Derived from the Sanskrit root Yuj, which translates to attach, join, harness, or yoke, Yoga means union or coming to oneness, and speaks to how our personal experience intrinsically intertwines with the diverse realities of others. Karma means action, act, work, or deed, but differs from Kriya, which also translates as action, deed, or effort. Whereas Kriya refers more to an activity, practice, or technique in terms of applying effort and taking steps in action, Karma ecompasses a broader view of an action’s impact, accounting for the actor’s intention, and the action’s effect and result. Karma Yoga means approaching oneness through how we act with awareness around our intent and our impact.
Ram Dass taught that, “We are complex entities in the fact that part of us is separate from everything else, and part of us is not separate from everything else. That is, we are both a group of separate entities, and we are an awareness that is manifested as many entities but it is only one.” Ram Dass said, “One could interpret life as an awakening journey back to unity, not to unity as opposed to diversity, but to the unity where unity and diversity are each contained in the other.” This understanding requires our practice with Santosha, as we need to entertain in our minds a sense of unity and a sense of diversity, not as poles in opposition, but as elements like yin and yang, each contained within the other.
As we allow for both diversity and unity to coexist within each other, karma yoga asks us to honor our separateness while we invest our attention in our sense of unity-consciousness. It’s a question of whom we see when we look at others: Them? Us? Me? There’s a difference in our intention and our impact when we act from a place of separateness than when we act in an attempt to return to the one; both the way in which we perform the act changes, and the way in which the act affects us changes. We still act from a place of ego, and we still must honor our distinct differences, but when we start from a place of separateness and act in order to return to a unity experience, we begin to apply our actions as an offering. As Ram Dass said, “I work on myself as an offering to you. I serve you as a way of working on myself.”
The Niyama Svadhyaya combines Sva, meaning one’s self, one’s own, the Ego, or human soul, with Dhyaya, which means meditating on, from the root Dhyai, to meditate, contemplate, or think of. Often yogis translate Svadhyaya as the study of self, self-reflection, introspection, or self-observation, but this limits our understanding in the context of our 7.8 billion world-population. These common translations miss the mark in that Sva means self in a broader sense, accounting for first person myself-ourselves, second person yourself-yourselves, and third person oneself-themselves. Svadhyaya means much more than self-study; Svadhyaya connotes contemplating the 7.8 billion distinct individual selves who inhabit our planet, building awareness and understanding around our differences in perspectives and experiences. In essence Svadhyaya means duality-consciousness, or cultivating self-awareness in reflecting on our separateness or duality.
The Yama Brahmacharya combines the Sanskrit root Brahman, which means eternal truth, ultimate reality, single binding unity, or universal consciousness, with Carya, which means moving toward, going after, following, engaging in, or occupying oneself with. Brahmacharya connotes the active practice and movement toward unity-consciousness. Often yogis equate Brahmacharya with conduct or observances consistent with the path to Brahman, managing energies, extremes, and cravings, especially around sexual abstinence, but we must understand that Brahmacharya entails more than a code of practices or behaviors. Brahmacharya means to actively and consistently pursue spiritual liberation through a lifestyle dedicated toward achieving unity-consciousness.
We must remember too that unity-consciousness depends upon everyone achieving this enlightened state; unity-consciousness by definition cannot be a solo endeavor. The mutuality around our efforts helps emphasize that there is no need to be austere in our earnest enterprise; we can maintain a playful attitude. A favorite teacher of mine likes to imagine that she remains the last person approaching unity-consciousness, and that everyone she encounters each day is actually a Buddha or Guru in disguise, posing lessons for her, and waiting on her to reach realization, that unity-consciousness finally may be achieved.
Santosha, derived from Sanskrit Sam, complete, altogether, entire, and Tosha, acceptance, or being comfortable, means to make peace with, or to reconcile multiple truths. Santosha asks us to develop our capacity to hold comfortably the varied elements that comprise the complete truth, and to accept dichotomous or paradoxical realities. This is a practice of mental flexibility, that we may stretch ourselves beyond one limited view and exercise ‘both/and’ competency, allowing for seeming opposites both to be simultaneously true. We must build our faculty for uncertainty and contradiction.
Santosha invites us to be present with all that is, to face what we’d rather not see. We must sift, sort, and structure the multiple aspects of truth to create space in our minds and foster a sense of clarity and ease so that we are not overwhelmed or burdened by the enormity of true reality. Santosha is often translated as contentment, and this is an important element. We must not be frustrated or deterred when the multiple components do not readily align or make sense within our active framework. We must be content to keep with the practice, to build space to accommodate our own blind spots and allow for gaps in our understanding. Practice with Santosha requires calm receptivity, persistence in reflection, and a willingness to rearrange concepts, rule out false paradigm schemes, imagine ideas inverted, follow corollary patterns, and redefine our sense of truth, reality, and identity.
In conversation with Layla F. Saad, Sarah Jones exemplifies Santosha, our capacity to entertain multiple diverse perspectives, in their Good Ancestor conversation exploring personal identity in discourse with racism, sexism, and economic mobility.
Satya is often translated as non-lying, or truthfulness, with the implication that as long as we are honest and impeccable with our word, we are practicing this virtue. Satya entails so much more than this limited interpretation. Satya means non-falsehood, non-distortion, non-ignorance. We must allow for multiple truths; we cannot ignore or deny the truth of others.
In Sanskrit, Sat indicates the ultimate eternal truth, with the suffix ya indicating doing or accomplishing. Satya requires active investigation in seeking the whole and complete truth. We must be willing to question the dominant cultural narrative; we must be willing to hear and digest multiple perspectives and to exercise our own discernment. We must analyze the validity of our usual information sources and evaluate entrained biases, inaccurate assumptions, hidden interests, and covert agendas. We must identify which voices have been silenced, unduly discredited, or eclipsed. We must consider alternate views and sort facts from opinion. We must amplify the voices that long have been oppressed, and bolster the stories of those vulnerable to violence in speaking their truth. We must encourage courageous free-thought and nourish fresh perspectives; we cannot feed the fear of dissent. We must piece together a more complete picture. Satya means to dedicate practice to cultivating our understanding. Satya means to propagate a more consummate, collaborative, and comprehensive truth.
In the Yoga Sutras Patanjali outlines the eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga, beginning with the Yamas and Niyamas, which illuminate yoga’s inherent design. In Sanskrit Yamas connotes reins, the restraints employed by a charioteer. The Yamas steer our interactions with others, teaching us how to navigate our interpersonal world with ethical behaviors to respect all others and create harmonious coexistence. “May all beings everywhere be happy and free...” Niyamas shares the same root, with the added prefix Ni, in this instance indicating inward or within. The Niyamas guide our internal practice and right relationship within ourselves. “...and may the thoughts, words, and actions of my own life contribute in some way to that happiness and to that freedom for all.”
The Yamas and Niyamas direct and focus our actions to achieve freedom and happiness for all, to reach ultimate union, or enlightenment. They are often described as guideposts, numbered in order reflecting Pantanjali's elucidation in the Yoga Sutras. However, we might consider the Yamas and Niyamas more as trail-marking cairns comprised of stacked stones. We might imagine that the stones have tumbled, and that we may rearrange them more stably in such a way to better illuminate our path and lend to more coherence. Let's consider a cairn with Satya & Santosha at its base, and place Brahmacharya & Svadhyaya second. We stack Aparigraha & Tapas third at the midpoint, followed by Asteya & Saucha. We cap the cairn with Ahimsa & Ishwara Pranidhana at the pinnacle. Arranged in this way, we're clearly directed toward social activism and anti-racism; it's the only way forward with applied practice.