It is often quite confusing for those interested in beginning a regular yoga practice to choose from all the yoga studios online. Which style of yoga would be best suited for them, can be a major concern. Before they figure out which class they’d be most interested in taking, they need to know what the differences are. Discounting Bikrams, which is controversial (besides, all Bikrams is hot yoga, but all hot yoga is not Bikrams), the differences between the other styles aren’t so clear. Hatha and Ashtanga yoga may appear to the novice as the same style, but yet they are often found to be very different when put into actual practice.
Let’s start with Intensity
Hatha yoga is often used as an umbrella term that encompasses all styles of physical yoga practice, including Ashtanga, but yoga studios that typically promote the slower, gentler yoga classes are known as Hatha yoga. These less challenging classes are generally considered more appropriate for beginners. Even though Hatha classes are commonly taught at a relatively low intensity level, it is still best to speak with each individual instructor beforehand to decide if the class is right for you. Some yoga instructors teach Hatha yoga classes at a more strenuous level than others. Some studios assign a numerical value to the difficulty level, such as 1, 2 or 3, with level 3 being the most demanding class.
Flow (or pace)
In Sanskrit the word for flow is “Vinyasa” and this determines the difference between Hatha yoga and Ashtanga yoga in terms of the class’s structure. Whenever you see the word Vinyasa or flow added onto the end of the class or studio name, this probably means that you will be moving from Asana (posture) to asana without stopping (or in a flow). This is usually the way Ashtanga yoga is taught. Hatha yoga, on the other hand typically goes into one asana, holds the pose, and then comes out of it after a determined amount of time. With Hatha yoga there isn’t any transition between each asana as there is in Ashtanaga yoga classes.
Primary Objectives of Hatha Yoga
Hatha yoga practice focuses on perfecting the asanas and doing pranayama (breath control), to increase the flow of prana (life force) through the nadis (channels throughout the body through which the prana flows). Prana is similar to the concept of chi (or Qi). Pranayama is the scientific practice of first controlling and then directing the prana through breathing exercises. Hatha works to balance increase this flow of energy. Asana and pranayama practice are part of Ashtanga yoga as well, but they are only two of the “Eight Limbs” (aka branches or objectives) of Ashtanga.
So basically, when you join a Hatha class it means that you will get an easy, gradual introduction to the most basic yoga asanas and then strive to perfect them. It’s unlikely you’ll work up a sweat in a Hatha yoga class, but you probably will end up leaving the class feeling taller, looser, and more relaxed. Posture is also usually improved.
Primary Objective of Ashtanga Yoga
A student or practitioner of Ashtanga yoga not only works on asanas and pranayama but also all the other six limbs which are; yama (the do not’s), niyama (the do’s), pratyahara (withdrawal of senses), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and Samadhi (bliss or effortless meditatio). The Yamas & Niyamas are yoga’s ten ethical guidelines and are the foundation of skillful living. Pratyahara is a means of withdrawing all sensory perceptions. Dharana, dhyana and samadhi are connected, being successive stages which lead to enlightenment.
Today, Ashtanga yoga is based on ancient yoga teachings that were popularized and brought to the West by K. Pattabhi Jois in the 1970s. It’s a more rigorous style of yoga that follows a specific sequence of postures similar to Vinyasa yoga (both styles links every movement to a breath). Ashtanga performs the exact same asanas in the exact same ordered sequence. This can a hot, physically demanding practice and you will break a sweat.
Hatha Yoga has become the most popular style of Yoga in the United States. It focuses on the physical well-being of a person and teaches that the body is the vehicle of the spirit. There are lot of different Yoga Styles that have their roots Hatha Yoga, but all these styles strive to balance the mind, the body, and the spirit through the asanas, although the emphasis sometimes varies. Some put the emphasis on the strict alignment of the body while others focus on the coordination of breath and asana.
Ashtanga yoga may be the perfect yoga for those who want a serious workout. Students and participants move through a series of flows, sequencing from one asana to another in order to increase strength, flexibility and stamina. This is not for beginners or anyone who taks a casual approach to fitness. Ashtanga Yoga Practice involves performing challenging sequence of poses with Ujjayi Breathing and vinyasas (a flow of postures). “Power Yoga” is based on Ashtanga.
This post begins a three part series discussing the advantages and benefits of a plant-based diet:
Part 1 – The philosophical and ethical reasons to eat a plant-based diet instead of consuming animal products.
Part 2 – Reasons why everyone should consider eating a plant-based diet.
Part 3 – Some unexpected benefits of eating A plant-based diet
We begin with Part 1 – As yogis, yoginis and students of yoga begin to seek liberation, they strive to perfect their actions and in so doing they quickly come to realize that every action is preceded by a thought. To perfect an action, thoughts must first be perfected. So, you might ask, what are perfect thoughts? Perfect thoughts are ones that are devoid of selfish motives; they’re free of anger, greed, hate, jealousy, etc.
Adopting a compassionate vegetarian diet is a good place to start if you truly intend to move toward a transcendental reality and have a lighter impact on the planet. Not everyone practices yoga asana (poses) every day, but everyone eats. And therefore everyone has the opportunity to practice compassion three times a day when they sit down to eat. This is one of the main reasons so many yoga practitioners and students choose make the change and become vegetarians.
This article is focused primarily on ethical vegetarians and foremost in the list of reasons they eat only plant-based food is in order to show compassion toward animals and other sentient beings which in turn benefits the entire planet. There are those who say they are vegetarians but still consume milk products, eggs, and fish. These are actually not strict vegetarians but “lacto-ovo” vegetarians (milk & eggs) and “pescatarians” (includes fish) and ethical vegetarians do not consume any dairy products, eggs, or fish because these are not plant-based and eating them causes great suffering to other beings and the planet. Vegans are ethical vegetarians who endeavor to extend their ethics to include not just what they eat but everything they use: including (but not limited to) food, clothing, medicine, fuel, and entertainment. When using the term vegetarianism in this article, keep in mind that refers to ethical vegetarianism or veganism.
Many, if not most meat eaters defend their food choices by claiming that it is natural, because in a natural, wild state animals eat one another. Whenever people bring this up as a rationale for eating meat, they need to be reminded that the animals that end up on their table aren’t those who eat one another in the wild. The animals that are exploited for food aren’t the lions, tigers, and bears of the world. We eat the passive ones, the vegan animals that, when given free choice, would never even think of eating the flesh of other animals, although sadly, they are forced to do just that on today’s factory farms where they are fed “enriched feed” containing dead, rendered animal parts.
The majority of Americans believe a plant-based (or vegan) diet is difficult to follow. But what does difficult mean when compared to suffering and eventually dying from heart disease caused by an animal diet high in saturated fats and cholesterol? Even so, many people will still choose to go through invasive bypass surgery or have a breast, colon section, or kidney removed. And/or they may opt to take powerful pharmaceutical drugs for the rest of their lives rather than change their diets – all because they mistakenly think veganism is drastic and extreme. Do these who choose to eat meat ever consider how difficult it is for the animals who suffer degrading confinement and cruel slaughter, dying for their dining convenience and the satisfaction of their appetites?
When yoga practitioners and students begin following the yamas prescribed in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, they begin to realize that suffering is inevitable only to those who are unenlightened (or turn a blind eye) about the truth, which exists to connect us all. Real responsibility means realizing that our own actions bring about the situation we live in and that is reflected in the first yama “Ahimsa” (non-harming). Yoga practice has the potential to heal the one common disease that we are all suffering from; the disease of disconnection. War, destruction of the environment, extinction of species, and even domestic violence, all of these originate as a result of the disease of disconnection. Others can only be abused and exploited by those who are disconnected from them and have no idea about the potent consequences inherent in their own actions. When someone feels connected, they know it’s them, as well as other living things, who will suffer from the anguish they inflict.
Eating meat and consuming animal products is a long-standing (and generally accepted) habit in American culture. Many Western yoga practitioners will argue that they have to eat meat and that they need the protein to keep up the strength required for a physically challenging asana practice. Ironically, Sri K. Pattabhi
In Sutra II.33 Patanjali says: “vitarka-badhane pratipaksha-bhavanam” and this means principles that run contrary to yamas and niyamas are to be countered with the knowledge of discrimination. When one has thoughts of violence, untruthfulness, stealing, indulgences, accumulation, lack of cleanliness, discontent by greed, and anger or delusion, the result is dissatisfaction/sorrow. In general, negative thoughts are ones that negate yama and niyama, ethical norms and individual observances. Therefore, for the purpose of attaining a peaceful mind, yoga philosophy suggests two invaluable techniques, to be applied when one is in the midst of experiencing any of the thoughts listed above. The first is cultivating the opposite, positive type of thoughts. Iyengar1 describes negative thoughts, such as, violence, falsehood, stealing, non-chastity and greed as ‘pratipaksha bhavana.’ On the other hand, the opposite of these are cleanliness, contentment, fervor or dedicated practice, self-study and surrender to the Universal Spirit, God or faith, described as ‘paksha bhavana.’ The former, negative thoughts run contrary to ethical norms or yamas, and the latter, positive thoughts, are consistent with following individual disciplines, the niyamas. For cultivating peaceful states of mind it is important to follow yamas and niyamas and that is helped by nurturing thinking that is wholesome, based on right knowledge and awareness.
There is an ancient Indian adage that compares consciousness to a lamp at the door. It shines both in the house and out into the world. It makes one aware of the external (out there) and the internal (in here) worlds. Cultivated awareness is about creating a relationship between these two. In this context, in the sutra referred to above, Patanjali reiterates the importance of adhering to the ethical norms and individual disciplines while attending to the practice of the replacing habitual negative thoughts and tendencies with positive ones, attending to the weaknesses in the body/mind by nurturing strengthening options.
The Vibrations of Thoughts…
Everyone’s body is physiologically tied to their thoughts, beliefs and attitudes. To be healthy, one needs to recognize the intimate connection that exists between the mind, body and spirit. Cultivating positive thinking is a first step in raising your personal vibration.
Recent scientific studies, and state-of-the-art scientific instruments, are being used to measure the effects of both positive and negative thinking with respect to disease and optimal health. Never doubt that negative thoughts have just as much power as positive ones. Negative thinking can slowly wear you down, resulting in a host of mental, physical and emotional problems and conditions; including poor self-esteem, depression and even illness.
Do you ever wonder how one person can succumb to suffering during a particular circumstance, while another person will thrive in the same situation? Nine times out of ten it simply boils down to their mental attitude!
Whenever you choose a thought (and your thoughts are chosen by you), your brain cells are affected. These cells continuously vibrate, sending off electromagnetic waves. The more you concentrate, focusing on those thoughts, the greater the amplitude of vibration of those cells, and the electromagnetic waves, subsequently, become stronger.
Positive thinking can raise your vibration up to 10 Hz (vibrations per second), whereas negative thinking can lower your vibration by as much as 15 Hz. These measurements come from extensive research done by Bruce Tainio of Tainio Technology in Cheney, Washington. His company developed new equipment that can measure the bio-frequency of both humans and the foods they eat. Mr. Tainio has conclusively shown that the number one way to start feeling better is to start thinking positively.
Begin by striving to establish and maintain the positive attitude that you will be triumphant in the end, no matter what the circumstances might be. To do this, first begin by observing your thoughts and recognize habitual thought patterns. Remain detached from them and pay close attention whenever a negative thought enters your stream of consciousness. As soon as you realize this is happening, immediately replace the negative thought with a positive one.
There is an old saying: “You get what you expect.” In other words, if you think you are going to fail at something, you will probably fail and the reverse is also true; if you think you’ll succeed your chances of being victorious will greatly improve. Why? Because your energy follows your thoughts and you begin to create or manifest what you desire and expect. By remaining positive you will prove to yourself and to others that you are a victor, not a victim.
The fifth of the five Yamas is Aparigraha, a Sanksrit word for greedlessness or non-grasping. It comes from the word parigraha, which means reaching out for something and claiming it for oneself; by adding the ‘A’ it becomes its antonym. Aparigraha, unlike Asteya, means taking what is truly necessary and no more.
Aparigraha instructs the students and practitioners of Patanjali’s “classical” Yoga (Raja Yoga) to consider what they really need, and to diligently question if greed might be driving them to pursue something simply to delight their senses once again. Patanjali says of Aparigraha: “When one is steadfast in non-possessiveness or non-grasping with the senses (Aparigraha), there arises knowledge of the why and wherefore of past and future incarnations.”(Yoga Sutras 2.39 – aparigraha sthairye janma kathanta sambodhah).
The reason yoga insists upon the practice of Aparigraha (non-greediness) is because every time something is pursued that appears on the “outside” of yourself, you get farther away from your own Divine essence which is inherently “within”. Take some time to ponder these words regarding Aparigraha by B.K.S. Iyengar in Light on Yoga: “By the observance of Aparigraha, the yogi makes his life as simple as possible and trains his mind not to feel the loss or the lack of anything. Then everything he really needs will come to him by itself at the proper time.”
While it is important for us have certain material objects in our life so that we can live without undue struggle, hoarding things and/or becoming obsessed with material possessions results in these possessions controlling the direction of our life. Seeing material objects simply as tools that can help us to accomplish our goals in life, can free us from being bound or controlled by these objects. When our focus is no longer directed outward towards the material world, we find we then have opportunity to focus on our inward spiritual journey that frees us up to create positive change and to purify ourselves. The student then recognizes that the collection or hoarding of things implies a lack of faith in Divine Providence to provide for their future.
Aparigraha also gives us permission to release any fear or clinging we may experience during loss of anything that we believe we “own”. This yama has a huge effect on both suffering and happiness whether momentary or in the long term. All suffering, no matter how intense, is caused by our resistance to loss (or change). It’s so simple, whenever we cling to something, we suffer; and this applies to both material things and concepts.
Implementing the practice of Aparigraha in your yoga routine can be as simple as deciding to let go of something during that session. For example; try letting go of the idea of doing an asana perfectly, or perhaps better than someone else. You can also let go of the fear of some difficult poses and approach them in a different way. When doing this, you’re letting go of your fear of change and loss, and you’re able to break free of habitual ways of thinking and/or doing.
Be mindful of what you are holding on to in your practice and consider what would happen if you simply gave that up. Do you unnecessary hold on to muscle tension? Are there places in your body where you can relax, yield and allow the energy to flow? Are you able to maintain a gentle attitude toward your poses, surrendering the impulse to try to achieve a goal that may be impractical or premature. Do you need to forcefully “own” a certain pose in your mind or can you surrender the notion of “owning” and simply visualize it and experience it through your body? This is a proper way to inquire according to Aparigraha.
A quick summary: Aparigraha is really all about letting go. It’s about living the “now”, this present moment, and doing that with generosity, truth, and compassion; then its very essence can embrace all the other yamas.
The forth of the five Yamas is Brahmacharya – a Sanskrit term that translates into English as “behavior that leads to Brahman”. The word brahmacharya stems literally from two root words – Brahma, (shortened from Brahman), represents the absolute, eternal, supreme God-head. (As opposed to “Brahmā”, the deity in the Hindu triad responsible for creation), and “Charya”, which means “to follow”. So Bramacharya is generally translated as activity, a mode of behavior or a “virtuous” way of life, i.e.; a lifestyle adopted to enable one to attain the ultimate reality.
Brahmacharya dictates the behavior and lifestyle of students and practitioners of Patanjali’s “classical” Yoga (Raja Yoga). Patanjali says of Brahmacharya: “When walking in the awareness of Brahmacharya (the highest reality) is firmly established, then a great strength, capacity, or “virya” (vitality) is acquired.” (Yoga Sutras 2.38– Brahmacharya pratisthayam virya labhah).
Brahmacharya brings virya by recognizing (and remembering) the highest and purest energy or force of reality, then that energy is not dissipated. Because it is not dissipated, it seems as if it’s acquired, attained, or gained and this keeps growing. Although we appear to gain virya, which is strength, vigor, vitality, and courage, virya is actually an inherent aspect of our subtler nature, which we have never been without.
Most often celibacy is considered to be the primary practice of Brahmacharya. However, celibacy isn’t the cause, instead it’s the effect. The practice, or cause, is of constant remembering of the highest reality, absolute truth, the divine, or the presence of God (Brahman). This very recognition and remembrance is the cause, and celibacy is the inevitable result. Since the end result might be so visible when observing a spiritual person, or practicing yogi, we tend to mistakenly reverse cause and effect, and imitate what we see on the surface and try to practice, starting with the restraint of sensual urges. Once again, the practice of Brahmacharya is focused on walking in the awareness of the highest reality, absolute reality, remembering the divine, or practicing the presence of God. When the yogi reaches the point where remembrance of the Divine is seamless all sexual urges drop away by themselves along with other primitive urges and desires.
The practice called Brahmacharya, does not necessarily mean total or absolute abstinence from sex as it is often mistakenly translated. The word literally translates as “resting in Brahman,” or “cultivating awareness of the Absolute Divine Reality”. The positive effect of this practice is that the senses are not so easily distracted. Therefore, the regulation and control of the senses is the natural outcome of the yogi’s resolute practice of remembrance of Truth. It is definitely not a case of a forced restraint of the sexual urge, or of any of the other sensory desires.
Yoga recognizes two paths in regard to Bramacharya; the path of renunciation, and the path of worldly (or family) life. In one (renunciation) there is a gradual progression to the complete abstinence from sex, and in the other (family life) there is wise and intentional regulation of the sex life. Both are recognized by most schools of yoga as valid paths.
In summary: The issue of balancing sex and sadhana (spiritual practices) is very practical. Regardless of one’s background, especially with such a diversity of peoples, societies, and cultures, it should be self-evident that a poorly regulated sex life can (and often does) lead to external problems in life, as well as internal anxieties. A well-balanced, healthy sex life leaves one with peace of mind and mental/emotional stability. That peace and stability, while not directly causing meditation, allows a stability and provides a fertile ground from which meditation can more easily arise, greatly assisting us in cultivation of our awareness of the Divine (Bramacharya).
Stay tuned, coming up next: The Five Yamas (Part 5 – Aparigraha)
The third of the five Yamas is Asteya – a Sanskrit term that translates into English as “avoidance of stealing” or “non-stealing”. But in principle Asteya means more than that, referring also to not coveting, nor hoarding, as well as not obstructing other people’s desires in life.
Asteya guides students and practitioners of Patanjali’s “classical” Yoga (Raja Yoga) in the practice of cultivating an awareness of what is theirs and what isn’t. Patanjali says of Asteya: “When Asteya (non-stealing) is established, all jewels, or treasures present themselves, or are available to the Yogi.” (Yoga Sutras 2.37– Asteya pratisthayam sarva ratna upasthanam). In other words, when the heart is pure, all means will come.
Additionally, Asteya includes the concept that you should learn to be content with what comes to you naturally and by honest means. If you find yourself dwelling on things that other people have and comparing that to what you don’t have, eventually the thought of taking something that isn’t yours becomes more acceptable, and subsequently this thinking can lead to actual theft. You may even be able to convince yourself that someone else has so much they won’t miss this or that if you take it, in other words you’re giving yourself the permission to steal. This approach might reduce your feelings of guilt, but only temporarily and for a short time, for in the long run this still a violation of Asteya.
Although many people aren’t aware of it, the idea of “hoarding” is another aspect of Asteya. Suppose you are keeping more than what you need for yourself rather than sharing or giving away things that you no longer want or require. Excessive accumulation of money and possessions are good examples or signs of hoarding, as well as other things, including eating too much food. Naturally you should keep what is necessary and reasonable in order to provide for yourself and your family, but a thoughtful analysis should be made, and diligence exercised as to what is actually necessary, compared to what you may be clinging to because of various mental, physical or emotional attachments.
Yoga teaches us that when we relinquish our desire for something it will come to us by itself if and when we really need it. This holds true for Asteya as presented by Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras. After all, desire is the root cause of taking what doesn’t belong to us, and when we give up our desire for things, all sorts of “treasures” will come to us naturally, and by themselves. To master Asteya we should begin curbing our desires little by little and one by one; through regular Yoga practice, gradually our thoughts and deeds will come under our conscious control.
To summarize: Not hoarding implies taking only what you need and nothing more. If the world offered us a limitless supply of resources, then it might be acceptable to take as much as you want. But of course the world does not have limitless resources, and if we take more than we need, then we leave others lacking, essentially stealing from them by depriving them of their rightful share of the resources. The idea of Asteya, especially when combined with the other Yamas, has a very deep meaning and the more you think about it, the more you begin to realize all the subtle ways that you can steal. Eventually, with regular practice, you’ll be able to recognize any action that might create disharmony and see that Asteya and Ahimsa (like the other Yamas) are closely tied together.
Stay tuned, coming up next: The Five Yamas (Part 4 – Brahmacharya)
The second of the five Yamas is Satya – a Sanskrit term that translates into English as “truth”, “truthfulness” or “honesty”. Satya is also defined in Sanskrit as “sate hitam satyam” which translates to “The path to ultimate truth or Sat is satya (the real truth)”.
Satya is indispensable for students and practitioners of Patanjali’s “classical” Yoga (Raja Yoga). Patanjali says of Satya: “As truthfulness (satya) is achieved, the fruits of actions naturally result according to the will of the Yogi.” (Yoga Sutras 2.36– satya pratisthayam kriya phala ashrayatvam)
Basically what is meant by this is; for the one who increasingly practices honesty or truthfulness in all their actions, speech, and thoughts, their will is naturally fulfilled. But there is a cautionary note associated with this sutra, being the exercising of care in speaking truth: Truth needs to be concurrence with thought, word and deed. It must be true to fact and at the same time considerate. If by speaking the truth, another is hurt it ceases to be truth and becomes himsa [harming]. So, the student or yogi is instructed to exercise great care when speaking and each word must be weighed carefully before it is voiced.
The relationship between Satya (truthfulness) and Ahimsa (non-harming) must be balanced, even though, at times, this practice can be extremely challenging, if not downright confusing. It’s important to keep in mind that Ahimsa is the primary focus and central goal when practicing the five Yamas, and that the other four Yamas are in service of it. Learning how to delicately balance not lying, while at the same time avoiding being painfully honest with others, is a real art within Yoga practice.
When you consider the many situations in life when your so-called “truthfulness” might cause pain to others, it can be overwhelming, this may include something as simple as your comments about a meal served by a friend or how you respond when someone asks you about their appearance or clothes when they’re dressing for some special event? If your mind isn’t “in the moment”, and quick enough to artfully maneuver around such a situation, you would have to choose to be either painfully honest, or marginally honest for the sake of not hurting the other person. Of course, we’d all like to be quick-minded enough to balance non-harming and non-lying perfectly, but many of us have not yet developed the skill necessary to master this, and need to remain ever mindful of the most important practice, which is to first and foremost to cause no harm. This principle also applies to practicing the other Yamas.
Throughout the world the greatest spiritual teachings all acknowledge that what we say has profound power to affect our consciousness and the consciousness of others. Buddhism, for example, teaches “Right Speech” as one of its main precepts. In this context, “Right Speech” is taken to mean speech that is non-harming, posessing the intention to support all sentient beings. In his Yoga Sutra (Chapter II, verse 30), Patanjali presents the concept of Satya (truthfulness) as a similar teaching, but he offers a slightly different approach. Satya is one of the five yamas, and because it’s presented as a yama, Patanjali’s teaching on the subject has mainly been associated with restraint rather than with action; focusing on what we should refrain from doing rather than with what specifically we should do. The teaching of satya is not presented in this manner is not meant to be an accident, oversight or negative in any way. Instead, the practice of satya is about restraint in a positive sense: it’s about slowing down, filtering, carefully considering our words so that when we utter them, they are in harmony with the first yama, ahimsa. Patanjali and even his major, contemporary commentators agree that no words can reflect the truth unless they flow from the spirit of non- harming and non-violence. And as a result Patanjali is in perfect harmony with the Buddhist teaching of “Right Speech”. Patanjali made it clear that he did not want his students to confuse Satya with speech that is factually accurate but harmful.
To summarize; the yogic practice of Satya instructs the student to mindfully and carefully choose their words so they do the least harm, and most good.
The first of the five Yamas is Ahimsa – a Sanskrit term meaning to do no harm (literally: the avoidance of violence – hinsa). The word is derived from the Sanskrit root hims – to strike; hinsa is injury or harm, a-hinsa is the opposite of this (non harming or nonviolence).
Ahimsa is indispensable for students and practitioners of Patanjali’s “classical” Yoga (Raja Yoga). Along with the other four Yamas (restraints) it establishes the Yoga Sutra’s code of conduct. Patanjali says of Ahimsa: “As a Yogi becomes firmly grounded in Ahimsa (non-injury), other people who come near will naturally lose any feelings of hostility.” (Yoga sutra 2.35 – Ahimsa pratishthayam tat vaira-tyagah)
Ahimsa is perhaps the most famous of the Yamas; usually translated as “nonviolence.” it not only refers to physical violence, but also to the violence of words or even thoughts. Whether we realize it or not, our thoughts about others (or ourselves) can be as powerful as any physical attempt to harm. To practice ahimsa is to be constantly attentive, observing ourselves in all our interactions with others and to diligently watch our thoughts and intentions.
When the practice of ahimsa is perfected, it becomes an integral part of all yoga practice. Whatever practices we engage after Ahimsa and the other yamas and niyamas including the successive “limbs” of yoga must embrace Ahimsa as well. For example, asana and/or pranayama practiced without Ahimsa, diminishes their benefits.
Observing Ahimsa does not necessarily mean we must roll over and play dead, turning our back on violence – its practice is positive, not negative. Protecting ourselves and others does not violate Ahimsa. Practicing Ahimsa simply means we take responsibility for any harmful behavior and attempt to stop the harm caused by others. Being neutral is not the objective. True Ahimsa practice springs from the clear intention to live and act with clarity and love.
Although completely compatible, Ahimsa and love are two different things. Non-harming is not a method where you practice love in order to offset or stop the impulse to harm others. Rather, the first step is to focus fully on the cessation of harming, on all levels (action, speech, and thought). Then, the natural love will effortlessly come shining through. This has extremely practical applications in the student or yogi’s daily life. Trying to directly cultivate love for a person you dislike may be extremely difficult, but working on letting go of the negative is much more effective and immediate. Furthermore, it might then come more naturally to like or even love that person.
A note on Ahimsa and Veganism…
Veganism is a complete lifestyle, which excludes all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, the animal kingdom, and includes a reverence for all sentient life. It applies to the practice of living solely on products from the plant kingdom, excluding all flesh, fish, fowl, eggs, honey and dairy, and encourages the use of plant-based alternatives for all foods and commodities derived either wholly, or in part from animals.
Veganism is not entirely about personal purity or isolating oneself from today’s society, but rather it’s about applying Ahimsa; a sense of compassion and justice to our (often unseen) relationships with animals.
Abstinence from animal products Harmlessness with reverence for life Integrity of thought, action and deed Mastery over oneself Service to humanity, nature and creation Advancement of understanding and truth
Niyama – In Sanskrit, means “observance,” or religious observance (aka, the 5 dos of Yoga)
Niyama is the second step in the Eightfold Path (the 8 Limbs) of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and contains the five internal practices of Niyama. These observances outline the five principles which are control (or regulate) the organs of perception; the eyes, the ears, the nose, the tongue and the skin. As these sense organs are brought under our conscious control, it will reduce attachments and help to free the mind of its clutter.
Niyama extends the ethical codes of conduct described in Patanjali’s first limb (the Yamas) to the yoga student or practicing yogi’s internal environment, i.e.; the body, mind and spirit. The practice of Niyama helps to maintain a positive environment in which to grow, giving us the self-discipline and inner-strength required to insure continued progress along the path of yoga.
Patanjali considered all five of the Niyamas as interesting tools for self assessment and personal growth. Applying these concepts, can shift a situation; so often our thoughts and attitudes dictate out past experience, and these practical observances help us to see where we actually are and improve upon that. The Niyamas refer to a positive attitude that we may adopt regarding ourselves, as they empower us to create a code for living purposefully and meaningfully.
Cultivating Niyamas allows you to cultivate discipline and responsibility. They are ultimately designed to help purify your body, mind and emotions.
Niyama: The Five Dos of Yoga:
Shaucha (purity, cleanliness)
Tapas (austerity, asceticism)
Svadhyaya (self-study, spiritual-study)
Ishvara Pranidhana (devotion, worship)
As we progress towards living a more balanced life, the qualities presented in the Niyamas will tend to naturally arise in us. In reality they may be viewed as evolutionary qualities that are a reflection of our connection with universal spirit. As such the Niyamas can be considered milestones along the path of our spiritual growth.
Yama – Self-restraint, self-control and discipline (aka, the 5 don’ts of Yoga)
Yama is the foundation of yoga. It is the first step in the Eightfold Path (the 8 Limbs) of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Yama tells us what to avoid doing because it would bring harm to the individual and others. The observance and practice of yama disciplines the five organs of action; the arms, the legs, the mouth, the organs of regeneration, and the organs of excretion. It is quite natural for the organs of action to control the organs of perception and of the mind. Whenever the mind intends to bring harm to something and the organs of action refuse, no harm will be done. Therefore, Yama is regarded as the foundation or root of the tree of yoga.
Patanjali considered the Yamas to be great, mighty and universal vows. He instructs us that they need to be practiced on all aspects of our being (meaning; actions, words, and thoughts) and that they are not confined to class, race, gender, time or place.
Yama outlines the moral, ethical and societal guidelines for students of yoga and the practicing yogi. These guidelines are all expressed in a scientific and positive manner, thus becoming dynamic descriptions of how a yogi behaves and relates to the world when fully immersed in the experiential unitive state of yoga, called Samadhi. For those of us who have yet to achieve such a pure state, the Yamas are still highly appropriate and valued guides to help us consciously lead a more moral, ethical and honest life.
Yama: The Five Don’ts of Yoga:
Ahimsa – Non-violence
Satya – Non-lying (truthfulness)
Asteya – Non-stealing
Brahmacharya – Continence (celibacy)
Aparigraha – Non-coveting
In a very practical sense, observing and practicing the Yamas eliminates, or at least reduces the accumulation of negative karma as well as preventing the draining of our energy caused by leading a false and/or unconscious life. When practicing the Yamas we’re promoting a healthier, holier and more peaceful life while simultaneously raising our awareness, strengthening our will and increasing our power of discernment. Engaging these practices is formidable task, although by doing so we fortify our character, improve our personal relationships, and further our progress on the spiritual path to the yogic union between the individual self and the universal self.