Three thousand years ago, the Buddha realized that our mind is the cause of the problems that bedevil us.
The Dhammapada (a collection of the Buddha’s sayings) states:
With our thoughts we make the world.
Speak or act with an impure mind
And trouble will follow you
As the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart.
We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.
Speak or act with a pure mind
And happiness will follow you
As your shadow, unshakable.
Two centuries later, the Indian spiritual teacher Patanjali, made the same discovery, and went one step further as he laid out a systematic process by which one can overcome the torments of their mind.
We know this as Yoga.
Many believe that Yoga is a set of postures and exercises that promote physical health, however, it’s actually much more than that. It is an intricate philosophical system that will take you all the way to complete enlightenment.
Most of Yoga consists of preparing the mind, and relatively few people are aware of how important this is. While you may not explicitly be on a quest for liberation, the mind exercises of Yoga will bring joy to your life, clarity to your thinking, and an imperturbable serenity to your being.
The first limb of Yoga, according to Patanjali, is a set of five principles collectively known as Yamas.
Here are some exercises that help you bring this into your life:
1) Exercise non-violence (Ahimsa)
It means more than refraining from physically harming others (including animals), as it refers to violence on a much broader scale – by not causing any suffering to other beings.
For example, remember those caustic comments you make? Cut them out. And that delicious gossip that makes the workplace somewhat bearable? That has to go too.
You even have to consider the fallout of your actions. Your co-worker who is slightly overweight and always fretting about her weight? Don’t give her chocolate cake.
Consciously think about the impact of your casual comments and your actions. See what you can do to not cause suffering.
You will not always succeed, but the attempt will benefit you.
2) Stay Truthful (Satya)
Is your word your bond? Think of the numerous instances when you play fast and get loose with the truth. When your wife asks you how she looks in her new dress and you think it doesn’t suit her at all, what do you say? Or how often do you promise to call someone or do something, and then just plain forget?
True, little lies act as social lubricants and make life better for everyone. Or so you tell yourself. But each such lie chips away at your being without you even being aware of it.
So, when you make a commitment, do so mindfully and follow through. If you cannot, let the other person know why. You will gain a reputation as being reliable. But more than that, you’ll generate a fire of powerful intent that will serve you well in many ways.
And what do you say when you think your wife’s dress is terrible?
Try something like “I love it when you ask me questions like that” and hope she does not notice that you have not answered her!
3) Do Not Steal (Asteya)
This means much more than not taking the property of others. Do you take credit for the work of your subordinates? Do you make unsubstantiated comments about others and “steal” their reputation?
See how often, by word and deed, you take something that is not rightfully yours. See the double standards you use such as returning extra change given to you by the hot dog vendor, but not returning the extra $20 dispensed by the cash machine at your bank.
There is a deep worldview at work here. The Universe will give you what is your due. You do not have to take what’s not yours.
4) Practice Self-restraint (Brahmacharya)
This is erroneously equated with celibacy. The notion here is not that you will refrain from sexual activity. This is pointless if you spend time being obsessed with not having sex. The notion is that you will live your life in such a manner that your drives will be sublimated.
It is a futile strategy to try to forcibly restrain your senses. But you can channel their force into productive pursuits. All the creative outputs of poets and sculptors and artists come from this same energy source.
You, too, can harness it wisely.
5) Do Not Cling Onto Anything (Aparigraha)
Notice how you are always clinging to something or other. You have a good meal at a restaurant and immediately make a mental note to come there again. Your boss comments on how well you write and you engineer opportunities to showcase your writing.
When you cling you are attached to a memory, to something that has already gone. And this attachment prevents you from truly enjoying the moment and what will come.
Examine your day-to-day life closely, and especially your thoughts. Do you see how your tendency to cling is actually degrading your life?
Practice giving up clinging. Even modest success in this will make a huge difference in your life.
By practicing and learning more about the five Yoga Yamas, and incorporating them into your physical Yoga practice, you’ll gain a better understanding of what Yoga is really about, and be on your path to greater spiritual enlightenment.