling path of an all-encompassing yoga, an approach to the inner quest that makes us whole.