Sample from the Spring 2009 issue of Integral Yoga Magazine.
By Sharon Gannon
In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali lays out an eight-limbed plan for liberation called Raja Yoga. The first limb is called yama, which means restraint and includes five ethical restrictions: ahimsa (non-harming), satya (truthfulness), asteya (nonstealing), brahmacharya (continence) and aparigraha (greedlessness). The yamas describe how an unenlightened person who desires Yoga should restrict his or her behavior toward others. What would we find if we were to investigate the yamas in terms of how we are treating the animals we put on our plates every day? Are we harming them? Are we deceiving them? Are we stealing from them? Are we manipulating them sexually? Are we impoverishing them through our greed?
Ahimsa pratisthayam tat sannidhau vaira tyagah (II.35)
When you stop harming others, others will cease to harm you.
Some contemporary Yoga teachers interpret ahimsa as a directive not to harm yourself, “Don’t be aggressive in your asana practice; be kind to your body,” they say. Or else, “Don’t restrict your diet with extremes like vegetarianism; it might harm you.” If Patanjali had been recommending ahimsa as a way of treating oneself, he would have included it in his list of niyamas [the second limb of Yoga], the observances one should maintain in regard to oneself. The fact that Patanjali placed ahimsa as the first yama, and not among the personal observances, or niyamas, seems vitally significant.
Non-harming is essential to the yogi, because it creates the kind of karma that leads to eternal joy and happiness. According to the universal law of karma, if we cause harm to others, we will suffer the painful consequences of our actions. The yogi, realizing this, tries to cause the least amount of harm and suffering to others possible. Compassion is an essential ingredient of ahimsa. Through compassion, you begin to see yourself in other beings. This helps you refrain from causing harm to them.
Satya pratishthayam kirya phalashratyatvam (II.36)
When one does not defile one’s speech with lies, then the words that one says will be listened to and acted upon in a positive and immediate manner.
Most of us say we want peace, equality and freedom for all, but our actions say something entirely different as we bite into a hamburger or order an ice-cream cone, wear a fur coat to an anti-war demonstration or serve hot dogs to our children. Once you become more aware, there’s simply no way to not notice these everyday hypocrisies, these gaps in awareness.
As Yoga practitioners, we come to a time in our lives when we begin to question whether what we have been told is true, including the assumptions we hold about ourselves and the world around us. The fact that you have begun a Yoga practice is evidence that you have the courage to embark on a deep self-reflective quest. Through steady practice (abhyasa), you will experience for yourself what is true, and all the lies you have been told, even those that you have told, will fade away in the light of the greater truth of your true potential.
As we embrace the practice of satya, our speech becomes purified and we are able to fearlessly say what we mean and mean what we say. Others cease lying to us and begin to perceive us as people with integrity; they listen to us and take our words seriously. Some meat eaters have been convinced that what they do doesn’t really matter in the larger scheme of things. Part of the process of transitioning into living more honestly is to hold yourself accountable for the things you do…
Read the rest of this article in the Spring 2009 issue of Integral Yoga Magazine.