The yogi T. Krishnamacharya had said that it is not bodily contortions or exceptional breath control that determines progress on the path of Yoga. He said that the key indicator of progress on this path is the quality of the relationships the person engages in. Of the eight different aspects that make up the totality of yoga practice, the first that is listed in the Yoga Sutra is yama - right relationships. Right relationship with not just other people, but right relationship with people and things external to the person.
The first principle outlined under yama is ahimsa, non violence – to be non violent in one’s actions and one’s relationships with people and the world around you. The concept of ahimsa has played a major role in winning India its independence and since then has been India’s great gift to struggles around the world. But though this quality has the power to bring down governments and to change mindsets, it is a power that must first begin with the person. Like charity, ahimsa must begin at home, within each individual. It requires the individual to slow down and observe and be attentive to feedback.
There are four more qualities covered under yama that a person needs to awaken and culture within oneself that will bring the internal environment into perfect balance. These are:
Satya—truth:To seek the truth and accept and come to terms with it while keeping oneself open to new interpretations. This is in keeping with two fundamental philosophical ideas in yoga – sat vada, all that exists is true; and parinamavada, all that exists is changing.
Asteya—non coveteousness: To not steal is the primary injunction but its underlying cause is coveteousness. When the person has refined himself to be happy with what he has and whatever comes his way through honest effort, the quality of asteya automatically follows.
Brahmacharya -- discipline: Without discipline there can never be sustained growth. In fact, any growth realised or attributes acquired will very soon be lost without discipline. To be disciplined at all times requires that the person joyously embraces discipline. When this is the case, the quality of brahmacharya is always present.
Aparighaha—to engage, experience and enjoy to a degree appropriate to the person: To know what is appropriate to receive, whether in relation to material things or in relation to experiences and to stop with that is aparigraha. What is appropriate can vary with place and time. ‘When I was a child, I spoke as a child, understood as a child, thought as a child: now that I have become a man, I have put away childish things.’
The attention, right effort and rationale that is brought into play while doing a course of asanas and pranayama becomes a model to be used when engaging in any field of thought or work. For example, if a person were to push, strain or force to achieve the final form, the principle of ahimsa would be violated. The work done could no longer be considered to be yoga however perfect and beautiful the final form may be to an onlooker. Having brought these qualities to the fore in one’s practice, they are then easier to access at other times.
These qualities are not easily accessible in our daily lives given the pulls and pressures we are subjected to or which we subject ourselves to. It requires a constant culturing of the mind and a nurturing of these qualities as they become available. While there is an end goal of the ideal state of mind, the option available to most of us is to make the best efforts to stay on the path that leads there; to keep polishing and refining the different aspects of ourselves and to make our lives a work of art.
“No one ever told us we had to study our lives,
Make of our lives a study, as if learning natural history
Or music, that we should begin
With the simple exercises first
And slowly go on trying
The hard ones, practicing till strength
And accuracy became one with the daring
To leap into transcendence.”
(Adrienne Rich, Transcendental Etude)
Breath as a tool in Yoga
The beautiful aspect of Yoga is that it offers a way to the realisation of its ideal. Among its different means is the chief one – the breath. There are many avenues through which one can work on our inner ecology, as it were. Music, friendship, family, sport, work…the list goes on. But in Yoga the breath is given pride of place for two reasons. First, it is something that is available to every person, everywhere, and at all times. Second, in Yoga it is believed that the breath is linked to the mind and the quality of the breath influences the quality of the mind. Relaxing the breath, relaxes the mind; controlling the breath, controls the mind; sensitising the breath, sensitises the mind. What food is to the body, the breath is to the mind.
Abhyasa and Vairagya
Once on this path, there are two things that help us stay on it – abhyasa and vairagya. Abhyasa is the continuous, uninterrupted practice of all that helps stay on the path. Vairagya is the avoidance of all that will take you away from the path. These twin observances have been likened to water flowing through a canal. Abhyasa is like the forward flowing water that must keep moving till it reaches the place where its presence will give life. Vairagya is like the walls of the canal that help channelise the water and prevent it from spreading out in all directions and thereby drying out well before its intended destination.
Between the two it is vairagya that is the more difficult to observe as the pulls that test it can be subtle and silken making us unaware of our succumbing to it. The story below gives one example of how this can happen.
The kingdom of Magadha was ruled by a king who was powerful and feared. His affairs of state were well managed by his Prime Minister who was learned and wise. People all through the land recognised the Prime Minister as the wisest and most learned man in the kingdom. In keeping with his position, the Prime Minister enjoyed power, wealth and status exceeded only by the king. The Prime Minister was also intelligent enough to recognise that even though all the land acknowledged him as the wisest person in it, he was exceeded in knowledge and wisdom by one person. This was his friend with whom, through the years, he had studied, learned and debated.
Riding on his prime ministerial palanquin back home from the palace, his thoughts turned to his friend whose mind and companionship he missed due to the duties of the court which left him little time for study, contemplation or friendship.
Sitting high in his palanquin, thinking of his friend, he suddenly spotted him and called to the palanquin bearers to change direction and go towards a large tree in the distance. Under the tree was his friend. Sitting relaxed, wearing the barest threads for clothes, he was having his lunch which was the most simple and basic gruel. Alighting from his palanquin and then sitting by his side, the Prime Minister took in his friend’s tattered dress and bare sustenance meal and sighed wistfully and said, ‘My friend, if only you could put up with the king you wouldn’t have to live like this.’ His friend replied, ‘If only you could live like this, you wouldn’t have to put up with the king.’
Ahimsa in action
Ahimsa, of all the five qualities of yama, is the one which is the most beautiful to behold in a person. The Yoga Sutra defines the highest level of ahimsa as one where in the presence of a person who manifests it, even two enemies will give up their hostility to each other.
We have been fortunate to have had in our times a living example of this level of ahimsa through a man who has become synonymous with the term – Mahatma Gandhi. In one instance, in Bengal, during the days of the Partition, he heard of a clash brewing between two groups of Muslims and Hindus. He went straight to the location and placed himself between the two groups and appealed to them to return to their homes. And they did!
But one man alone can do only so much. What he and others like him have shown to us is that these qualities are attainable in ordinary people. Through the cultivation of these qualities in every individual the ideal of peace among all people can still be realised.