By Paul Dallaghan
“Do unto others as you would have done unto you.”
This may sound familiar to all of us as it comes from the Bible. The direct words of Jesus we are told. It is a simple and beautiful statement. It is the essence of yoga and its practice. In fact, it is such a profound statement that all but a handful of people on this earth can follow it through to its full end. Initially it requires a complete awareness of yourself in all situations and interactions. We may hold it up as an ideal to live by. The question then arises as how to move towards living such an ideal. We need help. This is where the path, and science, of yoga comes in. Yoga may prescribe a routine, practice, system, scientific approach but ultimately transcends all these, planting a higher quality in our hearts: may we not cause harm to any other living being, through thought, word or action. Out of such a quality grows a unique and higher level of love.
Yogascitta vritti nirodhah – Yoga is the cessation of the currents of the mind, meaning a complete calming of all aspects of our mind. This is the classic definition given by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras, which is fair to say is the most authorative text we know of on the whole subject of yoga. The system was in existence, handed down from the highest of realizations by the ancient Rishis. Patanjali, who had realized the path, defined for us the state of yoga and how to achieve it. The above quote is the second sutra from the yoga sutras. In the third sutra he lets us know that upon absolute calming of the mind we reach a stage of abiding in our own true self, meaning we merge with the complete oneness. If this is reached then we would not need to read the other 193 sutras. However, for the rest of us we look at sutra 4 and find that we need to read on – otherwise (i.e. when not achieving the state of yoga) one is victim to the fluctuations of the mind.
How does absolute calming of the mind tie in with being nice to one and all ? After Patanjali lays down the path of yoga, the state to achieve and levels thereof in the first pada or chapter he then gives the means to reach this state in pada 2. This second pada is about practice. Initial practice is presented that we find will weaken all our ignorances, attachments, aversions, fears and selfish identity. Then we are presented with the grand Eight Limbs known as Ashtanga Yoga. If we understand that Patanjali is not a mere author but a qualified revealer of truth, having achieved the highest state of yoga himself, and very succinctly making it available for us, then we can put full faith and trust in the practice of these limbs. It is not like many books written today where the information does not come from complete direct experience. Anything stated in the sutras has been experienced by the sage him/herself and compassionately written down so that we can follow suit and achieve the purpose of life.
Upon first examination of Ashtanga we find truths to live by in society. The first is non-harming. The very fact that this comes first is of utmost importance. To understand non-harming we may need to reflect it upon ourself and subsequently we find the maxim “do unto others as you would have done unto you”. Now some people may enjoy self-torture and could then use such a line to justify that treatment to others. The intention behind the action is paramount. One action may seem to cause one pain due to their lack of understanding, experience or selfish behavior but the intention behind it is out of love, whereas another action may seem ok or even hurt and its intention is to do that exactly. Hence, our non-harming is in our thoughts, in our words and in our deeds. We cannot control every action. Each step we take ends up finishing some insect’s or microbe’s life. Therefore, kill the least and save the most will help us in our attitude of non-harming. The other elements of the first limb help us to grow as an individual – truthful, non-stealing, harnessing of our vital energy and non-greediness or hoarding. They are all interrelated and we realize that at the top of the list is non-harming. The second limb discusses more personal observations such as cleanliness of body and mind, contentment, accepting all as part of our growth, self-study and complete surrender to the source of all.
To completely reach a state where we would not harm another being, doing to them as we would want done to us, is where the path of yoga takes us. For we realize that we are all one. The right hand is not separate from the left. Would it purposely hurt it? The ability to actually experience this, not just intellectually understand it, is the state of yoga. One with Everything. Realising this, knowing we are a work-in-progress, we start to follow the path yoga gives us. As we continue along it we experience different levels of this truth.
The current popularity of yoga today shows many advertisements listing benefits of yoga such as a healthy body, strong and toned muscles, radiant glow, stress control, relaxation, ability to handle more situations, etc. These are accurate in the sense that if one practices truthfully these benefits can come. It is important to understand however that they are not the goal of yoga, absolutely not, but rather extremely positive side-effects of practicing diligently. What it reveals is that the initial preoccupation is with our physical, material lives. And rightly so as this is what we perceive. More likely than not, very few have done any deep inner exploration. Therefore, the entry point has to be through our physical and material self. Hence why yoga is popularly associated with the movements and poses. This is known as asana and is the third limb of Ashtanga as defined by Patanjali.
Patanjali has first aided us with social and personal moral codes and practices in the first two limbs, building the foundation for our growth. As we continue to put our attention on these throughout daily life we also engage in specific practices to help the growth. There is no creed or doctrine to this science of yoga. It is as much a science as say physics or chemistry. If faithfully followed the result is arrived at. Many individuals in the past and today have shown this. If one is religious or not it does not mess with that belief but rather supports it. The key to it all is practice. Patanjali states that practice must happen for a long time, be continuous and done very sincerely. Thus patience, perseverance and honesty are cultivated, especially if one is to see any results. From our practice we examine ourselves. This is the scientific aspect. Is there growth? Am I doing it correctly? This will ultimately build a sense of being the observer which leads to being more detached or non-dependent. Yet what it also highlights is the absolute need for a qualified teacher. To open a book and play with poses may be appealing but to go anywhere on the path of yoga this experienced and authoritative guidance is required, i.e. someone who has been down the path. To go deeper with asana requires experience and understanding of the subtle levels. To pursue the next limb known as pranayama, referring to working with the breath to extend our lifeforce, is very powerful and requires this guidance. Obviously it is subtler than asana and therefore trickier. From a scientific point of view it is recommended to first become adept at asana before trying this. Though the lower mind, or ego, may push one to doing more early on, it can cause more harm than good. To boil water we apply the heat. It is this practical and scientific. Being careless about this or omitting stages will lead to no result, a waste of time or even worse, some kind of harm. We have learnt to cause no harm so obviously such an action is counterproductive. As physical science explains the steps to properly boil the water so does yoga give us the process to achieve yoga – a path and a goal!!
In essence, we see that yoga is about practice, focus and surrender. Patanjali is concerned with the good of humanity. He is a psychologist of the highest order. He is aware that through our efforts can come positive results. This is right action. Hence we practice, be it asana, breathing, self-study or more. We practice over a long period of time, not slacking off or stopping for no reason and with an attitude of earnestness, i.e. with feeling. To go deeper requires the involvement of the mind, our intellect, hence we focus on whatever it is we do. This increases the practice and makes us more aware. Ultimately the results are out of our hands. We can put forth a solid effort but cannot control the outcome. It may turn out to be the outcome we had hoped for or better but we still cannot dictate that. Along with practice Patanjali includes vairagya, detachment or non-dependence. In one sense this means practicing without expectations. Our right action with focus is needed, complemented by a sense of this letting go, surrender.
Through practice and focus comes self-awareness. Being self-aware our practice grows. This awareness is key to remove the negative aspects of our life. Additionally required is an attitude of non-dependence which comes through our surrender. The path of yoga will help us to not be controlled by all situations and circumstances. In other words free. The mind is our servant and not our master. This starts to become more evident as we see the last four limbs from Patanjali, which are internal in nature: a control and withdrawal of the senses, concentration, unbroken concentration known as meditation, to complete and sustained meditation known as samadhi. At each level it gets subtler. To do harm to any other being intentionally completely inhibits one from gaining any level in these subtle limbs. So we come back to our building block of humanity and prerequisite for yoga practice – aim to be nice to all.