My time in the Sivananda yoga community lasted for four years, and the tenets of what I learned during that time have stayed with me. This is one of the strongest threads in the weaving of my life. This way of life has given me strength, clarity, and the knowledge that, although I make mistakes, my intent is based in a solid understanding of life in integrity and balance.
Aside from the politics and the grappling for position in the hierarchy of ashram life, the lifestyle made a great amount of sense to me. We lived under the tree of the “Eight Limbs of Yoga” written by the sage and philosopher Patanjali. Patanjali wrote his Yoga Sutras (soo-truhs: “list of rules”) sometime between 200 BCE and 200 CE, and the 192 verses give a guideline to right living and go far beyond modern-day “power yoga”. In fact, I believe that Patanjali would be disappointed in the competitive spirit of Hatha Yoga in these modern times. His treatise was about bringing yoga – the balance of sun and moon; yin and yang; body and spirit; inward thought and outward behavior – in to all facets of one’s life.
Note: the foreign language terms here are all Sanskrit, the Indo-European/Indic language that has been in use since about 1200 BCE, and is the classical literary and religious language of India.
The first limb, the yamas (yuh-muhs: “restraint” or “control over”) are the guidelines for one’s ethics, integrity, and conduct in daily life. There are five of them: non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, continence, and non-covetousness. Of these, I have always felt that nonviolence, ahimsa (a-him-sa), is the most important for the obvious reason, but also because it encompasses all of the others. To willfully tell someone a lie, or to steal from them, to not restrain from unwanted action against someone, or to treat them with envy, are all methods of inflicting some level of hurt. Ahimsa goes farther than merely not inflicting hurt upon another being; it shows that we must be respectful in every way. It is one thing to not lie, for instance, but is pain inflicted by being overly blunt with honesty? Ahimsa encourages one to find the kindest and most respectful way of talking to another person, even when there is anger or mistrust. It does not direct that we must agree with, or even like, what another may do or say. What it does say is that all people deserve respect because they are human beings; all living things deserve respect for being alive. Ahimsa is how we interact with people, how we care for our pets, how we approach nature; it directs us to see the empathy in ourselves as we deal with the living things around us.
The second branch also consists of five attributes of personal restraint. The niyamas (nee-yuh-muhs)are: cleanliness, contentment, spiritual work (classical translation: “heat” referring to the karma burned by the austerities practices), studying sacred scripture (and therefore the self), and surrendering to the will of whatever you want to call your God. Of course, “cleanliness is next to godliness” but it goes beyond not having body odor. We have a god-given right to our bodies; they are a temple and a symbol of our ability to be active and present in this world. To disrespect our bodies is to break the covenant we have with the Giver of Life. I also see a lot of similarity between the cleanliness meant here and feng shui: that non-cluttered placement that allows for inspiration.
“Contentment” does not mean to “settle” or to be lackadaisical. What it does mean is to be aware of the balance and the rhythm of life and to be settled with one’s own place in one’s own time. Each footfall on one’s path is important and deserves full attention. “Austerities” does not mean one has to go wandering in the forest as a mendicant. This is where the discipline of daily prayer/meditation, regular attendance at ceremony, or however one chooses to put their spiritual life in to practice, comes in to the self-discipline of actually doing it on a regular basis. The Sanskrit word for regular spiritual practice is sadana (sad-uhna: “wearying; exhausting”). It is through the doing of spiritual practice that all the other things fall in to place. For me, greeting the sun rise each morning with a prayer of promise to accept the day fully and to listen for the lessons keeps me grounded, keeps me on track, and keeps me open to possibility.
What is now generally referred to as “Yoga” comprises the third limb of the eight-limbed tree of Patanjali’s Asthanga (ah-schtangh-ga: “having eight parts”). Hatha Yoga (Ha “sun”- t(h)a “moon”; Yoga “union”) refers to the union of body and spirit. The Sanskrit word for the collection of postures is asana (ah-sun-a) which means“position” or “sitting” (sometimes this is mispronounced a-sanna which really means“near” or “nearness”). Through the consistent practice of asanas, one develops physical discipline and the ability to concentrate, both of which are necessary for meditation. (There is much to be said about Hatha Yoga, so I will take the next chapter to expound a bit.)
Generally translated as “control of the breath”, pranayama (pran-uh-yuh-muh) is the fourth limb. Various breathing techniques were designed to gain mastery over the respiratory process and at the same time recognize the connection between the breath, the mind, and the emotions. The literal translation of pranayama is prana: “vital energy” and yama: “(self) control”. The vital energy enters the body through the breath, and so it not only rejuvenates the body but it works to help extend life span. Pranayama is practiced as an isolated technique by sitting to perform a number of breathing exercises and it is integrated into the Hatha Yoga routine.
The first four stages of Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga help one to work on refining oneself by living in integrity, substantiating the union of the body and the spirit, and cultivate the energetic awareness of one’s Self-ness in the spiritual sense. This is all done in preparation for the next four “limbs of the tree”, which will give instruction about how to delve deeper in to the mind, the senses and prepare one for attaining a higher state of consciousness.