The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali contain perhaps the first systematic written description of the path of yoga (in fact, he generously describes three). While most of us modern yoga practitioners are not prepared to follow his whole program, it contains many gems that can enrich our practice.
Patanjali's most famous formulation may be yoga as an 8-limbed process (ashtanga). Modern American yogi-sage Richard Freeman observes that it is good to have many limbs to draw from as we maneuver the twists and turns of our life, just as four wheels on a car give it more stability than a unicycle. Yet the modern yoga world has put primary emphasis just one of the limbs: asana, or postures. While some decry this as "superficial" compared to the depths of meditation, I believe it is an ideal entry point to yoga practice for our restless, technologically-disembodied minds. But we need more wheels on the road than just postures!
- ahimsa (non-harming)
- satya (truthfulness)
- asteya (non-stealing)
- brahmacharya (moderation of the senses),
- aparigraha (non-possessiveness)
They are a pragmatic ethics, not absolute rules that must be followed to appease an external authority. Richard Freeman calls them "practices of relationship," for they describe a manner of being with others (which always includes ourselves) that facilitates the work of yoga. They also describe what naturally happens as our yoga practice deepens.
For the next months, Grateful Yoga teachers will be exploring how we can practice yama alongside and within our asana and meditation. As always, there will be no sermonizing, just inquiry into experience.
For some other perspectives, check out this summary by Judith Lasater.