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 Yoga: What is Yoga? 

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.

Commitment to the truth isn't always easy, but with practice, it's a great deal less complicated and ultimately less painful than avoidance and self-deception.

Proper communication allows us to deal with immediate concerns taking care of little matters before they become big ones.

Probably the hardest form of this practice is being true to our own heart and inner destiny. Confusion and mistrust of our inner values can make it difficult to know the nature of our heart's desire, but even when we become clear enough to recognize what truth means for us, we may lack the courage and conviction to live our truth. Following what we know to be essential for our growth may mean leaving unhealthy relationships or jobs and taking risks that jeopardize our own comfortable position. It may mean making choices that are not supported by consensual reality or ratified by the outer culture. The truth is rarely convenient. One way we can know we are living the truth is that while our choices may not be easy, at the end of the day we feel at peace with ourselves.

Asteya--Not Stealing
Asteya arises out of the understanding that all misappropriation is an expression of a feeling of lack. And this feeling of lack usually comes from a belief that our happiness is contingent on external circumstances and material possessions. Within Western industrialized countries satisfaction can be contingent upon so many improbable conditions and terms that it is not uncommon to spend all of one's time hoping for some better life, and imagining that others (who possess what we do not) have that better life. In constantly looking outside of ourselves for satisfaction, we are less able to appreciate the abundance that already exists. That is what really matters--our health and the riches of our inner life and the joy and love we are able to give and receive from others. It becomes difficult to appreciate that we have hot running water when all we can think about is whether our towels are color-coordinated. How can we appreciate our good fortune in having enough food to eat when we wish we could afford to eat out more often?

The practice of asteya asks us to be careful not to take anything that has not been freely given. This can be as subtle as inquiring whether someone is free to speak with us on the phone before we launch into a tirade about our problems. Or reserving our questions after a class for another time, rather than hoarding a teacher's attention long after the official class time has ended. In taking someone's time that may not have been freely given, we are, in effect, stealing. The paradox of practicing asteya is that when we relate to others from the vantage point of abundance rather than neediness, we find that others are more generous with us and that life's real treasures begin to flow our way.

This may seem unlikely, so let me share an example. Paul was a medical student and past acquaintance who seemed always to be helping others and sharing his seemingly limited resources. One evening when it became too late for a commute home, I offered Paul my guest room for the night. On awakening in the morning I discovered he had cleaned my refrigerator ("It looked like you'd been busy"). Paul had few financial resources but always seemed to be having wonderful dinner feasts to share with his friends. Later, I found out that he worked late at a local health-food restaurant, and, thankful for the extra hours Paul spent helping out, the owner gave him many of the leftover vegetables, breads, and prepared dishes to take home. When a number of friends joined Paul at a holiday home for a week, Paul initiated a special "clean-up and dust" party that lasted all day ("Just think how great it will be for the owner when he comes back after his trip overseas . . !"). Paul rarely asked for anything but was always surprising his friends with his new acquisitions. People gave things to Paul all the time--even large items like cars and washing machines--not because they felt sorry for him but because his own sense of intrinsic abundance and his own generosity tended to make you feel that, like him, you had a lot to give.

Not stealing demands that we cultivate a certain level of self-sufficiency so that we do not demand more of others, our family, or our community than we need. It means that we don’t take any more than we need, because that would be taking from others. A helpful way of practicing asteya when you find yourself dwelling on the "not enoughs" of your life is to ask: "How is this attitude preventing me from enjoying the things I already have?" Another way of fostering this sense of abundance is to take a moment before going to sleep to dwell on at least one gift in your life. This can be as simple as the gift of having a loving partner or loyal pet, the grace of having good health, or the pleasure of having a garden.

Brahmacharya--Merging with the One
Of all the precepts, the call to brahmacharya is the least understood and the most feared by Westerners. Commonly translated as celibacy, this precept wreaks havoc in the minds and lives of those who interpret brahmacharya as a necessary act of sexual suppression or sublimation. All spiritual traditions and religions have wrestled with the dilemma of how to use sexual energy wisely. Practicing brahmacharya means that we use our sexual energy to regenerate our connection to our spiritual self. It also means that we don't use this energy in any way that might harm another. It doesn't take a genius to recognize that manipulating and using others sexually creates a host of bad feelings, with the top contenders being pain, jealousy, attachment, resentment, and blinding hatred. This is one realm of human experience that is guaranteed to bring out the best and worst in people, so the ancient Yogis went to great lengths to observe and experiment with this particular form of energy. It may be easier to understand brahmacharya if we remove the sexual designation and look at it purely as energy. Brahmacharya means merging one's energy with God. While the communion we may experience through making love with another gives us one of the clearest experiences of this meshing of energies, this experience is meant to be extended beyond discrete events into a way of life--a kind of omnidimensional celebration of Eros in all its forms. Whether we achieve this through feeling our breath as it caresses our lungs, through orgasm, or through celibacy is not important.

Given the pragmatism of the ancient yogis, it is hard to believe that Patanjali would have put forth a precept that would be so undeniably unsuccessful as selfwined denial. The fall from grace of countless gurus who, while admonishing their devotees to practice celibacy, have wantonly misused their own sexual power gives cause to consider more deeply the appropriateness of such an interpretation. When any energy is sublimated or suppressed, it has the tendency to backfire, expressing itself in life-negating ways. This is not to say that celibacy in and of itself is an unsound practice. When embraced joyfully the containment of sexual energy can be enormously self-nourishing and vitalizing and, at the very least, can provide an opportunity to learn how to use this energy wisely. When celibacy is practiced in this way, there is no sense of stopping oneself from doing or having what one really wants. Ultimately it is not a matter of whether we use our sexual energy but how we use it.

In looking at your own relationship to sexual energy, consider whether the ways you express that energy bring you closer to or farther away from your spiritual self.

(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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