Taking it onto the mat: The Yamas
I spend a lot of time thinking about the shapes that we make on our yoga mats and what they could all mean. It’s hands down my favourite driving pastime (and I seem to drive a lot at the moment). I don’t know if I have a definitive answer, or if I ever will, but I certainly plan on continuing this path of curiosity because all I know is that since yoga became a part of my life, I’ve been an all round better human for it.
So first up, let’s think about the parameter of our yoga mat. It becomes a safe space for these shapes to be made because not only is it much nicer on the ol’ feet, knees, hands, general body parts, but it also provides a very distinct space that is ours. It’s within these four corners that magic happens - space is found where we may have previously felt stuck, our chattering thoughts seem to dissipate (if only for a moment), we learn new things about the body that we inhabit that we may have never previously known, we start to permit ourselves to be curious, creative even, despite not ever labelling ourselves as ‘a creative type’. It really is magical. And all because we decide to step our feet onto this mat and make some shapes.
But what happens when you take that mat away? Yep, it’s still yoga.
And how about if you take the mat away, stop making them shapes and continue with your day? How can this magic flow into the rest of our lives when we’re not in this safe space and we’re not working with these asanas or postures?
In the Yoga Sutras, the great sage (spiritual teacher) Patanjali quite clearly lays out the theory and practice of yoga, offering up the eightfold path, or eight limbs of yoga, which act as a pathway to living a life with intention that is open to spiritual growth. Sounds pretty good right?
Two important aspects of the Sutras that I have found from my own studies is that Patanjali is quite particular in his ordering. What I mean by this is that each sutra, or each teaching, occurs when it does on purpose. Secondly, within these eight limbs, asana (meaning postures), is just one of the aspects explored and it doesn’t even crop up as the first stile in our pathway to spiritual enlightenment. Personally, I think that this is great news because it suggests that the magic we find when we do explore these shapes can be found and put into action in other ways.
So first up on this pathway set out by Patanjali is the Yamas. Just a thought - you might be thinking, ‘Why follow these teachings set out by a man that I don’t even know?’ Great question. The Sutras were written approximately two thousand years ago, so they’ve certainly stood the test of time thus far, and secondly, they just make a whole lot of sense. I honestly believe that they incorporate some of the greatest teachings that could exist when it comes to living a purposeful life, whether written by Patanjali or not (keeping in mind that a lot of the content within the Sutras would have been compiled by lots of other handed down teachings). There’s no doubt also that if you’ve attended a couple of yoga classes, you’ve probably heard something along the lines of ‘taking your yoga practice off the mat with you’. That doesn’t mean introducing upward facing dogs into your work schedule (although it might not be a bad idea), but rather taking the things that we learn on the mat into how we exist in our daily lives. But I’m intrigued also in how we can introduce the teachings that have been handed down into our physical yoga practice too. Hopefully you’ll see what I mean, and hopefully you’ll recognise how these teachings already exist within your own physical yoga practice and life, or how there is potential to incorporate them for a much more all-round enjoyable (albeit sometimes challenging) time.
Anyway, steering away from the driving-brain-chatter that is finally getting typed out - I’m not currently driving might I add - let’s get back to the Yamas. Meaning self control essentially, the Yamas are the first limb of the eight limbs of yoga and they consist of five suggestions or codes of conduct for how to act in this world, not just in a class or during our own home practice, but at every single level of your life. That’s pretty powerful stuff and it certainly takes a lot of dedication and devotion, but if you can introduce these suggestions into any level of your life, then I think that you’ll start to notice that magic flowing freely from morning to night.
First up we have Ahimsa, translating as non-violence. It has to be up there as rule number one as not only is it the first of the Yamas, but the first teaching of the eightfold path - remember, order is key. Whilst non-violence seems obvious (as I said, these teachings just make sense), in its most obvious interpretation, we unfortunately live in a world that doesn’t seem to abide by this rule. The more we can champion non-violence on an individual level, it seems likely that the message will have a chain effect and start to permeate to those around us. Just look at the huge surge in vegetarianism, veganism and conscious consumption - it has to start somewhere, and it starts with you.
But violence doesn’t just exist on this physical level, but also on an emotional level both to others and ourselves. The words we choose to use are charged with such enormous power. The things we continue to tell ourselves about ourselves can be detrimental. If we can execute a little more kindness each day, the world will be a better place - there’s no question about it.
And how does this translate to and from that physical yoga practice? Well, first up, stop beating yourself up that you can’t do a handstand because it does. not. matter. And, if you can do a handstand, that’s wonderful that you’ve cultivated the core strength and focus to maintain being stood on your head, it really is, but be graceful with this. It does not make you a better yogi than the yogi that can’t sit with their legs crossed. Our bodies tell the stories of the amazing lives that we have lived so far, so respect the journey of others as well as your own.
Bottom line: if you tell yourself anything today, let it be, ‘In a world where you can be anything, be kind.’
I love exploring the order of the Sutras, because it seems like a natural progression that from kindness and empathy stems truthfulness. Satya is second up in the Yamas, and already we’re at a challenging hurdle.
Being honest sounds easy, but it’s one of those sounds easier than it actually is kind of things. How often do we do attend something that we don’t want to out of guilt, and then have a rubbish time because we really wanted to just stay in and get an early night? It’s a small example of the daily choices that we face, but these choices have the power to transform our lives. If we can start to approach them with a little more truthfulness, we open up the incredible potential for change.
And how do we introduce this powerful tool into the shapes that we make on our mats?
I’m concerned by the fact that we live in this incredibly strange culture right now where social media fuels our desires above anything else. I see endless photos of yogis upside down and back to front, seemingly defying all laws of gravity, which in turn means I have people in my beginners classes questioning whether that’s the goal of yoga. This is an issue.
I’ll say it everyday if I have to - it does not matter if your heels touch the floor in downward facing dog, it does not matter if you can’t sit with your legs crossed, it does not matter if you can’t balance on your head (we walk around on our feet, so it seems natural that you probably can’t balance on your head), it does not matter if you find uttanasana difficult - you do you and speak your truth.
Next up we have Asteya, meaning non-stealing, which seems pretty obvious. Do not take what is not yours, right? But what about in other capacities?
Do you have a tendency to steal away the time of others? Do you have a habit of being disruptive in life? Do you hoard stuff that you don’t need?
By nature, stealing is born from the belief that we need something to fill a gap that isn’t filled in our lives. And this empty gap tends to stem from a lack of self-belief. Following so crucially on from this teaching of truthfulness, this sutra taps into the idea of robbing ourselves of the right to experience life as it is.
On the mat, do you experience the poses as they are happening in your body, or do you work towards what you think they should look like? In your life, do you experience the abundance of life flowing around you, or do you steal time away from yourself by dwelling on the spaces that “need” filling?
Brahmacharya has had many interpretations over the years and is potentially the least popular of the sutras. Originally it was believed that celibacy would allow energy to be used solely on the yogic path, but you have to put into perspective that these teachings were written two thousand years ago. Culture has changed somewhat in that time.
However, this idea of the right use of energy is important.
Integrity literally means, ‘the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles’. That’s definitely a concept that I can get on board with. And now, with non-violence, truthfulness and non-stealing securely present in our lives, perhaps there is the capacity to grow from these solid foundations and recognise our own value, the values of others and develop not just sexual integrity, but life integrity.
Perhaps one of the more difficult sutras to translate into a physical yoga practice, consider where your energy is focused during a class. Are you allowing yourself to stay present and stay curious, or are you moving through poses without any integrity?
This is where alignment becomes an important part of your physical practice. Often in the transitions where we find ourselves back in downward facing dog, I ask myself and my classes to consider whether any integrity in the pose has been lost.
Unite the breath with the movement, practice safely and maintain your integrity.
Arriving at the last of the Yamas and the end of the first limb of the eightfold path is Aparigraha. This idea of letting go kind of encapsulates the other four teachings into a wonderful little conclusion in my opinion.
Take a deep inhale, take an even deeper exhale and let go.
Let go of what you hope the outcome to be and surrender to what is happening. Life won’t always flow in the way that you want it to and you have no control over that. No matter how kind you are, how honest you are, if you don’t steal or if you maintain integrity in every aspect of your life - sometimes things just go a little bit… wrong. That’s what makes Aparigraha one of the most difficult teachings of the Yamas.
How do we let go and maintain these other codes of conduct when everything feels like it’s falling apart around you? Even if stuff isn’t going terribly wrong, but you do something you’re ashamed of - what then? What if you deliberately say something to your friend to hurt them? Does that mean you’re not a yogi anymore?
No - it does not. It means that you are human being. But the decision you make next is an important one. Are you going to hold onto that negativity and let it guide you, or are you going to let go and focus on this very moment, the right here and the right now - because that’s all you’ve ever really got.
And in your physical yoga practice? Go to your mat for the pure enjoyment of moving your body. Let go of the magic being there or not because sometimes it won’t be, maybe even for months at a time, but show up for yourself again and again and again.
The five Yamas lay down just the first limb of the eightfold path towards spiritual development, opening up the practice of yoga not just as a physical one, but a practice that starts from within. The lines between our mat-world and non-mat world blur and instead a path paved with potential is laid down.
I don’t care if you have the perfect trikonasana, but I do care if you treat others with kindness. I don’t care if you can handstand to crow to chaturanga, but I do care if you can look yourself in the mirror and say that today you chose honesty. I don’t care if you can drop back into wheel pose, but I do care if you recognise your value in this world, if you recognise your beautiful divine self, if you recognise that the magic that exists within the four corners of your mat is you.