Yoga’s Prime Directive
Since very early on, my yoga journey has been informed by the ancient text The Yoga Sutras.
This tome is actually a handbook for enlightenment! It literally breaks
down a step-by-step process of how to free yourself from what covers your true
Self. More on enlightenment and who you really are later. For now, it’s enough to
know that most of the time we are not the true Self.
You may not typically think of it that way, but you know it’s so. When you are
upset in traffic, or lying awake at 3am fretting, or saying something mean to one
of the people you love the most, you are not your Self. If you’re like me – and I
think you might be! – you feel confused or imbalanced when it’s happening and
somehow guilty or frustrated afterwards. We know there is a better way to
experience life, it just wasn’t available in that moment.
On the other hand, when we’re enjoying the view of the world around us,
appreciating the food on our plates, or laughing with loved ones we feel
connected to something real. Try this and notice how true it is: think of a time
when you felt at peace. It may be a recent time or something from long, long ago.
Remember what time of day it was, the sounds that were around you, the
thoughts that flowed through your mind. Can you recall what your body felt like
in that time? Was there an ease in your muscles, or a thrill at the beauty of the
moment? How was your breath?
If you are able to recapture that moment in your mind, you will immediately
notice that your stresses push back and a sense of ease fills that gap. The
everyday does not seem as interesting or important when placed beside
something so profound. The Yoga Sutras offer us systematic instructions to
uncover and stay connected to that profound peace of mind.
Chapter 2 of The Yoga Sutras is the most directive. Follow the eight limbs of
Classical Yoga as outlined there and attain enlightenment. Easy-peasy! …Okay,
it’s not easy-peasy. It’s amazing how hard it can be to relax or just sit there and
think of nothing. More on the other limbs of the eight-fold path later, as well. For
now, we’re focussing on the first part of the first limb of yoga: nonharm.
The eight limbs of yoga begin with yama, or the restraint of harmful behaviours.
There are five yamas, each of which I’ll tell you about as this blog progresses. The
first thing yoga teaches us to restrain is harm (ahimsa: nonviolence), whether it
comes in the form of action, word, or even thought.
You are probably pretty good at being a kind, thoughtful, polite person showing
respect to others through your behaviours and words. Many of us are less adept
at monitoring our thoughts. It’s not uncommon to think one thing and say or do
another. Also, we have thousands of thoughts every hour. Unless we are
established in some form of awareness practice, we don’t even notice the content
or quality of our minds. Most of the thoughts pass through automatically and
sadly, we tend to be programmed toward the negative. If we don’t witness and
consciously direct our thoughts, they don’t tend to be uplifting. Nonharm through
thought takes a bit of practice and that’s okay; we have time to tune that up.
The funny thing is, that practice is not the most challenging part of ahimsa. The
guidance is to do no harm through action, word, or thought to any life form. Now,
while you’re on an internal dialogue about whether or not you are “allowed” to
kill mosquitos, you probably haven’t given much thought to the fact that you are
a part of “any life form”.
How well do we practice nonharming actions towards ourselves? It’s common to
struggle with some lifestyle habit, be it eating enough greens, moving in a variety
of healthy ways, going to bed on time, or flossing our teeth. I hope that as you
stick with me this blog will support you in a simple process of improving your
area of struggle. For today, let’s acknowledge the role that thoughts play in a
Over the next day or so, notice how you think about yourself. What thoughts
come to mind when you make a mistake, look in the mirror, or interact with
someone you admire? The mind is an interesting place and your automatic
thoughts and responses may surprise you. Awareness is key, so thank you for
playing along with this experiment and learning more about yourself.
Once we notice the internal culture, we can intervene. Do no harm, say the
Sutras. So when we notice that we are judging or berating ourselves, the first and
simplest intervention is knock it off. Stop thinking the violent thoughts. That is
enough for now, say the Sutras. Begin with the prime directive of removing harm.
When you remove the cover of harm that lays over your actions, words, and
thoughts, you will immediately notice a sense of calm. I know it’s a process to
remove the negativity habit and that’s okay. In the moment, just knock it off.
Instead of thinking about what a dumb thing you said or how disappointed
people are with your lateness, so something else with your mind. Sing a little song
or say a prayer or make a shushing sound as if you were soothing an infant.
Anything that stops the violence is a worthy intervention at this stage. Over time
you will weave in the other yamas and continue with the limbs of Classical yoga,
living into the healthy life you envision for yourself.
The Yoga Sutras light the entire path that leads to the true Self. The first part of
the first step is to behave non-violently, even in the subtle realms, even towards
ourselves. Lifetime yoga practitioners still come back to this edict every single
day. Be gentle with yourself as you experiment with nonharm. Remember your
power to change your internal climate and live as the person you were meant to