A Mighty Yoga Tree
eight limbs of yoga outline a very clear path to joy. When yoga came
to America, somehow the first and second limbs weren’t emphasized,
probably because the third limb, the ‘asanas’ or postures, were so
exciting to look at, that the more subtle and powerful aspects of the
practice weren’t given as much attention. The first two limbs, the
yamas and niyamas, provide the foundation for the yoga practice.
The First Branch: The Yamas
The first limb, called the yamas, contain
five disciplines or ethical principles that address how we should treat
others. “Yama” has different meanings. It may mean to “rein, curb, or
bridle, discipline or restrain.” In the present context, it is used to
mean “self-control, forbearance, or any great rule or duty”.
Every living sacred tradition has
guidelines for right behavior: the five precepts, the Six Perfections,
the Eightfold Noble Paths the Ten Commandments as well as the Vedic
Smritis and the Confucian Analects. Of the yamas, four restraints tell
us what not to do.
You will notice that the word ‘practice’
comes before each word. That is because we are human beings and to be
honest about it, these things are hard to do, but with practice we can
transform the way we think and therefore how we act.
Nonviolence – Ahisma
Hippocrates said, “Above all else, do no
harm.” This precept was the favorite of Mahatma Gandhi who once said
“Ahimsa is not merely a negative state of harmlessness but it is a
positive state of love, of doing good even to those that do not do good
in return. When we can identify our own self within the eyes of the
other, we are more likely to ‘to unto others in the way we wish to be
In regard to the natural environment, no
matter what we do, we are doing harm if by nothing more than using the
earth’s resources in the process of living our daily lives. We will
inevitably cause pain to others and to nature at large. We do
everything we can to find ways of alleviating suffering whenever we can.
Truth – Satya
Practice Being Truthful
Our body and our life is a gift. We have
a unique imprint on the world in our speech and actions. That imprint
contributes to everything around it. We can’t be what we were made to
be if we are busy trying to be other than what we are.
If we have a truth that we are ashamed to
admit to others, then work needs to be done to free ourselves from the
habits that produced the action we are ashamed of in the first place.
Likewise, if we are afraid to share the truth of our own nature with
others, bring our gifts forward to the world, we should work on that as
well. We are here to be who we are.
Lying keeps the mind fluctuating with
thought and anxiety. It also defeats the whole purpose of yoga, to calm
the fluctuations of the movements of the mind. When we lie, we are
assuming there is a place in the universe that we can keep from others.
Knowing when to say what to whom is an
important quality of discrimination, especially as it relates to the
first yama, ahimsa, or non-harming. If what we have to say will harm
someone else, then it shouldn’t be said. But if we’re not telling the
truth because we are afraid of another’s reaction, we are living in
fear, denying ourselves and the other a chance to be known and seen.
Non-stealing – Asteya
Asteya means non-stealing in its broadest
possible sense, including not wishing to have what another has. The
desire to steal comes from a mis-perception of the universe as lacking.
Asteya does not only consist of “not stealing,” but also of rooting out
the subconscious beliefs of lack and scarcity that cause the variety of
manifestations of greed.
When you feel the desire to take, do what
the Dalai Lama recommends to people who confess they have negative
thoughts. He says reverse the thought to make it positive. Employing
your ability to act, should you feel the desire to take, be grateful for
every little thing you can think of instead. This way you are
reinforcing that the universe is an abundant place and that you are
Chastity – Bramacharya
Practice Acting with Integrity
Traditional yogic philosophy states that
unbridled sexual activity is one of the quickest ways to deplete our
energy. By living a chaste life, the traditional idea is that a Yogi is
able to transmute sexual energy into spiritual energy.
In its most severe application
brahmacharya includes not only refraining from sexual intercourse, but
not thinking about sex, or not looking at another with desire. My
response is, “Good luck with that.” The practice of brahmacharya,
instead of being an archaic form of moralizing, can serve as a reminder
that if we use our energy wisely, we will live a fulfilling life.
We practice brahmacharya when we
consciously choose to use the energy of our life to express our sense of
our highest purpose as a human being, known in Buddhist terms as the
dharma, rather than to dissipate it in an endless pursuit of fleeting
Rusty Wells, one of my favorite teachers
says that we act according to how the ‘God of our own understanding’
would act. Integrity means wholeness and of course, this is the aim of
the yoga practice, to achieve a sense of union or wholeness.
Practice Being Present
The third Noble Truth of Buddhism is that
suffering ceases when you free your mind from attachment to things.
Aparigraha asks us to use what we need and live with as little
attachment to possessions as possible. When we are free of attachment,
it doesn’t much matter what we own or possess.
This Yama also means that nothing should
be hoarded or collected beyond that which is required in the moment.
This principle also relates to living without expectation about the way
things should be. Being present requires that we live as though what we
have is enough, that what we are is enough, and that this moment is
The Second Branch: The Niyamas
Sanskrit word meaning rules or laws, the Niyamas are guidelines for the
qualities that we ought to cultivate in our relationship with ourselves.
If we remain attentive to cultivating a strong inner life, we are much
more effective as human beings.
Purity – Saucha
The first of the five niyamas is Saucha
or purity, sometimes referred to as cleanliness. The Yoga Sutra states,
“As a result of purity one achieves purification of the heart,
cheerfulness of mind, and power of concentration, control of the
passions and fitness of vision of the Atman.” (2:41) By the practice of
mental purity one acquires cheerfulness, one-pointed mind and clarity.
All the world’s great traditions talk of
inner purification and every form of inner purification involves an
active practice of love and compassion. Keep your external and internal
environment clean and clear and seek clarity in all your interactions
Contentment – Santosha
By including contentment as an active practice rather than a reaction to events around us, Patanjali
points out that peace of mind can never finally rely on external
circumstances, which are always changing in ways beyond our control.
Santosa requires a commitment to enjoy exactly what each moment brings.
We can easily practice contentment when circumstances are going well,
but when we can be content in the midst of difficulty can we be truly
When we can remain open in the midst of
pain we understand what it means to be open. In our relationships, when
we accept those around us as they truly are, not as we want them to be,
we are practicing santosa.
Discipline – Tapas
Consistently Challenge Yourself
The word “tapas” comes from the Sanskrit
verb “tap” which means “to burn.” The traditional interpretation of
tapas is “fiery discipline,” the fiercely focused, constant, intense
commitment necessary to burn off the impediments that keep us from being
in the true state of union. Think of tapas as consistency in striving
toward your goals: getting on the yoga mat or sitting on the meditation
cushion every day, or forgiving your partner or your child for the
Self Study – Swadhyaya
Self Inquiry and Learning
The meaning of “svadhyaya,” is derived
from “sva,” or Self (soul, atman, or higher self); “dhy,” related to the
word “dhyana” which means meditation; and “ya,” a suffix that invokes
an active quality.
Taken as a whole, svadhyaya means
“actively meditating on or studying the nature of the Self.” In the
context of the niyama the term is often translated as “the study of
Surrender to God – Isvarapranidhana
Be of Service
Isvarapranidhana means “to lay all your
actions at the feet of God.” The concept of God in yoga is radically
different from the idea of God in many of the world’s religious
traditions. In yoga, God is said to be dwelling in us, and in fact is
us – even though God is all-pervading, without beginning or end.
In other words, God is seen both as
pervading all that exists and as residing at the core of our being;
indeed God is the core of our being.
As a word-by-word analysis of sutra 1.23
shows, the purpose of practicing yoga is (to borrow a phrase from the
Bible) to “Be still and know that I am God.” Stillness is a prerequisite
to knowing oneself, to knowing God, and to knowing our relationship
with this world. Patanjali says if you wish to still the mind without
wasting energy on the process, surrender yourself completely to God.
In the context of the Niyamas we can
define Isvarapranidhana as the attitude of a person who usually offers
the fruits of his or her action to God in daily prayer. In either case,
the essence of isvara pranidhana is acting as best we can, and then
relinquishing all attachment to the outcome of our actions.
Only by releasing our fears and hopes for
the future can we really be in the present moment. This requires that
we give up the illusion that we know best, and instead accept that the
way life unfolds may be part of a pattern too complex to understand.
The Third Branch: The Asana Practice
The purpose of the asana practice is to
wed the body, mind and breath. Most of us who have lived long enough to
observe ourselves are regularly reminded that between a lifesty
le that is often sedentary and habitual
thinking, we end up not fully utilizing either or body or mind. In the
beginning of our practice when we are getting used to sitting with
unpleasant sensations we come up against what our mind will do to avoid
We may find ourselves thinking about
yesterday or what we’ll eat for dinner tonight, feeling aggression or
hostility arise as a result of the discomfort of the posture or
impatience at how slowly time seems to be moving. We might become
overzealous and try to force ourselves into a posture, all the same
kinds of resistance we encounter in our day to day lives.
As we experience a posture, we will
invariably find what is often referred to as ‘our edge,’ where in order
to create more space in the body we must sit with the sensation of the
muscle lengthening without either withdrawing or forcing the muscle. But
with practice the body slowly opens.
And with time and an understanding, we
are able to sit with feelings and thoughts that arise, learning how to
release into the sensation rather than ‘fight or fly.’
Every time we return to practicing yoga,
we become more skilled at discovering the climate of the body and mind
on any given day, where accumulated energy may be storing itself in the
form of tension, and how the thoughts and feelings of the day are
affecting the body.
We become more perceptive of physical and
emotional sensations. A sensation is any internal or external vibration
that we observe through our senses.
The vibration carries information which
we sense and interpret in terms of sound, texture, color, flavor, and
smell. By itself, the sensation has a neutral value. Only when a
sensation is processed by the mind is a value assigned to it. A feeling
is an emotional or cognitive response to a sensation.
Feelings can be categorized into those that are pleasurable or painful,
i.e., energetically expansive or
energetically contractive. The general spectrum of emotions can be
observed as various grades of joy, love, peace, sadness, anger or fear.
In yoga, there is nowhere to arrive. We
are constantly challenged to be present to whatever is occurring in the
moment. Eventually we move beyond our own ideas of what is possible.
In time we begin to see this in our lives as well, ideas we had about
who we are change and we begin to realize that our experience of life as
well as our perception of ourselves is far more elastic than we had
We approach life as we approach any given
posture. We look to fully inhabit whatever circumstance we are
presented, breathing and observing our response, giving ourselves to the
The Fourth Branch: Pranayama
Pranayama, or breathing, is the fourth
branch. Some yogis might argue for having Pranayama as the first limb
because the breath is so essential to one’s yoga practice. In fact,
anyone in any physical state can practice yoga by simply breathing.
Understanding how to breathe gives us the
ability to direct our energy through our bodies, often uncovering stuck
or unconscious areas, emotional residue that might initially feel like
an area of tenderness, anger or sadness, or hardened parts of the body
where emotions have been storing themselves for a long time.
We can learn to use the breath to
penetrate the areas of the body that we weren’t aware of, bringing life
and vitality to areas where it is needed or relaxing areas where there
is chronically held tension. The breath will always tell us how we are
feeling, we are always learning about ourselves through observing the
And when we spend time on a regular basis
observing our breath we notice its subtle differences. In time we are
able to transform emotional energy into calm simply through practice.
The Fifth Branch: Pratyahara
Pratyahara means withdrawal of the
senses. Over time, we can learn to take attention within, past sights,
tastes smells and sounds into the deepest most observant place within
ourselves. There is a great deal of talk about the stillness that lies
within and that is what we are aiming to find.
My experience is that the stillness is a
result of strengthening our capacity to observe the sensations in and
around us, the thoughts and emotions that pulsate through us.
It is the capacity to be present and
contain all experience that is still, because as long as we are alive
and in fact the more sensitive we become, the more we are able to
experience everything in and around us.
The Sixth Branch: Dharana
One metaphor that is sometimes used to
understand the distinction between concentration and meditation is by
using rain as an analogy. When rain starts, the moisture of clouds and
fog (everyday awareness) coalesces into concentrated moisture and
becomes distinct raindrops.
These raindrops represent
dharana—intermittent moments of focused attention. When the rain falls
to earth and creates a river, the merging of the individual raindrops
into one stream is like dhyana or meditation. The separate raindrops
merge into one continuous flow, just as individual moments of dharana
merge into the uninterrupted focus of meditation.
Dharana means the capacity for
concentration, or focus. We develop over time the ability to fix our
attention, sometimes at the inside of the forehead, the top of the head
or on the breath, which we’ll initially be able to do successfully for
about three to five seconds.
A thought creeps in, we are usually taken
on a ride from one thought branching into another and before we know
it, we have entirely lost sight of the focus.
When we realize we got lost, we go back
to focusing. Eventually we become more adept at remaining still and
one-pointed in our focus.
The Seventh Branch: Dyana
system, the mind is likened to a lake. Like a body of water it is
potentially calm and crystal clear, but the thoughts, “modifications of
the mind,” stir it into activity and obscure its true nature.
These thoughts or modifications are
called vrittis and are compared to waves appearing in the body of the
lake. They may arise from the lake bed (memories), or from the effects
of the outside world (sense perceptions).
When the waves are quieted, the water is
clear, and one can see through it to its innermost levels. If this
process of calming and quieting is successful, the water becomes
completely transparent and the highest consciousness comes into
By gradually training the body so that it
can relax, and gradually minimizing the distraction of poorly organized
nervous energy, the mind can be more detached and observant,
impartially witnessing the mental flow.
In meditation both the experience of what
one is experiencing and the quality of thoughts are improved. The foot
feels the foot when it feels the ground. Zen doctrine states that it is
nature alone that teaches us about itself. Only red can tell us what
red is; no human being can do so.
Only a cow can tell us what a cow is.
And only the self can tell you what the self is. Buddha said that when
you touch the ground with your foot you should feel two things – the
ground and the foot.
When you think of a cow you should be
aware of the cow and the thought of the cow. If you are not aware of the
thought as well as the cow, how will you know you are thinking and not
seeing? In that case, you could be in a state of delusion.
The pressure of the thought on the cow
and of the cow on the thought will become greater if the thought is not
merely a casual notice of the idea, but is close full and with prolonged
Close, full and prolonged attention in
thought is what is called meditation. And just as increased pressure of
thought upon the idea of the cow increases the knowledge of the cow, so
it also should increase the knowledge of the thought – just as the
pressure of the foot on the ground increases the knowledge about the
ground and the knowledge about the foot, that is, improves the contact
The Eight Branch: Samadhi
Samadhi, also known as supreme bliss or
self-realization, the ultimate objective of a sustained yoga practice,
is called different names throughout a variety of the world’s traditions
– the heart, the inner Self, the Tao, pure Awareness, Zen or basic
Joy is our natural state and is available
to us in every moment. It is usually covered over by conditioned mind,
habitual thinking and reacting, greed, desire and any number of less
than noble qualities, all of which are very familiar to all of us.
The joy that I think is most useful is
not a blissed out state that we can only reach after years of
withdrawing ourselves from society and that is only sustainable not
interacting with the world. Rather than being anywhere else, I want to
be adept at being right here a midst the messiness and mystery of life.
When we open ourselves to the moment,
everything is amazingly joyful. This capability is possible for
everyone at all times with practice.
That joy while achievable through meditation should be arrived at any time, doing the same activities day in and day out.
Keeping Samadhi as real and simple as
that keeps at bay the lure of attaining some grand spiritual state
somewhere in the not so immediate future. Joy is already where we are.
Sustaining that experience during all circumstances is the ultimate
go in search of yourselves my kindred spirits; for you are already
found. Do seek the peace you long for; as it has long been in your
grasp. Do not turn your gaze to the heavens for answers; they have
already been answered by your master….will you now be still and be with
it all? Rob
we live in peace without weeping. May our joy outline the lives we touch without ceasing. And may our love fill the world, angel wings tenderly beating.'