It strikes me as a kind of grace when time, which can be so ruthless, seems instead to align and perfect something beautiful. Wines grow richer in the cask, eons make a river stone smooth, my father was sweeter and more grounded as he settled into his eighties than ever before.
To me the ancient practices of yoga exemplify this grace. Yoga’s yamas and niyamas may be the oldest extant system of human values, first appearing in the story of the life of Rama, a man who lived about 5,000 years ago. To put their age in perspective, on the day Moses brought the tablets down from Mount Sinai, the yamas and niyamas were about 1,500 years old. They are the smoothest of stones; the yamas and niyamas have been recited, discussed, and practiced by millions of human beings over the course of thousands of years.
We can only guess how they were experienced by the Indians who first wrote them down. The sounds of the words probably differed from our modern idea of Sanskrit; the expressions surely had shades of meaning we wouldn’t recognize; the ways people observed them reflected a culture dramatically less populous, technological, and information-saturated than ours.
I myself know the yamas and niyamas through the Yoga Sutras, a collection of runes authored by a yogi named Patanjali at around the time Jesus lived. In a couple of hundred fragmented sentences, the Sutras codify a system of physical, mental, and spiritual health. Their language allows a broad range of interpretations; to my modern ear they are ambiguous, provocative, and often brilliant. They are like signs in a vast forest, tersely naming the paths but leaving it up to me to find my way. The yamas and niyamas are the first signs one encounters on entering the forest. The next one is asana, the practice of physical postures that most of us in the west equate with yoga.
I believe the signs have survived the ages because – to follow the analogy – they are so well placed. I can follow their paths through the thickets of my life; based on my own experience, they seem to lead toward greater equanimity and fulfillment. I know from discussions that I am not alone in discovering this. It is possible that the yamas and niyamas have endured precisely because so many other travelers find them as I do, and have maintained and preserved them for those of us who follow.
It is a value system which, like a trail map, does not seem to pass judgment. Reading them and the commentary, I haven’t found anywhere the suggestion that following the yamas and niyamas makes you a “good” person. Like road signs, they profess only to head you in a particular direction. If you follow the patterns of thought and action they name, you will progress toward a state of greater peace.
This is a destination toward which every little bit of motion is a good thing. I am no saint; but the people who are close to me would tell you that I am calmer and more centered now than I was before I began to observe the signs. Their reactions corroborate my internal experience: the landscape has noticeably changed since I started practicing yoga.
I believe observation is the key to using the signs. I can look toward them as I carry out my life, observing and shaping my actions around them. In this regard, they are different from a value system that sanctions some behaviors and disallows others. These are not injunctions, moral laws, or a code of honor; there is no infraction or guilt, no punishment. One simply follows them in order to get somewhere. I practice them because they help to keep my mind clear.
The first five practices are called yamas. This Sanskrit term refers to a yoke or bridle, a restraint or suppression. The practices collected under the term relate to our interactions with other people; each is a way of harnessing our personal impulses in those interactions. The word also refers to a charioteer, who uses a bridle or yoke to transform a horse’s great strength into progress toward his own goal.
- Not harming
- Not stealing
- Letting go
The second five practices are called niyamas, a term meaning rule, promise, or restraint of the mind. They all describe internal habits, undertaken independently of one’s social relationships. Each has the potential to fortify the connection to one’s self and ultimately to the divine; all lead toward a state of greater clarity and equanimity. Niyama also the word for a sailor or boatman, an apt image for practices that help us to skillfully navigate our own minds.
- Being purely oneself
- Being content
- Having fiery energy
I am writing these essays as a way to practice the yamas and niyamas. Writing often draw me closer to the heart of an experience, and so it has been here. The exercise has helped me to see my life a little bit differently, to discern patterns and paths that had not been evident before.
I am early on in my practice. Yoga caught my eye decades ago, but I have only seriously pursued it for a few years. My life is already full, so this has been only a part time pursuit. The words in these essays and poems reflect my singular point of view; they are not meant to be scholarly or comprehensive. I bow (in namaskarasana) with tremendous respect for the many, many people who have studied the yamas and niyamas more deeply and for longer than I.
My words in these essays will be the reflections of a middle-aged traveler who, as he begins down a new path, is struck by the beauty of the signs.