The Rules of Yoga Practice

The Hatha Yoga Pradipika (The Light on Hatha Yoga) is one of the few ancient texts we have on the physical aspects of yoga practice.  Within it are 16 (of the purported 84,000) yoga poses, pranayama techniques, and other practices related to different realms of the body.  There are relatively few sutras within that pertain to what we might call the philosophical or psychological aspects of yoga practice, in contrast to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (PYS).

That being said, the asana section of the book does include sutras on what are called the yamas and niyamas in PYS. There are also two sutras similar to ones in PYS book 1, on the disturbances to yoga, as well as the practices that support yoga. The Bihar translation of the former reads:

“Overeating, exertion, talkativeness, adhering to rules, being in the company of
common people, and unsteadiness are the six causes which destroy yoga.” HYP 1.15

“Adhering to rules” was the most interesting to me, both because yoga seems to be full of rules – from where to place different parts of the body, to what can and cannot be eaten, to time of day to practice, to what to focus on in meditation, etc. – and because it’s such a delightful concept. But, perhaps most interesting, is the exploration of how very true that idea is, in life, and especially in yoga.

Yogis have always been the “wild ones” who bent the rules of propriety, coloring way outside the lines, in dress, social customs, and behavior. Yoga itself, as a practice, broke many of the prevailing ideas about spiritual work in its evolution during the Vedic period in India.*

This remains vastly relevant to the modern yoga practitioner as well.  Rules set us up to be “right” or “wrong”, “good” or “bad”, “holy” or “guilty”.  On many levels, this is counter-productive to the yogi/yogini.  It sets us up to run on a sort of “spiritual autopilot”, dulling our awareness to each choice and moment, as well as the intention that goes into the action, and thus, the end result of the action as well.

Awareness and intention become vastly more powerful when we opt-out of adhering to rules.

Some people see the yamas and niyamas as the yogi rules. But they are actually guidelines, and Patanjali himself calls them observations and vows, not rules. So instead of deciding, in the case of ahimsa, “I won’t kill animals.” Or “I won’t buy water in plastic bottles.”  We live by the guideline to “cause the least harm possible to other beings and the planet.”

Then those dos and donts change from right and wrongs, bad and good, guilty and holy, to choices.  Each moment, each situation will call upon us to live according to a guideline to cause the least harm possible. Choices then actually become choices instead of following preset lines of behavior.  We will act and move more consciously in the world and with other beings. We will be more free.

*I recommend reading Edwin Bryant’s introduction to his translation of Patanajali’s Yoga Sutras for a more in depth discussion.

**Understanding of this sutra was inspired by Michael Stone and his work with “anarchist yoga”.

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