The Practice: Yamas on the Mat
As per Patanjali’s 8 Limbs of Yoga, Asana is the third limb, the first limb being Yamas and second limb being Niyamas. It makes sense, then, that the first two limbs must have some relevance to Asana practice. Superficially, there may not be an obvious connection, as the Yamas are a social code of conduct, and the Niyamas are a standard of personal ethics an individual strives to follow on the spiritual sojourn of Yoga.
Patanjali explains how an asana should be practiced: Sthir sukham asanam: An asana, or a pose, should be steady and comfortable. So how can Yamas and Niyamas help bring about an asana practice that is steady and comfortable?
Today, we’ll be looking into Yamas.
In an ordinary sense, we see violence only when it is directed toward others. Rarely does one look at himself or herself through an understanding of non-violence.
On the mat, Ahimsa means that you choose to honour and respect your own body and its ability to practice asanas, so that you will not hurt myself physically or mentally. It means that you make an effort to do what you can on the mat with sincerity, respecting the limits of you body.
This means that you will not over-stretch or strain your body, and at the same time, will do what you are able to with what capability you have. If an asana is done with this attitude, it can be the first step towards being still and steady in body, mind, and spirit, to reaching a place where there is no judgement as to your ability and no comparison with others. Because the body is not strained, and the effort is sincere, the mind is relaxed and the spirit free.
Ahimsa on the mat is a sincere effort that honors the body and calms the mind.
How can an understanding of truth help on the mat? What does truth on the mat look like?
Truth remains the same on the mat or off the mat. There is truth in the fact that everything is changing at every moment. There is truth in the fact that one’s body and mind change daily, even from moment to moment! If you allow yourself to be swayed by the changes in the body or changes in your thoughts, feelings, and opinions, then your asana practice cannot possibly remain steady and comfortable.
Truth is also found in the thought that though everything changes, there is a part of you that is not changing. Your ability to stretch, lift, flex, and twist may improve as your practice becomes more intense and regular. These abilities of the body may also deteriorate as a result of illness, injury or aging. However, the understanding of a steady and comfortable asana can only continue to improve as you practice, so that you can transcend the body-mind attachment and discover the part of yourself that is unchanging.
Satya on the mat is: Body, breath and mind belong to me and change with time and circumstances. Honouring these changes I aspire to rise beyond these changes to that part of me that is unaffected by the change.
What can you possibly steal on the mat?
Asteya on the mat comes in the form of losing patience, or attempting advanced asanas on the mat, when you have not sincerely learned the basics of a beginner practice. If you want to practice and look the same as an advanced yoga practitioner without applying sincere effort, that, too, is stealing. You might also practice for shorter periods of time on far fewer days of the week, and still expect to gain the physical and mental benefits of yoga practice.
This insincere attitude is stealing, wanting more than what you have earned. In this type of practice, you cannot possibly reap all the benefits of yoga practice, and may even end up with a physical injury that will prevent you from continuing your practice. If you continue to envy the advanced practitioner, you may be left with a feeling of failure or disappointment.
A strained body and a disturbed mind cannot possibly bring you to a state of a steady and comfortable asana.
Asteya on the mat is being non-judgemental, non-competitive, and measuring your growth only by self-comparison. You are your only competition!
Brahmacharya (celibacy or moving in infinity)
How can one practice Brahmacharya on the mat?
Brahmacharya has a more superficial meaning of celibacy, but a deeper meaning of becoming free from desire and abiding in the Brahman. Abiding in the Self.
If by practicing asanas, your intention is to develop a slim, trim, and sexy body, then asana practice will become nothing more than an exercise routine. However, a properly instructed asana practice will bring you to a deeper understanding of the Self.
With full awareness of the body that is properly balanced with a mind that flows effortlessly with the breath, the asana practice itself becomes a meditation.
Brahmacharya on the mat is a body that is balanced, and a mind that flows effortlessly with the breath, so that the spirit is free to soar the vast expanse of the sky.
How does one practice non-accumulation on the mat?
You are practicing aparigraha when you simply have the confidence that with sincere effort and proper execution of instruction, you will be able to do the asana mindfully. That as your understanding of the asanas increases, even simple asanas will unfold their complexities and value for your wellbeing. Having the confidence and being content with your abilities at any given stage in your practice will open up the path towards higher learning.
Aparigraha on the mat is confidence and trust that you shall be given what you need as you continue to do your practice sincerely.
Tune in next month for Niyamas on the Mat!
Dr. Bharti Verma, MA, MD, MCFP, combines an established medical perspective with a seasoned background in yoga. As a senior teacher with the Foundation, Bharti teaches advanced level yoga and meditation programs internationally. She is an avid yoga practitioner and instructor with 500 h E-RYT Yoga Alliance certification. She brings yoga to her clinical practice and provides yoga and meditation instruction to many of her patients on a weekly basis.
Join Dr. Verma and some of the most influential and engaging yoga teachers in the south east for the Joyful Yoga Conference from August 10th-12th, 2018 at the Art of Living Retreat Center.