We all want to feel that life is good. That life runs smoothly. That people respect us and that our work is valued. Right?
These feelings aren’t a new revelation to humankind. This yearning for a good life and a desire to be appreciated and acknowledged has been going on for years. Centuries, even.
It may be surprising to discover that the practice of yoga is not just about classes, postures and posturing, but it also offers a solution to this very human problem.
The ancient yet practical application of yoga
Over 1,700 years ago an ancient sage going by the name Patanjali brought together his observations of life into a set of clear guidelines.
Following these guidelines, he claimed, would not only lead to a good life, but to an optimal life.
These guidelines are the eight limbs of yoga, and go far beyond the physical nature of what the Western world typically associates with yoga practice.
A blueprint for social success?
The first of these eight limbs is yama and is made up of five rules, five yamas.
These yamas focus on self-discipline and personal conduct (stay with me) and have similarities with what you may have come across in other texts and rulebooks, such as The Ten Commandments or the Five Pillars of Islam or the Five Moral Precepts of Buddhism.
The intention of the five yamas is to remind us ‘of our responsibilities as social beings’.1 The more people who follow these five rules, says Patanjali, the better chance we have of creating a happy society.
And a happy society – or at least a happier society – is going to help us to live a more successful and effective life.
Rule #1: Reduce harmful thoughts, words and actions
The first of the five yamas – rules – is ahimsa, which is all to do with not causing harm to yourself or others.
Harm to yourself might look like self-criticism. Are you a perfectionist who chides yourself for not being good enough? Do you beat yourself up for something you said last week in a meeting? Do you starve yourself physically to look a certain way? Do you cut back on sleep – continuously – to get ahead (but ahead never seems to exist)?
Time to let go of that. Would you do that or say that to a dear friend? Hopefully not.
Harm to others is the other part of this, and can look like a number of things, including:
- gossiping about others behind their backs,
- letting tempers spill over into physical violence,
- being rude when people mess up.
An example from my early twenties when I worked a stint as a waitress is how rude customers could be. It used to surprise me no end when people would eat the vast majority of their food and then call me over to complain.
Not only would they complain about the dish itself, they’d insist on telling me everything that was wrong with the atmosphere, with the service, with me.
To what end?
They’d often get a free meal out of it, but I did wonder how many of them went home feeling good in themselves knowing they’d made someone else feel like shit (and effectively stolen from the restaurant too).
However good free feels, there’s always a hangover – however subtle – when there’s a nasty undertone.
The lesson: be conscious of the impact of you thoughts, words and actions. This doesn’t mean don’t say it straight, when necessary, but do so in a way that is intentionally kind and offers clarification. Do it with ahimsa in mind.
Rule #2: Be honest with yourself and others
Satya is the second of the five yamas, and is all about the truth and behaving in a truthful manner.
The most obvious way to be truthful is, of course, by always telling the truth, rather than fibbing or lying or making something up.
PsychotherapistBrad Blanton takes this rather literally with his Radical Honesty™ approach. Telling the truth, the marketing material claims, is ‘the best way to reduce stress, make life work, and heal the past’.2
Although somewhat controversial in its brutality, many podcasts I’ve listened to recently echo this sentiment: don’t waste your time (or others’ time) pretending that you’re interested or intending to follow-up or attend something you’d rather not.
Say a straight-up no to a business deal that feels dirty. Turn down a job if the organisation’s ethics don’t match with yours. Examine your own unease with the way something is getting handled at work.
Otherwise, it can get messy. Tangled.
As a personal example, I can think of two occasions where someone I know has begged me to not tell their partner that they’re also dating someone else.
On both occasions I’ve wondered why are they lying to the person they supposedly love? Why aren’t they looking at their relationship and being honest with themselves about what’s going on? And why are they trying to implicate me in their mess?
How about if – when their partner asked (as they will at some point) ‘what’s wrong?’ and ‘are we not good?’ – they replied, ‘I don’t know exactly what’s wrong, but something is, and we should talk’.
Of course it’s a simplistic view on a tricky topic, but you get the point.
The lesson: Be honest in a way that doesn’t cause harm or suffering to yourself and others. It’s easier to respect someone when you know where you stand with them, even if initially it stings a little.
Rule #3: Don’t steal (anything)
So far, yoga has taught us that honesty and refraining from harming others and ourselves is part of the human success puzzle.
Asteya, refraining from stealing, is the next.
I remember when I was about ten years old I stole a Tutankhamen ring from the Bible museum. (Yes, my parents took me to a bible museum and yes, they had ancient Egyptian paraphernalia, and I have no idea why).
As I’d already had my holiday treat, mum told me it was a ‘no’ to anything else. Because I desperately wanted that ring, I put it on my finger and walked out of the shop.
The joy of ownership was short lived: not only did I have to hide the ring from my mum, but when she did eventually discover my ‘acquisition’ and threatened to drive two-hours back to the town we’d left behind so I could return the ring and apologise, I had to deal with her disappointment.
Being a bit spirited, I wore it a few more times, but every time I looked at the ring I felt the disappointment – and shame – anew. What had looked so glistening and promising had now lost its sheen.
Stealing things from people is one thing – whether that’s a Tutankhamen ring or pen a colleague left on your desk or breaking and entering into someone’s property and swiping all of their belongings – but asteya also refers to something bigger than this.
Beyond stealing possessions, this third rule is really about stopping yourself from stealing anything from anyone. If it’s not rightfully yours (and what does ‘rightfully’ mean anyway?) but you take it, that’s stealing
In a business context, this could be ideas, intellectual property. It might also be clients or employees from a competitor. It might be a domain name.
Most of the time this stuff is covered by business law, but shit still happens, and things get icky.
So much energy gets wasted trying to undo messes rather than move towards creating something better
The lesson: If it feels like stealing, it probably is, and whatever wins you have will be accompanied by an underlying sense of yuck. But stealing an idea is not the same as ‘stealing’ back a chunk of the market share. You get the idea.
Rule #4: Keep your sex life simple
As with so many other rulebooks, the yogis also have their say on sex.
The good news is that Patanjali doesn’t explicitly say – as far as I’m aware – to refrain from having sex.
The revered late yoga teacher, BKS Iyengar, supports this view: brahacharya – the fourth rule – does not mean ‘total abstinence, but denotes a disciplined sexual life, promoting contentment and moral strength from within’.1
There are parts of yogic teachings and philosophy that do discuss channelling sexual energy into spiritual energy (as a way to reach enlightenment, if you’re interested), but for the average layperson, sexual activity is still considered a relevant part of life.
The lesson: Enjoy a healthy, consensual sex life. Blend it with the other rules – no harm, lying or stealing (of hearts or energy or time)– and it will enrich your life and wellbeing.
Rule #5: Embrace minimalism
The final rule asks us to let go of attachments in our life. The less bulk and baggage we haul around with us, the easier life is said to flow.
And the easier life flows, the easier it is to focus on being successful and effective at work, in the home, in our relationships, in the world.
Letting go of things might be to do with physical possessions and there’s been a growing appetite for cutting back on the clutter and embracing a minimalistic life. You only have to look to the growing popularity of brands such The Minimalists to realise that people want to live a more simple life.3
But aparigraha – the fifth yama, the fifth rule – is also about decluttering your emotional life, about letting go of the things that don’t really serve you. Too often we stay attached to things that eat our energy and distract us from doing our best work.
Still angry at an ex-colleague who backstabbed you to get the promotion you thought you deserved? Let it go.
Still smarting with shame from the investment recommendation you made that fell through? Let it go. Move on.
And by moving on you’ll have the mental and emotional space to do something great.
The lesson: Don’t hold on to things in your life – physical, mental or emotional – that are distracting you from doing good work in the world.
Why these rules get results
None of the yamas in this rulebook are designed to make you a walkover. Equally, they are not there to take away your enjoyment of life.
They are there as a reminder that when you follow this code of conduct, you can live a better life.
Still not sure?
See how you feel when you lie to someone. When you cheat on someone. When you take something that isn’t rightfully yours. A bit of a dirty undertone will likely accompany (and possibly overshadow) any of the positives you feel from these experiences.
Even when no one else knows what you’ve done, you could end up living with the constant niggle of being found out. Not a smart use of energy
Let other people do whatever they’re going to do. Your concern is your life, which – according to the yogis – can be harmonious and successful.
The five yamas and the eight limbs of yoga are a tried and tested framework to simplify, focus and promote a successful and effective life.
Without having to worry about hurting, lying, cheating, philandering or what you do or don’t have in life, space opens up for good things to happen.
References and further resources
- Iyengar, BKS. The Path to Holistic Health: The Definitive Step-By-Step Guide. 3rd 2014. Great Britain: Dorling Kindersley Limited
- Radical Honesty™. //www.radicalhonesty.com. Accessed 9 Sep 2018.
- The Minimalists. //www.theminimalists.com. Accessed 9 Sep 2018.
- Desikachar, TKV. The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice. Revised Edition. 1995.