Yamas: A Practice for your Shadows

If you are reading this, you already know that yoga can change your life. It probably already has: it starts with a few warriors and a hip opener or two, and suddenly things start to feel…different. And not only physically: your relationships improve, your reactions change, you feel like a better person. What is this better-person-ness we are experiencing?

Even though we don’t always name them in class, the yoga practice is underpinned by the ethical precepts known in Patanjali’s classical Eight Limbs of Yoga as the Yamas. These five “don’ts” in yoga philosophy look a little like the Ten Commandments to Western eyes. They are as follows:

  1. Ahimsa: Don’t harm anyone.
  2. Satya: Don’t lie.
  3. Asteya: Don’t steal.
  4. Brahmacharya: Don’t be excessive.
  5. Aparigraha: Don’t grasp.

Each Yama is a little sprout on a small branch on the larger yoga tree, and there is a lot to say about each one. But why bother? They look simple enough. We’re yogis, we got this: I don’t go around punching people or lying to them, and the last time I stole something it was a gumball and I was 5 (and I felt really bad about it). I’m definitely not excessive or attached. Seventeen pairs of yoga pants is enough, right?

Yoga teachers tend to project an image of calm, organic health and radiance while we are selling the sweet snake oil of eternal happiness and bliss. When we get sad or injured or heartbroken or have to use antibiotics when acupuncture doesn’t cure our kidney infections we smile and say, “I’m great!” if anyone asks. We don’t like to be seen wobbling on our yogic path.

Janet Stone (who doesn’t like it when you call her a Master Teacher) recently came to Semperviva to set us all straight. “If you don’t let your students see you wobble,” she said, more sternly than she said anything else the whole weekend, “You are not doing yoga.” A true practice of ethical inquiry and action, she told us, requires that we look at the very places inside ourselves that are already breaking these ethical precepts. We have to be willing to wobble.

She was serious. She asked us, several times, to turn towards another person in the room, often a stranger, and tell them the reasons we lie, the places we steal from our own or other people’s resources, the ways we protect our egos, and generally that we admit to being puny humans. This exercise was not about shaming–quite the opposite. Looking someone in the eye and sharing with them honestly was a surprising relief. We all struggle, we all have flaws, and that’s okay. It takes a lot of energy to hide, and look: we’re all the same under there!

Stone picked up our yoga veils and playfully fluttered them. She asked us to look courageously at our own shadows and bow to them. When we do this, we can see the ways covering them up can keep other people at a distance. When the only answer to “How are you?” is “Great! Fabulous!” what we are really saying is, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” and everyone walks away wondering what Great and Fabulous has that they don’t.

I don’t think anyone left this workshop feeling like they had conquered the parts of themselves that struggle. But we are armed with a deeper awareness of our own shadows, which can often be enough to drain away some of the power these shadows hold over us. Our work now is simple, if not easy: keep watching and asking questions. Perhaps the next time someone asks, “How are you?” the answer will come out a little differently.

Julie Peters has been practicing yoga from the tender age of 12, and it’s gotten her through everything from the horrors of teenagedom to a Master’s degree in English Literature. She is a performance poet, freelance writer, and Vinyasa Flow and Yin yoga teacher. She brings a creative style, warm energy, and food for thought to every class. www.jcpeters.ca