I caught the “yoga bug” early in my life and haven’t been able to shake it! Nor would I want to! I can honestly say I tried every kind of yoga I could find in my early years: practicing Classical Hatha and Kundalini Yoga in my teens, Ashtanga Yoga in my twenties and Iyengar Yoga in my thirtees. Even though the physical practice always had an implied connection to a whole practice including all “the limbs” of yoga, it wasn’t always clear what that meant and how it was to be enacted.
The limbs of yoga, or the “eight Limbs” from the Yoga Sutras, fall into the following categories: ethical living, daily observances, postural practices, breathing practices, relaxation/inward turning, concentration, meditation and absorbtion/enlightened states. My experience in different traditions has helped me immensely in finding a way of being flexible (excuse the pun) with my practice and teaching. It has also allowed me to see the eight limbs from various perspectives and likewise become more flexible in my interpretations of them. But, some limbs don’t leave you much wiggle room.
Take the first limb (ethical principles) in the Yoga Sutras, for example. There are some strong prohibitions set forth in these traditional ethical precepts, called the Yamas. They include: non-violence (ahimsa), truthfulness (satya), not coveting/not stealing (asteya), sexual abstinence (brahmacharya), and charity (aparigraha). It can be difficult to reconcile the traditional perspective of a yogi who has “renounced the world” with our everyday modern existence. The idea of non-violence is a difficult one to grapple with right from the start! Not to mention, the goal of sexual abstinence can be quite difficult, if you are not a renunciate monk or nun. Many people reinterpret the rule of abstinence to mean appropriate sexual behavior or even make it more vague by saying: “maintaining the right use of your energy”. The other three are a little more straight-forward, but still take real diligence to enact.
Like finding common ground of different yoga traditions, in terms of postural, breath and meditative practices, I have come to understand that working with the ethical principles is both a personal journey and exploration of a universal code of ethics, in which I need to continually reflect on how to be in right relationship with myself and others. What would it mean to be fully non-violent in thought and action? That contemplation brings me face to face with some deep personal, societal and historical realities that are not non-violent at all: a list of violent things humans have done and are still doing comes to mind. This is where the inspiration of Mahatma Gandhi or the Dalai Lama and others comes in. Put in the positive, this principle is saying to always think and act with compassion. I’ll leave you with questions that stand as possibly the biggest challenge to me as I contemplate the “first limb” in action: How can I be compassionate even in the face of those who are not? How do I engage in compassionate action in a violent world?
Next time I’ll reflect on the second limb!