New beginnings, resolutions, and ahimsa.

The yamas and parighasana

Every time I teach parighasana – gate pose.  I get confused, bewildered looks from students as the pose moves from what you think it should be to something that you can’t believe BKS Iyengar described and explained in Light on Yoga.

Life can be like this.  It throws a curveball that you hadn’t planned on.

The 5 yamas in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are a moral compass for life.    A quick translation might be: non harming (ahimsa), truth (satya), non stealing (asteya), not wasting energy (brahmacharya), and not being greedy (aparigraha).  Stephanie Quirk writes that “searching for the yamas (and niyamas) is like searching for the lines painted on a road at night driving a car with lights that barely work.”  They cannot be studied. They can only be experienced as guides. What does she mean?

Let’s explore the first yama – ahimsa: non harming. BKS Iyengar says that himsa (harming) comes when we lose ourselves in untruth, stealing, wanton waste of energy, and greed.  They all cause harm to ourselves, others, our community, and our planet. Society states that we should not kill, steal etc. We can all agree on this. It is illegal to kill someone or steal from someone.  Our laws and religions make it clear. But to not cause harm is quite different. I want to pollute the world less, but yet, I need heat in my house when it’s zero degrees; I know I’m stressed and should go to sleep, but I can’t get this done in time otherwise.  These examples cause harm in some way, to oneself and to the environment.

Stephanie say “ The sense of shame and awkwardness we feel at the mention of the yamas is why we find a conflict in grasping the subject”.  As yoga practitioners, we like to think of ourselves “from a place of purity, piety, and innocence…..but the signs point that that not being where we are beginning from”.  (Stephanie Quirk).

January is a month of new beginnings, and of new resolutions: The  I shall NOT, or I shall do x. Studies show that most people give up on their resolutions before the middle of January.   Why should this be the case? I would argue that it’s not only a matter of willpower, but more of perspective.

Let’s take this example: I shall not drink coffee in 2019.  OK – when it rolls around to 7am when you usually have your coffee, what happens?   Your mind, even your body is craving and crying out for coffee. Clearly there are chemical addictions to coffee as well, but nevertheless, you are stressed,  even without the coffee! This may go one for a week or a month and then it’s too much. Your 7am craving becomes a lonely, empty, stressful, and harmful space in your day.  You dread it. Coffee becomes the only solution to the problem. Stephanie goes on to say: “Herein, lies the difficulty for us. We can’t relate easily to the empty himsa (harm) shaped space”.”  This leads to an internal conflict that you may or may not be able to resolve. Our nature as humans is to harm – we do it all the time, to ourselves, others, our environment. She says “ we cannot skirt around the harm.  We cannot cut out, rub out, paint out the harm in ourselves. If we were able to, we would end up with an empty “harm-shaped space” or the ghost of harm.”

BKS Iyengar writes in his book Light on Life that, if even ONE cell in your body is craving (he talks about chocolate), in this case, coffee, then, you are harming yourself; (the second of the yamas is truth) you are hiding the truth of the situation from yourself, or stealing the truth (the third yama is non stealing), wasting energy not being honest (the forth yama) because you are not able to detach and let go (greedlessness is the fifth yama) of your craving for coffee.  This sounds very heavy stuff.

BKS Iyengar says that the Yamas are the most destructive forces in our lives.    Patanjali must have known this because, instead of finger pointing – Do NOT do this, do that.  We are invited to use a different perspective. It requires us to observe, and learn more about ourselves.  Patanjali offers an approach “ that counters the harm by doing the opposite.” (Stephanie Quirk).

When it’s coffee time, do something else, go for a walk, have tea instead.  You may not be able to eradicate the craving, but you are filling the sad-empty-what-used-to-be- coffeetime vacuum. Nature abhors a vacuum.  With practice, coffee time will have been replaced by something else, or you will reach a solution of having coffee twice a week instead of every day, and the craving might not be a craving, but just a once in a while cup of coffee.  

Back to parighasana (gate pose).  Is it a side bend, a forward bend, a twist?  If I decide it’s only one of those things, then I’m stuck with the coffee situation: either all or nothing.  To do the opposite creates confusion initially: When I take my hands all the way to the foot, I can’t keep my chest open; if I keep my chest open I can’t do the pose.  And, yes, there are stages in this pose. But to get to the classic pose it cannot be only one thing or another. The “I shall do this, and only this, or I shall not to this, are not available.  It IS a forward bend, it IS a lateral bend , it IS a twist. You have to the opposite of what you think it is. And the guidelines are rather like the lines on the road at night with bad lighting. The pose is more demanding of our hard core desires and avoidances.  As Geeta Iyengar said – If you think your body is stiff, try looking at your mind. If I twist too much, i have to do the opposite, if I bend forward to much I have to twist, if I bend sideways too much I have to bend forward. Because the net effect of your effort will be to bring you to nothing you ever thought it would be.

Manouso said that the process of practice refers to the constant necessity for us to relinquish the preconception we have of ourselves and our capacities – our I shall do or I shall not do. He says again and again that we must go beyond our preconception in order to be in the the truth of our experience—right here in the NOW.

Mary Dunn once said “Yoga is not an either/or subject. It is a both subject”.  To think of life, yoga and parighasana as and either this or that subject can only cause himsa.