The Great Vow of Yoga

In the Yoga Sutra, Patañjali calls the yamas, the observances towards others, “The Great Vow of Yoga”:

These are universal, and apply regardless of birth, place, time or circumstance.

They are the starting point. Without them there can be no yoga. Following these observances causes us to be aware of the world around us and of our relationship to it. Without the yamas, a yoga practice becomes a narcissistic endeavor, increasing rather than decreasing our attachments to the fluctuating material world, to our emotions and our senses, to our cravings and our desires. The five yamas are non-harming, truthfulness, non-coveting, continence and non-hoarding.

Any action that we take has a cause and a consequence. The causes of our actions can sometimes stretch back in a great chain reaching generations into the past and, similarly, the consequences can ripple out into the world around us and into the future. Sometimes the causes lie in our relationship to society as a whole, sometimes in the relationships we have with our immediate circle of interactions. At other times the causes of our actions are intrinsic to who we are as individuals and as members of the human species.

The actions of the yogin have neither positive nor negative consequences: whereas those of others are threefold: positive, negative and of mixed consequence.

With the yamas we make a commitment to control the way we behave towards the outside world in order to limit the suffering of others and, consequently, ourselves. Taking control of the way we behave is the first step towards overcoming the conditioning and the fundamental assumptions imposed on us by the inherent nature of consciousness. It is the first step in reconditioning the way in which we respond to the stimuli of the world around us and the impulses and cravings thrown up by our psychological makeup. In this way we can eventually refine our awareness to the point where we find ourselves able to perceive the world directly, without the filters of language, desire and memory that ultimately get in our way. The fully realized yogin is able to take actions that yield no consequence as a result of his or her direct, unfiltered experience and poised equanimity.

Exercise: Interrelatedness

In this exercise we shall explore the web of interrelatedness of which you are a part. Take a piece of paper and make two lists. In one list itemize all the instances in which you took action that had an effect outside yourself during a period of time, say a day. In the second itemize all the times you were acted upon by something or someone. These could all be brief social interactions with other people, such as the cashier at the supermarket, or longer ones, such as conversations with friends and family. They could be indirect actions in which you write an email to someone or read something that someone else has written, a book or a newspaper article. Consider the scope of each interaction. Make a note of the level of each interaction. Was it between two individuals, between an individual and the local community, or was the interaction of national significance? Consider even actions that have an effect beyond our species, with plants or animals. Even a hypothetical yogin in seclusion on a mountain top is never completely cut off.

Once you have made your list, note the consequences of those actions. Were they positive, negative, mixed? Was any one of those actions without consequence?

If you were to be meticulously detailed, your list could fill volumes. Even if you do not take the time to put pen to paper, consider, as you go about your day, each time you act or are acted upon. Consider the level and consequence of the interaction.

In the next few posts we will look at the effects of each of the yamas at several levels, taking into consideration the direct, indirect and long-term consequences, looking at how we can work with them both out in the world and in our yoga practice.

Related Posts:
Yoga in Action