I read Ben Franklin’s autobiography not too long ago and I was struck by the wisdom, and good sense (and large ego) shown by the man from a relatively early age. The following passage in particular struck me:
“… I entertain’d an opinion that, though certain actions might not be bad because they were forbidden by it, or good because it commanded them, yet probably these actions might be forbidden because they were bad for us, or commanded because they were beneficial to us, in their own natures, all the circumstances of things considered.
“… vicious actions are not hurtful because they are forbidden, but forbidden because they are hurtful, the nature of man alone considered; that it was, therefore, every one’s interest to be virtuous who wish’d to be happy even in this world …”
Autobiography of Ben Franklin
This is how the Eight Limbs of Yoga strike me. They may not always sound like fun, but the net result of practicing them can make a huge positive impact on us.
If you’re not familiar with the Eight Limbs, here they are:
- Yama, ethical principles: ahimsa (“You shall not kill,” or non-harming), Satya (“You shall not lie”), Asteya (“You shall not steal”), Brahmacharya (celibacy, religious study and self-restraint), Aparigraha (“You shall not hoard” or “You shall not covet”)
- Niyama, rules of conduct: Saucha (purity of the body), Santosa (contentment), Tapas (to burn/commitment/consistency), Svadhyaya (study), Isvara Pranidhana (surrender to God),
- Asana, postures or the physical exercises of yoga
- Pranayama, the science of breath
- Pratyahara, control of the senses
- Dharana, concentration
- Dhyana, meditation
- Samadhi, union with the divine
The yamas and niyamas make me think of the Christian Ten Commandments. Asana includes the whole lineup of hatha yoga varieties — all of the physical expressions of yoga. Hatha yoga generally has pranayama rolled into the practice to some degree. The last four limbs amount to a step-by-step guide to meditation. Meditation is, broadly speaking, part of the hatha yoga tool kit too.
When I was reading Mr. Franklin’s words it struck me that rules like the Ten Commandments and the 8 Limbs (particularly the yamas and niyamas) seem like rules someone from outside is trying to impose on us to try and make us toe some line. But the truth may be that those who have codified those rules may have actually been making an effort to distill their own experience into useful nuggets or guides that will help others avoid some of the pain and struggle they themselves have endured.
Stay tuned for my take on each yama and niyama seen through the lens of my personal experience. (Maybe the rest of the limbs will follow.)