Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Is the Word of God in the Yoga Sutras?

When I originally read the Yamas, the first of the 8 limbs of yoga as outlined by Patanjali, I couldn’t help but notice a parallel between them and the Ten Commandments as outlined in the Bible.  The Yamas are considered moral restraints and tell us how to behave in society; the Ten Commandments do the same.

Before Patanjali transcribed the Yoga Sutras in 400 AD, laying the groundwork for modern day yoga, yoga was taught one on one, wisdom passing from guru (teacher) to student.  Not unlike Martin Luther who translated the Bible from Latin to German to spread the word of God to a larger audience. 

The first Yama is AHIMSA, which is the practice of "non-violence".  According to Judith Lasater, “This refers not only to physical violence, but also to the violence of words or thoughts.”  Judith Lasater is considered one of the nation's foremost yoga instructors having co-founded not only the Iyengar Yoga Institute in San Francisco, but also, the most prominent magazine for yoga enthusiasts, Yoga Journal.  

 A lot of yogis interpret AHIMSA to include all animals and animal by-products resulting in the participation of veganism or vegetarianism.  AHIMSA is similar to the 5th commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.”  However, in 1280 B.C. in the land of Exodus and Deuteronomy, the books of the Bible where the Ten Commandments appear, God was still demanding the slaughter of innocent farm animals as a temporary covering of sins.  His intention with the Fifth Commandment was not to create a world of herbivores.   

While I can never see myself converting to veganism, I have found myself being more conscientious toward all living creatures.  I no longer mindlessly swat insects and as far as violent thoughts are concerned, I am judging less and viewing all beings including myself with compassionate eyes more.   Whether or not AHIMSA was intended to extend to all living creatures or just mankind is up for interpretation, similar to many passages in the Bible.

The next Yama is known as SATYA or “truth”.  Judith Lasater wrote, “Honesty is what we do when others are around and might judge our actions or words, but to have integrity is to act in an honest manner when others are not around and will never know about our actions.”  Again this Yama bears a strong resemblance to the 8th commandment, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.”  In other words:  Tell the truth.  Be honest.  Don’t lie.

In The Small Catechism by Martin Luther, the explanation of the 8th commandment is expanded to read, “We should fear and love God that we may not deceitfully, belie, betray, slander or defame our neighbor, but defend him, think and speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.  I believe “neighbor” is a broad term and can be expanded to include all people with whom you come into contact.  Because our truth(s) are filtered through our own experiences and beliefs--our perception is our reality—we have a better chance of achieving SATYA if we speak with the intention of not harming others.

The third Yama is ASTEYA, which translates to “non-stealing”.  Again there is a commandment that supports that philosophy.  Commandment #7—“Thou shalt not steal”.  While the meaning of this Yama is obvious from the outset, it goes a little deeper.  Not only are we to not take what isn’t ours, but also not more than we need.  In a society where the obesity rate is at an all-time high, food is a good example. 

Judith Lasater wrote, “We fail also when we steal from ourselves—by neglecting a talent…”  Before I enrolled in yoga teacher training, I thought I needed to be able to soar in Bakasana, also known as crane pose.  If I can’t do it, how can I teach it?  I thought.  One day I realized that once I had the pose, I would find another obstacle—something else wouldn’t be perfect—and that if I truly wanted to be a yoga teacher I needed to quit focusing on what I couldn’t do and focus on what I could do!

The fourth Yama, BRAHMACHARYA, may be the one that lends itself to (mis)interpretation the most.  The literal translation is celibacy, but when the word is dissected we end up with a new meaning…”Walking with God”.

BRAHMA-the name of a deity
CHAR-to walk

So while some people may choose to live their life as a nun or monk offering their sexuality as devotion to God, others believe BRAHMACHARYA simply asks us to remain faithful within a monogamous relationship.  I again feel a direct correlation between the practice of BRAHMACHARYA and the 6th commandment:  “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”  Judith Lasater wrote, “…use sexual energy like all life energies, in accord with the practice of AHIMSA (non-violence).  This means that we respect ourselves and our partner when we are in a sexual relationship and do not use others to have sex mindlessly.”

The fifth and final Yama is APARIGRAHA, which means “non-greed”.  When I hear this Yama I think of the ninth and tenth commandments:  “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house” and thusly “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his man-servant, nor his maid-servant, nor cattle, nor anything that is his.”

In our name-brand, designer world, it is easy to get caught up in greed.  It is also easy to fall into the “keeping up with the Jones’s” trap.  I’m guilty of both—always measuring and comparing, but I’d like to believe I’m making strides in the right direction and that my yoga practice has had an impact.  I have so much less ego than I did when I began this journey.  Recently I had the opportunity to purchase a new car.  When I began the search, I started at BMW and Porsche.  When I wrote the check, it was signed to Toyota of North Charlotte.  In an effort to be a more globally conscientious citizen, I bought a Prius.  While I wish it had a power-lift gate or automatic seat positioners, I squeal with delight every time my MPG jumps a tenth. 

Just as the Bible can be interpreted to be self-serving, so can the Yamas:  to eat meat or not to eat meat, to have sex or not to have sex, as a practitioner we have to use the Yamas as guidelines to live a life as close to our own truth as possible.

As I write this, I am transported back to catechism class 1982 discussing I Corinthians 6:19-20, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?”   

Pastor Westendorf explained that it was okay to drink alcohol and use tobacco products as long as it wasn't done in excess—as long as we didn’t harm our bodies, which were the temples of God.  When I told my Grandma what the pastor had said, she scoffed.  “That’s just his justification for smoking cigars!”


Well…even men of God have their vices!

My relationship with God and organized religion in general has been tentative for years.  I prayed daily to God while questioning his very existence.  By the time I started yoga teacher training in 2013, I was agnostic at best.  It was the reading of the Yamas that made me begin to believe that perhaps there really is only one true God--no matter if he is called Brahma or Ishvara, Allah or the Universe--he, she, it is one in the same. It seems clear to me that although yoga itself is not affiliated with any religion, perhaps some of it's earliest teachers were in fact influenced by the word of God.

I'm still working to discover what God truly means to me, but I'm open and that's the first step.  Being open to all possibilities means I have a greater chance of receiving whatever messages the Universe sends my way.  I don't know if I'm correct.  I'm not a theologian--just a yogi who has experienced a power greater than herself.  

But now that I've published it on the internet--it must be true!

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