A. L. V. Kumar has been a lifelong practitioner of yoga and meditation. His interest in teaching came about as a result of a car crash that resulted in complete paralysis of the lower body. He used his knowledge of yoga to restore his body to full health. Following this experience he decided to dedicate as much time as possible to teaching yoga to heal both body and mind. Since then he has taught yoga to over 13,000 people in India by conducting free public workshops, in addition to residential meditation courses, teacher training and yoga therapy courses in India, the US, UK and China. Kumar was recently honoured with the Bharat Jyoti Award, the International Achievers Award and the Glory of India Award for his meritorious public service in the field of yoga.
Anna Bhushan is a trustee of the Yoga Healing Foundation, under which Traditional Yoga programs are run. She is a trained yoga and meditation teacher, as well as a painter and lecturer. She has been studying with A. L. V. Kumar for many years and writes these articles from her conversations and recordings with A. L. V. Kumar. Read more about A.L.V. Kumar on the website of Traditional Yoga, Hyderabad, India.
Our previous article introduced the Hindu sage Patanjali who codified the oral tradition of yoga into a series of sacred written texts known as the Yoga Sutras. Before learning the asanas, a student of yoga was required to master the first two limbs of Patanjali’s eightfold path. We now examine the first limb : the yamas.
Patanjali, a great yogi who lived in India around 100 BC, is the author of the Yoga Sutras which teach the path to completely purifying the mind, leading to enlightenment. Patanjali teaches an eightfold path to achieve this goal, based closely on the noble eightfold path of Buddha, his predecessor by 300 years.
Patanjali’s eightfold path includes:
1. Yama (morality)
2. Niyama (observance)
3. Asana (sitting posture)
4. Pranayama (observing the natural uncontrolled breath)
5. Pratyahara (withdrawing the senses)
6. Dharana (momentary concentration)
7. Dhyana (access concentration)
8. Samadhi (absorption concentration)
There is a common misconception that Patanjali is referring to physical yoga in his eightfold path, particularly when he mentions asana and pranayama. In fact, Patanjali’s science pertains purely to the mind. Asana refers to the sitting posture for meditation, and pranayama refers to the practice of observing the natural breath in meditation.
The first and foremost step that Patanjali teaches is yama. These are the five principles of yama:
Ahimsa – non-violence (to remove anger or hatred from the mind)
Asteya – ‘non-stealing’ (to remove greed from the mind)
Satya – truthfulness (to remove fear from the mind)
Brahmacharya – ‘non-sexual misconduct’ (to remove lust from the mind)
Apaarigraha – ‘non-intoxication/addiction’ (to prevent slavery of the mind)
There is absolutely no doubt that the first step of the spiritual journey is abstaining from unwholesome action. The resolution to give up any action which causes harm to yourself or others by body, speech or mind is the foundation stone without which there can be no progress whatsoever. This is the teaching of every yogi and every saint. Buddha calls these principles sila.
This code of conduct is also recognisable in the tenets of most of the major religions throughout the world. If people of the world maintained these five basic principles it would be a very different place, free from violence, terrorism, corruption, addiction and sexual abuse.
Without striving to maintain these five qualities, there can be no spiritual growth. No matter how much meditation, how many rituals, how many spiritual books we read or how much charity we do, it is of no use without this basic morality.
The Katha Upanishads say: “Not even through deep knowledge can the atman (inner self or soul) be reached, unless evil ways are abandoned.”
Why are these five principles so important?
On the path of yoga the goal is to remove all negative tendencies from the mind. That is why the first step is to stop doing any action that increases those tendencies and reinforces unwholesome behavioural patterns. For example, every time we tell a lie we increase fear in the unconscious mind. If we want to live without fear, the first thing we do is to make a commitment to always tell the truth. It is not possible to experience anger and peace simultaneously. When we shout at someone we flood our bodies with adrenalin and other unpleasant chemicals that get deposited as a cellular memory at the unconscious level of the mind. These stored impurities will eventually resurface and find a new object to attach themselves to. Or they may manifest as health problems. It is said that if we shout at one person, 100 people will shout back at us sometime in our future. This is the law of karma; cause and effect, seed and fruit, stimulus and response. When we cause harm to anyone else through our negative actions, we simultaneously cause much more harm to ourselves.
The volition behind the action has the effect of making it weak or strong, so for example, accidentally treading on an ant is not breaking the principle of non-violence as long as it was not done out of strong negligence or carelessness. However, if we curse someone or wish ill on them mentally, even if we do not outwardly do anything to harm them, the violent action of the mind has been performed and we will reap the results. For this reason refraining mentally from unwholesome actions is specifically mentioned. For example, having the intention to confuse or mislead someone amounts to breaking sila even if the words uttered are not literally a lie. Likewise, covetousness is the mental violation of the principle of ‘non-stealing’ even if the hand does not touch the object of desire. The first step is to refrain from the action outwardly by body and speech, but just as important is developing the mental tendency to shrink away from any thoughts of hatred, greed for others’ belongings, excessive or inappropriate lust, deception and desire for intoxication.
If we want our room to be clean, the first thing we do before clearing it of dust is to make sure that we are not bringing any additional dirt inside. If dust is blowing in while we are working hard to sweep it out, the purpose is defeated and we are just wasting our time and energy. That is why both Buddha and Patanjali teach that in order to purify the mind we must first scrupulously maintain these principles.
Maintaining these five principles gives the aspirant a sense of confidence and relief. It creates a lightness and calmness in the mind. The calmer the seas, the deeper we can dive. When the seas are choppy and stormy, it is very difficult to enter the water. In order to practice meditation effectively, we must create the conditions that will reduce mental agitation so that we can concentrate and explore the mind.
Photographs by Coni Hörler.