Since we come to yoga classes and do poses, you’d think that pose would be first, right? There’s a reason that moral code, or right conduct, is first. Just as etiquette in class is more important than doing each pose perfectly, conduct in life is more important than doing each yoga pose perfectly. This is what we mean when we talk about yoga “off the mat.”
Remember the comparison to a tree? This limb has five branches.
Ahimsa – nonviolence
Asteya – nonstealing
Bramacharya – responsible behavior
Aparigraha – nonatattachment
The first is ahimsa, or nonviolence. This is not only in deed, but in speech as well. Ahimsa comes from compassion for all things. If someone says something nasty to you, it’s more than just gritting your teeth and walking away – that’s not a comfortable way to go through life. Ahimsa is more than empty politeness. The root word of passion is “to suffer,” and compassion means “to suffer with.” It’s the ability to put yourself in someone else’s place – literally, to feel what they feel. It’s recognizing that punching someone else in the face is ultimately punching yourself in the face. Does saying something cruel to another person actually make you feel better? Does being rude actually make you happy, or just bolster your ego?
The Dalai Lama says that Chairman Mao is his greatest teacher. Mao sent his armies into Tibet, killing over 100,000 Tibetans and forcing the Dalai Lama into exile. Learning to feel compassion for Chairman Mao and forgive him was an enormous task, yet the Dalai Lama accomplished it. Rather than focus on retaliation, he teaches others the art of happiness and compassion. This is the embodiment of ahimsa.
We apply this in the studio by considering the feelings of others. Smiling and saying hi in response to others who do the same, not leaving a mess in the locker room, or holding the door for someone whose arms are full, are all gestures of ahimsa. So is blowing it off when someone cuts in front of you on the drive to or from the studio. When road rage takes over, you’re allowing inconsiderate gestures of others to get to you. If someone drives thoughtlessly, they aren’t thinking about you five minutes later. They’re not thinking about you at all. So if you’re still seething half an hour later – who is really losing out?
The second branch is satya, or truthfulness. Deception will not make you peaceful, and the greatest unrest comes from deceiving yourself. You must first be honest with yourself about what you want in life in order to achieve it. You will then be able to surround yourself with others who are like-minded and also help you achieve what you want in life. Deceiving them will not make you peaceful either. Remember – the truth will come out.
Self-deception can have painful consequences in class as well. Ignoring pain and telling yourself that you can do more than your body can handle will only lead to injury. Being too proud to flag down your instructor and ask for help can also lead to injury. No one is going to judge.
The third branch is asteya, or nonstealing. This applies not only to not shoplifting or plagiarizing, but also to not using something for purposes other than intended – if a friend lends you a shoe, it’s in poor taste to use it as a hammer and return it with a cracked heel (this is not a made-up example!). Another is to not use something beyond time permitted by the owner. For instance, if someone lends you a shirt or book, it is practicing asteya to return it soon and in the same condition you received it, rather than deciding to keep it without their express consent. Asteya is not taking anything that has not been freely given. Notice how asteya builds upon satya, as deception is an inherent part of stealing.
In the studio, we practice asteya with simple things like mats and towels. We rent them out for $2 and $1 respectively. Our yogis show the courtesy of renting instead of taking, cleaning mats before returning them, and putting the towels in their bins rather than taking them home for personal use. This may seem obvious, but even the smallest acts are part of the yoga practice.
The fourth branch is bramacharya, restraint and responsible behavior. Typically this means nonlust, though it’s not intended to preach celibacy. In yogic principles, sexual energy can regenerate connection to one’s spiritual self. Bramacharya is responsibility to yourself and any partners – honesty about one’s history, precautions against disease and unplanned pregnancy, and fidelity in commitment.
Again, bramacharya builds upon the previous three branches, in nonviolence and nonharm to partners and therefore to any of their future partners, honesty, and not taking advantage of others.
Last branch on this limb is aprarigraha, or non-attachment. This is taking only what is necessary. In The Art of Happiness, the Dalai Lama talks about confusing pleasure with happiness. Buying an expensive car might be pleasurable, but will not actually create the sort of happiness as real friendship or internal peace. In coveting and chasing pretty objects, it is easy to lose oneself in a cycle of dissatisfaction rather than gratitude.
In today’s culture, enormous food portion sizes distort our body’s perception of fullness. Unbalanced diets allow us to stuff ourselves without ever feeling full. It’s natural to crave chocolate and impractical to give up indulgences forever, but it is healthy to learn good portion sizes and satisfying nutrition. Attachment to food creates a binge-and-starve cycle, wherein one is often stuffed but never satisfied. Again, pleasure and not happiness.
At the end of class, we often close by deep breathing, and taking a moment to be grateful for all our blessings. Taking a few moments every day to consider – or better yet, write down – five things for which you are grateful is a proven and documented method of being happier. This is an elegant practice of aparigraha which will 999make you more present and joyful in your day-to-day life.