Union: the foundation, source, path, and goal of yoga is both an ever-present fact of life and an evolving journey. We are always in direct, intimate relationship with a unified web of existence, yet most of us somehow still feel alone, separate, and sick. We feel alienated and disconnected, despite the fact that we are an integral part of a miraculously interconnected and interrelated cosmos.
This alienation and separation that our human family struggles with appears to be the product of a disconnected ego, which is itself the expression of millennia of trauma. An ego is the defensive psychological armoring that grips the physical and emotional bodies with tension and stress, often time leading to illness and poor health.
The eight-limbed Raja Yoga system as exposed by Patanjali more then twenty-five hundred years ago has been demonstrated through the course of millennia to be one of the most advanced and complete system of self-healing and self-development ever designed. It promises not only integral health and wellbeing for the whole person, but the actual fruition into self-realization and ultimate enlightenment.
Yama: The First Limb
Yama, the first limb in Patanjali’s Raja Yoga system, is the most basic and foundational practice in this ancient understanding of the human condition. Yama translates as “restraint,” and is basically a dictate on the ethical and moral principles that underlie the spiritual life.
Patanjali proclaimed that yama is the most important of all limbs, as its very practice reduces and eliminates the creation of karmic imprints that perpetuate the suffering of all life on Earth. In modern terminology, yama addresses the basic behaviors and attitudes that create and spread trauma and suffering in our world.
This trauma was understood to exist at all levels: the spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical dimensions of being. Raja Yoga, as an integral practice, was developed to work with all levels, all bodies, all dimensions for the ultimate aim of ending suffering and achieving the full flowering of liberation in samadhi.
Before this release into the promised freedom and peace available in the deepest core of our true self, a series of steps and practices were outlined to clear the debris obstructing its realization. If the garden is the eight limbs, and the flower and fruit the final samadhi, yama is the fertile soil in which the rest of the garden depends on.
The Interconnectedness of All Things
Yama cultivates the principles that underlie the basic understanding of our oneness, our interconnections that establish “do unto others as you would like done to you” as a deeply felt reality. All world religions have a version of such commandments, and is the cultivation of a loving heart and compassionate life that creates the psychological environment that may facilitate expansive states of deep love.
If any of the “restraints” are not observed, they are bound to create more samkaras that block the awakening mind with increasing karmic residues to deal with.
Samkaras and karma are both sanskrit terms that describe the imprints and impression of life experiences that get stored in the body-mind system, creating rigid behavioral-perceptual patterns and molds that define future choices and behaviors. In their extreme, these patterns underlie addiction, mental illness, disease, trauma and suffering; all rampant in our toxic modern world.
Non-stealing is the first of these fundamental principles, noting that the very act reinforces the illusion of separateness. Only a separate ego would take from another for its own selfish gain.
Reinforcement of our separateness is the complete antithesis of yoga, which aims at bringing us closer to unity and wholeness. The practice of stealing generates a deep pattern of distrust and self-focus, keeping us stuck in a loop of self-gratification that inhibits any further growth.
Nonviolence and non-injury are also core principles of yama that help keep an individual body-mind from generating more karma and therefore suffering in the world. Again, violence and injury to an “other” reinforces the dichotomy between self and other, eventually devolving into the atrocities witnessed throughout our distraught human history.
Non-killing is a bit trickier. It is clear that the killing of another human generates waves of vast suffering and trauma. Whether it is a murder, an act of war, or just an accident, the taking of an other’s life will imprint deep traumatic memories in the system, often times taking lifetimes to clear and heal.
Killing of animals may hold similar karmic consequences, the yogis tell us, unless it is done with respect, prayer, and for the purpose of feeding your tribe. Clearly industrial farming and consumption of living beings “grown” in inhumane and cruel conditions has deep karmic costs that block full healing and liberation.
For monks and practitioners steeped deep in the art and science of yoga, these “restraints” include chastity from sexual acts and non-receiving of gifts. Again, both sex and receiving of gifts reinforce separateness, and for those fully devoted to enlightenment represent practices that tarnish the desired purity of mind necessary for the full awakening.
Of course outside the monastic setting we now know, partly due to the insights of Tantra Yoga, that sex and sexuality done in a sacred, reverent, and loving context are also reliable paths to spiritual illumination. For us modern humans, it suffice to interpret this yama as the restraint from sexual misconduct. Any sexual act that is forced, coerced, or inflicted without consent furthers the illusion of separateness, thus the associated trauma and suffering.
Truthfulness, sharing, and loving-kindness constitute the final principles of yama, and act as direct pathways toward the awakening realization of our basic unity.
Their cultivation helps purify our mind, intentions, and behaviors, while extending the good will toward the collective.
We begin to act as if the world is a literal extension of who we are. Everything and everyone we encounter is seen to be a mere reflection of our true Self. In that recognition, we come one step closer to Wholeness.
Eugene A. Alliende has been practicing meditation and yoga for twenty years and facilitates weekly meditation groups and classes at his healing center. His passion is the exploration of consciousness, and how a deeper understanding of our true nature can help heal the individual and the world. Read his book Dimensions of Being here