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Feb 2014

The Yamas and Niyamas - the ten instructions on living by setting personal boundaries and intentions - are NOT the core of Patanjali's Sutras.

You might think they are the complete text of this foundation work of classical yoga. Two thousand years old, the 196 verses form one of the oldest instructions on achieving enlightenment through the direct path of meditation. While they say little about yoga postures as we practice them in evening class at a studio today, they are rightly considered fundamental principles for the path of bringing into 'union' our apparently separate ego from the universal spirit.

But here's the thing - in most yoga studios and even teacher training classes I have experienced, nearly all the emphasis on the sutras will be on a relatively small portion of this text which appears in the middle of chapter two. As the beginning of the Eight Limbed Path of yoga, the Yamas set our standards for social behaviour - non-harming, telling the truth, non-stealing, sexual restraint and non-grasping. The second limb, the Niyamas define a more personal discipline - cleanliness, contentment, staying active, study and committing our practice to the divine.

I recall a teacher once telling me how amazed her new students were on seeing this list prominently displayed in the studio. "It was the first time they had encountered such ideas," she effused. "Immediately they recognized yoga as something greater than physical postures."

I reflected on this statement, and it occurred to me that the students response was less the novelty of the list of ten, but rather its familiarity. We live in a culture where lists are normal, and defining moral behavior mainstream. Indeed seeing such a resonant list to - let's admit it - the Ten Commandments, whether raised explicitly with the Bible or simply part of western culture, may indeed create a comfortable sense of belonging. 

Essentially, drawing us back to the dominant narrative of spiritual growth - to become a good person who deserves to belong based on quality of deeds and purity of thought.

But that very familiarity can be a trap. We already working on this belonging project by doing the right things. Belonging at work, in our family, and with our friends. With a little tweaking, perhaps becoming vegetarian if that is how we interpret the yama of non-harming, we can quickly fit our identity into this new yoga club and once again comfortably belong. Or at least fake it well enough on the outside to feel we won't get called out. Now, just get those hamstrings to flex up a little, and our yogi project - another improvement task happily taken on by the ever eager to perform ego - is complete.

Which has nothing to do with the core of Patanjali's Sutras. 

In these obtuse and at times apparently repetitive instructions, a discipline of practice is laid out that leads to a very different outcome than another Pyrrhic victory for the small mind. The Yamas and Niyamas are literally just the beginning - the taking off our coat and rolling up our shirt sleeves before getting down to the real work. Literally. I imagine that back in the day they were written up on the wall of the monastery dormitory for the novitiates - fourteen year old boys from the elite Brahman sect - as instructions to minimize the disruption of the community for the work to come. Don't steal each others stuff, no sneaking out for time with girls, keep things clean and even tempered, study hard, and devote yourself to the gods. And show up in the kitchens right after cock crow.

And so then to the real work.

Photo: Sometimes, on a day like this - bright and cold and alive with wind- I remember moving to this landscape. And I think, I am living in this magical space called America.

The core of Patanjali's sutras is leading on a path to a personal discovery. Not being told something, but deeply realizing it to be true.

Everything I experience - see, hear, smell, even think - I will only ever experience through the filter of my mind. 

I will never actually experience eating a ripe orange. Making love with another. Being cut by a knife. What I will experience is all the sensations associated with those events as they are filtered through my mind, with it's attachments and resistances, with its fears and delusions. Is being cut by a knife in the school ground from a bully? Or is it an army field surgeon saving me from death? Is an orange the Christmas treat savored by Laura Ingalls Wilder on the prairie? Or once again the only food I have as a poor child on a Florida farm? Am I making love for the first time with a discovered soul mate? Or is this the poignant final expression of a love-affair on its way into breakup?

We can never change this fundamental truth. But deeply realizing it's profound truth is a stage in Patanjali's real project. Not a list of moral codes, or a way to belong to a new fraternity. Rather this project is slowly cleaning and polishing the lens of our own mind, until we are able to see through it more clearly, and this precious life we get to live is more honestly and vividly experienced.

One way to understand this path is comparing it to Psychology. Western science of the mind seeks to achieve this clarity of vision by peeling away what is obscuring our view one narrative at a time, whether family dynamics or later traumas, examining and releasing them layer by layer. In contrast, Patanjali's approach is more direct and in a way impersonal. To experience through a progressive path of meditation the existence of the mental lens and how it obscures our vision - and then focus through these habits of attachment and resistance into a clearer understanding of our situation and our relationships. To wake up into what is truly Now.

None of which is to say that we should not seek to lead good lives. But that this goodness is only the beginning - not the core - of yoga philosophy.

I would love to hear your perspective.

Namaste - Eugene