The Yama-s and our Relationship with the Environment

I was asked recently, as a part of training I was undertaking with the TSYP, to speak about my current favourite sutra for 5 minutes – I settled on:

II-30; ahimsāsatyāsteyabrahmacaryāparigrahā yamāh

the sutra on the yama-s, and have been asked to share the essence of the presentation with you here.

The yamas
Often seen as a list of dos and don’ts, the yama-s can also be considered as attributes that we naturally exhibit when we have clarity of mind, and when the obstacles to yoga have been removed.

The yama-s are the very first of the eight limbs of astanga yoga and they both precede and supersede all other practices. For Desikachar, yoga was relationship, and surely our relationship with the earth we live on is first and foremost, as without the earth sustaining life, what yoga is there? Our current lifestyles mean that for many of us there is a disconnect between us and this most fundamental element of nature, mother earth. Many of the privileged among us drive from centrally heated homes to air conditioned shopping centres and rarely feel the cold of winter.  Fruit and vegetables are available year round and meat comes neatly packaged, far removed in our psychology from the animal it once was. There must be many adults who have never washed mud from underneath their fingernails.

Yoga sutra II-30
Having been particularly drawn to climate change issues of late, I read Desikchar’s commentary on sutra II-30 with this uppermost in my heart and found the writing there profound.

Ahimsā
On ahimsā, Desikachar writes ‘Consideration for all living things, especially those who are innocent, in difficulty, or worse off than we are.’ So let us pause for a moment.  How do we as humans, particularly in the West, demonstrate this in the way we live and behave? Our history is one of appalling abuses of power. Who suffers most as a result of our use of the planet’s resources? It’s not us here in the developed world. How different might things be if we were considerate of all living things?

Satya
Desikachar’s commentary on satya reads ‘Right communication through speech, writings, gesture and actions.’ We know that our environment is in serious trouble. It is vital that we are all honest about this. The consequences of the way we have been living and continue to live are painful to face up to and to speak about, and the changes we need to make are many, but we must find the courage to do so. We urgently need to find new ways of behaving that show love and respect for others and our planet. There is power in truth.

Asteya
When it comes to asteya Desikachar says ‘Noncovetousness or the ability to resist a desire for that which does not belong to us.’ We are so used to advertising. We have been sold the idea that we are entitled to more than our fair share, and many in society feel dissatisfied and hard done by when they don’t have their every whim met instantly. What really belongs to us?

Brahmacarya
‘Moderation in all our actions’ is how brahmacarya is defined. There is a societal movement towards growth that has been prevailing for many years now. From corporations to businesses the emphasis is on growth and expansion. Even average householders must increase efficiency in order to keep a roof over their heads and feed themselves, this requires all sorts of ‘convenience aids’ from cars and dishwashers to nappies and wet wipes, all of which are detrimental to the planet and use more energy in their creation, use and ultimate destruction that can be afforded. This continual growth is not sustainable and we must consider slowing down, simplifying and re-orientating our goals. Can we use less?  What can we do without?

Aparigragā
Finally aparigrahā, ‘Nongreediness, or the ability to accept only what is appropriate.’ Everything is connected and when we take from one place it affects another and another, the repercussions are complex and there are no simple fixes. When we take more than our fare share we deny others (human, animal and plant life, the entire ecosystem), and we subject them to the very lack that we are fearful of in the first place. We create resentment and anger, we initiate a change that is very difficult to undo and ultimately it affects us all. It is our lack of connection, of relationship, that allows for this greediness. 

Connection
It is all too easy to see oneself as separate. How often do we find ourselves in a traffic jam, bemoaning all the traffic, whilst all the while we are traffic!

When we realise the truth that we are all intimately connected, that there is no ’other’ then we realise that what we do to another we do to ourselves and vice versa. By recognising, remembering and reconnecting with the nature that we are, by re-establishing the relationship, the yoga, with all living things, we can begin to act from a place of love and make positive changes that might just turn things around.

Patañjali said it best: heyam duhkhamanāgatam (II:16)
“Suffering which has not yet occured must be avoided” (Frans Moors)

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