In the third pada (chapter) of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras – the great text unpacking the meditative system of Raja Yoga – Patanjali outlines eight steps, like eight rungs on a ladder of practice that have a two-fold purpose.
- By practicing Patanjali’s system we are able to lessen our experience of suffering in this lifetime.
- The system is designed to prepare us for an experience of Samadhi; a blissful state said to be our true nature, the experience of which will lead us to a state of aloneness or kaivalya, which arises when the creative energy of the universe (prakriti) no longer has a pull on us. That is, we’ve realized that our true nature is not that of form and shape, but is formless, eternal – we have been purusa (pure universal consciousness/awareness) all along.
This is a lofty goal to be sure, however, Patanjali gives us a practical system for its attainment, starting with an examination of the current state of our lives.
Patanjali’s system of ethics: the yamas and niyamas
Patanjali says that we should use his system of ethical guidelines (yamas) and personal observances (niyamas) – the first two rungs on his eight-step ladder – to bring our lives into a greater state of balance and harmony. This too has a two-fold purpose:
- It lessens our experience of day-to-day suffering
- It prepares us to sit in meditation. How? Because when we live out of harmony with others and our surroundings we find that we are accosted by difficult thoughts and strong emotions while meditating, making it more difficult to sift through the white noise and get to the heart of our being.
Ahimsa: the first yama
The first ethical guideline is ahimsa, which is generally translated as non-violence, or gentleness. Through the practice of this yama we cultivate kindness toward others and ourselves. It is important to remember that violence does not just manifest physically, it is a state of mind. Do we say unkind things out of spite? Do we indulge in negative or critical self talk? Ahimsa also extends to other beings and our environment so, using the lens of this yama, we might review our decision to eat meat or reconsider daily practices that have a negative impact on the environment. We might become aware of the tendency we have to push ourselves too far during our yoga asana practice, realizing that this too is a violence to our body.
We see that violence, in all of its form, is a product of disconnection, the best remedy for which is love – the great unifier – which brings to light the connection between all things.
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