As per sage Patanjali, yoga is an eight-fold path. It is like climbing a staircase which has eight steps: yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and the final step is samadhi. In order to become a yogi, the aspirant needs to follow these eight limbs, meticulously and step by step. To many people, yoga means just asanas. Thus, they jump straight into the practice of asanas without understanding what the word ‘yoga’, actually means. That is why even though they practice asanas every day; their minds are still restless, depressed or agitated. How can yoga and a disturbed state of mind co-exist? After all, can someone who has just finished drinking plenty of water be still thirsty?
The path of yoga needs to be trod methodically. The first step on this eight-rung ladder is yama, which means code of conduct. These are: satya (truthfulness), ahimsa (non-violence), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacharya (celibacy) and aparigraha (non-hoarding). Let’s see these in some details. Satya means truthfulness - in speech, action and thoughts. Now, this is very difficult because lying comes so easily to people. But it is easy for those who have vairagya (dispassion). Why? Because the ephemeral nature of this world becomes apparent. For e.g. what will be the state of mind of a person who knows he is going to die, say, in a week? Would he want to lie, to cheat, to deceive?
That is why it is important to understand who is a seeker? A seeker is the one who is dispassionate to the lure of this material world. A seeker’s prime motive of life is to know the truth. Satya means truth. Truth means God, but I don’t like using this word as religions use it to divide people. That is why our great masters used one word and that is: truth. Prime objective of human life is to seek the ultimate truth. And if this remains in the back of your mind, you will refrain completely from lying.
The second step is ahimsa -- nonviolence in speech, action and thoughts. Nonviolence towards others and towards your own self too. Ahimsa means not hurting anyone. Hence, this means that consuming meat is also an act of violence. You are taking away an animal’s life. And this is unnecessary because you can easily get all essential proteins from legumes, beans, tofu and so on. See, it is not a question of sin. Rather, it is the non-violence part which is crucial for a yoga practitioner. Hence, know that if you eat meat, you are breaking the second code of conduct (yama).
Now some argue that isn’t plucking a fruit or a vegetable an act of killing? Well, a tomato doesn’t have an active mind which has emotions and fear of death. On the other hand; a cow, a pig, a goat, a chicken knows what it means to be alive or to be in pain. They are fearful of death and pain. They want to live. A tomato isn’t going to cry, it won’t try to escape. Why? Because the mind is absent. Whenever there is a wish and will to live, that being should not be deprived of an opportunity of life.
The third yama is called asteya - which means being honest, non-stealing, not taking that which does not belong to you. A greedy mind cannot become a yogi. If one is in the habit of stealing, it means there is a lot of greed in that person. If a thought of theft arises in someone’s mind, it comes out of either greed or lust.
The fourth yama is called aparigraha – non-hoarding; not owning possessions beyond what is needed for one’s survival. Its an important code which most people flout. People don’t have cupboards these days, they have walk-in closets! They have hundreds of clothes with matching shoes and handbags. Hoarding objects is one thing and then there is hoarding of emotions. Now, this is subtle to understand. Someone says something harsh or abusive and you hold on to it for years and years. Well, this too is a type of hoarding. A colleague talked behind your back decades ago, but it’s still fresh in your mind. This means you are breaking the fourth code of yama. Following aparigraha means not holding onto one’s thoughts and emotions; and thus, live freely. You hold onto your thoughts too. For example, a thought arises in your mind. You wish to buy a particular brand of car and this thought occupies your mind day and night. Weeks and months go by but that thought is still in your head and even in your dreams.
A thief enters a master’s humble cottage while the master is asleep. The master hears the commotion and wonders who it could be. He thinks that the person must be in some need. So, he keeps on lying pretending to be asleep. The thief keeps looking for something valuable. Then the master thinks, there is nothing valuable in his cottage and this poor man is going to find only empty boxes and he might even hurt himself. So, the master gets up. The thief gets startled and tries to run away. The master says to him, ‘Please don’t go, I am not going to harm you. I am just going to light a lamp for you so that you can easily look if there is something that you need.’
The bewildered thief thinks that the old man is crazy. He takes the lamp and starts looking around. But he finds nothing. The thief feels angry as he has wasted a lot of time. The master, feeling compassionate towards this miserable man, hands over his own blanket, as it was cold outside. The thief hesitantly takes the blanket because he has nothing warm on his body. And as he leaves the cottage, the master looks up to the sky and upon seeing a beautiful moon, he says: ‘How I wish I could give you this moon. Please take the blanket and may you rest well.’ This is aparigraha. When you don’t hold on to any thing more than what is needed for survival. Not only objects and possessions, it also means not sleeping too much, not holding on to thoughts or emotions.
The fifth code of yama is brahmacharya. On the physical level, it means celibacy but the deeper meaning is to be in union with Brahman. The scriptures say, that when you have a disciplined sex life and when you are living your life in yama and niyama, you are a celibate. There were many masters in the past who were householders, who had families and children, and yet they were yoga masters. Brahmacharya in marital life means that husband and wife are loyal to one another, they are not looking for titillation outside of marriage and their sexual conduct is regimented. Mind you, regimented does not mean supressed. Supressed sexual tendency will manifest as some other emotion, like anger or frustration.
Brahman is the word for the absolute truth, the absolute omniscient existence. One who has realised Brahman, the ultimate truth, is a brahmachari. On the physical level, the one who has sexual temperance, is a brahmachari. If you indulge in sex, you are depleting very precious energy and you will not be able to wake up early in the morning. When you sleep late, you will be missing your sadhana and then you are out of discipline. Brahmacharya, for a yogi who lives a life of a single person; means celibacy on physical, emotional and even mental level. There will be a constant awareness of one’s own state of mind, feelings and actions.
So, these five codes of yama - satya, ahimsa, asteya, aparigraha and brahmacharya, are the very first prerequisites on the path of yoga. These codes are the stepping stones, the base, on which you can build and shape your spiritual life. The more solid the foundation, the more you can build on it. Patience and perseverance will give the right fruits of sadhana that will make you happy, peaceful and contented. And as you ascend on the path to liberation, the sadhana will become more and more satisfying. And a day will come when you will become a yogi.