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  • Julie Lifton

Mahā-Vrata: The Great Rules, The Yamas of Yoga

Philosophy in Action, is a new series in my yoga classes during which we explore how principles of yoga philosophy relate to our daily practice. In the following series of posts I’ll discuss various precepts and how they can be applied.

In the book, The Yoga Sutras, compiled in approx. 400 BC by Patanjali, he introduced The Eight Limbs of Yoga -- eight rungs that ultimately lead to a peaceful flow of awareness. The Yamas and Niyamas are the first two limbs that lay out ten principles to help us live a yogi’s life. These two limbs coming first emphasizes the importance of being in conscious, honorable relationship with others.

Most of us in the West come to yoga through the third limb, Asana, the physical practice of yoga. We spend years working to achieve greater technique, strength and flexibility through concerted effort. We then have to unlearn bad habits, both mental and physical, once we discover the true origin and purpose of yoga.

In Patanjali’s system, Asana comes after we have committed to the first two: the Yamas and the Niyamas. In fact, of the 196 Sūtras, only four discuss Asana. The rest assume we come to yoga to free ourselves of the suffering caused by resentment, jealousy, competition, distraction, greed, obsession, and the many other pitfalls of being human.

In the first limb, Yama; also called The Mahā Vrata or great rules, stress again and again that to achieve spiritual awareness we must first be good people; that expanded consciousness depends on a sound ethical conscience.

Patanjali states in Sūtra 1:33 that the mind becomes tranquil and peaceful by cultivating an attitude of friendliness, compassion, kindness and non-judgement. We must learn to apply the Yamas to ourselves, then live our values more fully in the world to create a more peaceful mind and a more just world.

When thinking about the Yamas, I think of Michelle Obama's words, “When they go low, we go high.” The Yamas provide us a map to the high road – Asana is the vehicle.

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