Several thousand years ago, an Indian sage by the name of Patanjali penned a text known as The Yoga Sutras. He created this body of work to systematize, explain, and teach the world how yoga works and how to incorporate it into one's life. The Yoga Sutras would eventually be to yoga what the wheel's function is to a car and what The Complete Works of William Shakespeare is to English literature. Without Patanjali's work, none of what we know yoga to be today would have ever found its way into our gyms, yoga studios, and living rooms.
Though Patanjali introduces us to many different methods and techniques for practicing yoga, one construct he outlines is something he called "the eightfold path of yoga." This system presents a series of steps through which to pursue self-realization, and while it includes more famous methods like postures and breathing methods, it first instructs us on how to do yoga by grounding ourselves in our overall pursuit of this path. This system is based primarily on the pursuit of Raja Yoga.
How do we ground ourselves? Much like the Bible's Ten Commandments instructs us on how to and to not behave ("Thou shalt not kill," etc.), this system teaches us to abstain from certain behaviors and cultivate others. The abstention practices, known as the yamas, teach us to not be harmful toward ourselves and others, to not steal, to not lie, to not expel one's vital or sexual essence, and to not be excessively greedy. The cultivation practices, known as the niyamas, teach us to practice purity, contentment, austerity/simplicity, study of scripture, and devotion or surrender to the divine. Many of these practices may seem esoteric or challenging, but the ideas behind them can still be applied to our lives in the modern world. A brief sampling of these foundational principles is below:
Often, we respond to the actions of others or ourselves with negative, reactive emotions. We feel hostility toward an unfriendly waiter, fill ourselves with junk food, and even berate ourselves for filling ourselves with junk food. Sometimes, in moments of extreme imbalance, we even physically lash out at another person or animal. These are all acts of violence, in that they are actions that are based in contemptuous thoughts and actions. We can be physically and mentally violent toward ourselves, and we can be physically and mentally violent toward others. The yogic practice of non-violence teaches us to refrain from such actions in favor of simply observing typically stressful situations and let go of any disturbing thoughts in response.
A simple way to practice non-violence is to watch a person on TV, in your home, on the Internet, or in a public place. Though you would typically have a negative reaction to this person, your task is to simply observe that they’re saying or doing something instead of reacting to what they’re saying or doing. What this does is to help you let go of any negative thoughts as your attention is more on them rather than how you feel about them.
There are many times throughout our lives that we learn of something we decide we want. We might be shopping for a home and find what we consider our “dream house.” We might be looking for a job and interview for the most perfect position we could ever think of. We might be walking down the street, walk past a bakery in the middle of preparing wonderfully smelling treats, and decide that we absolutely have to have a cookie/muffin/slice of cake. Sometimes, we get to have the house/job/cake, and sometimes we don’t. When we don’t, we often feel frustrated, disappointed, and even hostile toward those who receive what we wanted. This is the state of attachment.
Detachment is the act of letting go of that which we think we want to instead embrace the possibility that we will find something better for ourselves in another moment. If we don’t get this house, it’s because there’s one more affordable down the street. If we don’t get the job, it’s because there’s one more compatible with our skill set that’s about to open up. If we don’t get the piece of cake, it’s because we are due to have a more satisfying experience soon thereafter. A simple way to practice detachment is to deliberately walk past a bakery or store selling something you want—even if it’s something related to this path like yoga clothing or the best yoga DVD you’ve ever seen—take in the smell or sight of it for a minute or two, and continue walking. This will help you to build your willpower and discipline.
Many of us have more than one story of excess. We feel bad about eating too much, drinking too much, or any other indulgences the following day, but then wind up doing the same thing all over again. Building the foundation of a yoga practice includes developing the willpower to abstain from excessive behaviors for the sake of cultivating greater balance and peace. Doing so allows us to enjoy life without becoming burdened by it, for the more things we have, the more of our life they take up.
A simple way to abstain from excess is to pick an activity you typically indulge in (drinking alcohol every night, eating too late in the night, watching too much TV, spending hours on the Internet) and reduce it by the amount or frequency you partake. Watch a little less TV for one week than you did the previous week, or drink a little bit less than you usually do. Over time, you’ll develop the willpower to manage your excessive behaviors and enjoy the many benefits that entails. Having fewer things means having more time to do more meaningful activities. This will bring you more meaningful experiences.