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 Yoga: The Ten Living Principles - Yamas and Niyamas 
Although there are many branches to the tree of yoga, from devotional methods to more intellectual approaches, from schools that emphasize service toward others to those that focus on physical purification, Patanjali Sutras, clearly defines an eight-limbed path (ashtanga) that forms the structural framework for whatever emphasis upon which an individual wishes to concentrate. The Yoga Sutras, or "threads," consist of four books produced sometime in the third century before Christ. Such was the clarity of Patanjali's vision of wholeness that he consolidated the entirety of yoga philosophy in a series of 196 lucid aphorisms. Each thread of the Yoga Sutras is revealed as a part of a woven fabric, with each aphorism merely a mark or color within the whole pattern. The threads, however, begin to make sense only through a direct experience of their meaning. This is not a linear process but rather an organic one in which colors and markings gradually become more clear until a pattern forms. And this pattern that Patanjali weaves for us is a description of the process of unbinding our limited ideas about ourselves and becoming free.

The eight limbs of yoga are traditionally presented as a hierarchical progression, but this linear progression toward an idealized goal tends only to reinforce the dualistic idea that yoga is something to "get." It may be more helpful to imagine the eight limbs as the arms and legs of a body--connected to one another through the central body of yoga just as a child's limbs grow in proportion to one another, whatever limb of practice we focus upon inevitably causes the other limbs to grow as well. People who begin yoga through the limb of meditation are often later drawn to practice more physical postures. Those who are drawn to vigorous physical practice later find themselves being drawn into the quieter, more meditative practices just as each limb is essential for the optimal functioning of your body, every limb of yoga practice is important. Growth in practice happens naturally when a person is sincere in her wish to grow.

The eight limbs emanating from a central core consist of the following:

Yamas and Niyamas: Ten ethical precepts that allow us to be at peace with ourselves, our family, and our community.

Asanas: Dynarmic internal dances in the form of postures. These help to keep the body strong, flexible, and relaxed. Their practice strengthens the nervous system and refines our process of inner perception.

Pranayama: Roughly defined as breathing practices, and more specifically defined as practices that help us to develop constancy in the movement of prana, or life force.

Pratyahara: The drawing of one's attention toward silence rather than toward things.

Dharana: Focusing attention and cultivating inner perceptual awareness.

Dhyana: Sustaining awareness under all conditions.

Samadhi: The return of the mind into original silence.

The greater part of this book on yoga will focus on the most down-to-earth practices--the asanas and the practices of breathing and meditation. These form an embodied approach to spiritual practice, where we use the body and all our sensual capacities in the service of regeneration and transformation. This is contrasted to many approaches in which the body is seen as an obstacle that must be transcended. Let us first look at the core principles for living, the yamas and niyamas that form the central vein from which all other yoga practices spring.

The Ten Living Principles
The first limb, or the yamas, consists of characteristics observed and codified by wise people since the beginning of time as being central to any life lived in freedom. They are mostly concerned with how we use our energy in relationship to others and in a subtler sense, our relationship to ourselves. The sages recognized that stealing from your neighbor was likely to promote discord, lying to your wife would cause suffering, and violence begets more violence; the results are hardly conducive to living a peaceful life. The second limb, the niyamas, constitutes a code for living in a way that fosters the soulfulness of the individual and has to do with the choices we make. The yamas and niyamas are emphatic descriptions of what we are when we are connected to our source. Rather than a list of dos and don'ts, they tell us that our fundamental nature is compassionate, generous, honest, and, peaceful.

In the West we are taught from an early age that what we do and what we own sole components for measuring whether we are "successful." We measure our success and that of others through this limited vantage point, judging and dismissing anything that falls outside these narrow parameters. What yoga teaches us is that who we are and how we are constitute the ultimate proof of a life lived in freedom. If you do not truly believe this, it is likely that you will measure success in your yoga practice through the achievement of external forms. This tendency has produced a whole subculture of yoga in the West that is nothing more than sophisticated calisthenics, with those who can bend the farthest or do the most extraordinary yoga postures being deemed masters. Because it's easy to measure physical prowess, we may compare ourselves to others who are more flexible, or more "advanced" in their yoga postures, getting trapped in the belief that the forms of the practice are the goal. These outward feats do not necessarily constitute any evidence of a balanced practice or a balanced life. What these first central precepts the yamas and niyamas ask us to remember is that the techniques and forms are not goals in themselves but vehicles for getting to the essence of who we are.

One of our greatest challenges as Westerners practicing yoga is to learn to perceive progress through "invisible" signs, signs that are quite often unacknowledged by the culture at large. Are we moving toward greater kindness, patience, or tolerance toward others? Are we able to remain calm and centered even when others around us become agitated and angry? How we speak, how we treat others, and how we live are more subjective qualities and attributes we need to learn to recognize in ourselves as a testament to our own progress and as gauges of authenticity in our potential teachers. When we remain committed to our most deeply held values we can begin to discern the difference between the appearance of achievement and the true experience of transformation, and thereby free ourselves to pursue those things of real value.

As you read through the precepts that follow, take the time to dwell upon their relevance to your life and to consider your own personal experiences both past and present in reference to them. You can take almost any situation that arises in your life and consider it from the vantage point of one or more of these precepts. It can also be valuable consciously to choose a precept that you'd like to explore in depth for a month or even a year at a time investigating how the precept works in all aspects of your life. And last, the way in which you approach the practices that follow in this book, and your underlying intentions, will ultimately determine whether your practice bears fruit. As you progress in your yoga practice, take the time to pause frequently and ask "Who am I becoming through this practice? Am I becoming the kind of person I would like to have as a friend?"

Yamas--Wise Characteristics

Ahimsa--Compassion for All Living Things
Ahimsa is usually translated as nonviolence, but this precept goes far and beyond the limited penal sense of not killing others. First and foremost we have to learn how to be nonviolent toward ourselves. If we were able to play back the often unkind, unhelpful, and destructive comments and judgments silently made toward our self in any given day, this may give us some idea of the enormity of the challenge of self-acceptance. If we were to speak these thoughts out loud to another person, we would realize how truly devastating violence to the self can be. In truth, few of us would dare to be as unkind to others as we are to ourselves. This can be as subtle as the criticism of our body when we look in the mirror in the morning, or when we denigrate our best efforts. Any thought, word, or action that prevents us (or someone else) from growing and living freely is one that is harmful.

Extending this compassion to all living creatures is dependent on our recognition of the underlying unity of all sentient beings. When we begin to recognize that the streams and rivers of the earth are no different from the blood coursing through our arteries, it becomes difficult to remain indifferent to the plight of the world. We naturally find ourselves wanting to protect all living things. It becomes difficult to toss a can into a stream or carve our names in the bark of a tree, for each act would be an act of violence toward ourselves as well. Cultivating an attitude and mode of behavior of harmlessness does not mean that we no longer feel strong emotions such as anger, jealously, or hatred. Learning to see everything through the eyes of compassion demands that we look at even these aspects of our self with acceptance. Paradoxically, when we welcome our feelings of anger, jealousy, or rage rather than see them as signs of our spiritual failure, we can begin to understand the root causes of these feelings and move beyond them. By getting close enough to our own violent tendencies we can begin to understand the root causes of them and learn to contain these energies for our own well-being and for the protection of others. Underneath these feelings we discover a much stronger desire that we all share--to be loved. It is impossible to come to this deeper understanding if we bypass the tough work of facing our inner demons.

In considering ahimsa it's helpful to ask, Are my thoughts, actions, and deeds fostering the growth and well-being of all beings?

Satya--Commitment to the Truth
This precept is based on the understanding that honest communication and action form the bedrock of any healthy relationship, community, or government, and that deliberate deception, exaggerations, and mistruths harm others. One of the best ways we can develop this capacity is to practice right speech. This means that when we say something, we are sure of its truth. If we were to follow this precept with commitment, many of us would have a great deal less to say each day! A large part of our everyday comments and conversations are not based upon what we know to be true but are based on our imagination, suppositions, erroneous conclusions, and sometimes out-and-out exaggerations. Gossip is probably the worst form of this miscommunication.

(Excerpted from Yoga Mind, Body & Spirit: A Return to Wholeness ISBN: 0805059709)
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 About The Author
Donna Farhi Donna Farhi is a Yoga teacher who has been practicing for 30 years and teaching since 1982. She leads intensives and teacher training programs internationally. Donna is best known for her unique ability to help......more
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