Yoga is not simply postures and poses. While this is the most common area practiced in our Western world, postures are simply one part of the eight-limbed path of yoga.
The great yoga teacher Patanjali wrote about the eight-limbed path (Ashtanga yoga) in his book of yoga aphorisms, the Yoga Sutras.
The word yoga means to yoke, or unite. This unity is of body, mind and breath, or a unity between self and a higher consciousness.
Out of the Sutras, meaning thread in sanskrit, come the yamas and niyamas.
The yamas and niyamas are the first two limbs of Ashtanga yoga and are the ethical principles, personal and social observances that help create a more open and joyful life.
These are not ‘Rules or Commandments’, merely guidelines to help the yogi increase their own awareness and fulfillment and are the starting points to moving along to the other limbs.
The other limbs of yoga are:
Asanas — physical postures
Pranayama — breath control
Pratyahara — withdrawal of the senses
Dharana — concentration
Dhyana — deep meditation
Samadhi — unity or bliss
Yamas — the first limb of yoga.
Yamas, often called the restraints or things you shouldn’t do, are the social principles which help you live more fully and openly with the world and others around you.
The first yama, Ahimsa, means non-violence. This is the first and foundational principle.
Violence towards self or others makes a journey into the yogic lifestyle impossible. Non-violence towards yourself means forgiveness, understanding and love towards yourself.
Towards others — ahimsa shows up as compassion, forgiveness, understanding and the task of not perpetuating more violence or harm.
Do no harm extends to nature and all of mother earth, since we are nature and nature is part of us.
The second yama, Satya, means honesty and truthfulness. This means being forthright with ourselves and others.
Also, living our lives in truth. Following our deep intuition about what is right for us even though it may be painful or difficult.
We can follow with yama by feeling the honest expression of our thoughts and feelings and then expressing them to others with boldness, but also while embracing ahimsa, non-harming. We aren’t mean towards others with our speech, but we will state our opinions.
Learning to express our truth without feeling or sounding self-righteous can be a challenge, but this principle guides us to learn this skill and to hold honesty in our thoughts and actions.
The third yama, Asteya, non-stealing, is guiding us to control our tendency to grasp for what isn’t ours and taking that which isn’t freely given. It’s more than just taking objects that don’t belong to us, it is also stealing attention and time from others, stealing their potential or their contentment, by judgements, inattention or thoughtless comments.
Stealing from ourselves can also be insidious and common. We do this when we discount ourselves, have a poor self-image and take away our potential by living from fear. Believing our critical inner voice that tells us we aren’t good enough or we ‘couldn’t possibly do this’, steals from our own happiness and from the possibilities of our own exciting future.
The fourth yama, Brahmacharya, is often interpreted as celibacy, but in a more elaborate form, means non-excess. Someone who is aligned with divine principles and is paying attention, not going into excess and overindulgence, but stays in the place of enough.
In all the forms of the body it can be interpreted as staying at ‘enough’ and being satisfied. With regard to sexuality, it can be thought of as the principle of responsible relationships.
The final yama, Aparigraha, is the principle of non-possessiveness, non-attachment and non-accumulation. This yama teaches that materialism, consumerism, addictions and greed are chains that bind us. As we let go of possessiveness, we let go of greed.
As we let go of clinging — to possessions, our money, our addictions, to the way “things should be,” even to people (they aren’t doing what we want!), we allow a great freedom and space into our lives and hearts.
Yoga is the practice of quieting the mind. — Patanjali
Niyamas — the second limb of yoga.
We move into the second limb of yoga,the niyamas, often called personal principles or positive observances. These principles help us embrace the Ashtanga path.
First, Saucha, cleanliness of body, mind, thought, words and actions, is purity in action.
Yogis have many physical ways of purifying the body, an example is the daily use of a Neti pot, but there are other ways. Improving our diet, cleansing, exercising, purifying the body and purifying the mind are all ways to keep the body clean and pure.
We can purify our mental lives by controlling what we put in our minds, and how our minds think. Accepting things as they are, accepting ourselves, having love and compassion within our thoughts are ways to purify our internal world.
Second, Santosha, contentedness, which is basically gratitude at work. How content are we with things just as they are?
Many of us are continually seeking the future saying, “Things will be so great when…”. Santosha invites us to experience deep gratitude for the present moment, the present situation and the present experience.
Expressing gratitude daily, whether in a devotional practice, writing in a gratitude journal or thanking others and the universe brings joy to our lives and are ways to show our gratitude. The more we look outside of the present moment for happiness, the less likely that we will find it. Santosha brings us peace now, for all we really have is this exact moment.
Third, Tapas, or discipline, literally means ‘heat’. Tapas is a dedication to the heat of change. Change takes daily work and discipline.
We use tapas when we are committed to change through a daily practice of physical yoga — asana, meditation, or getting rid of unwanted personal habits. This daily practice often requires us to forsake the temporary pleasure of sleep or TV, for example, and instead spend the time and energy to work on our goals and items of priority and importance.
Fourthly, Svadhyaya, continuous self-study, brings us closer to understanding ourselves. We practice svadhyaya by questioning our belief systems, our ways of reacting to situations and people and questioning our thoughts.
As we become the witness to our thoughts, sitting back and watching ourselves, we can delve into our family of origin issues, and our habitual ways of thinking.
We then can become what we ‘really’ are and begin the process of stepping away from who we ‘think’ we are. Meditation is a large part of the process of examining these things and is a place where we can learn to be the witness to our thoughts.
The final niyama, Ishvara Pranidhana, is giving your life energy to your God and universe, each day connecting with your “deity” whatever that is to you.
This niyama asks us to trust that the universe is loving, that it has a purpose and a love and caring for us. This niyama is about surrender, surrendering to the moment and to the universe, or to your definition of divine.
Using these obervances, going with the flow of life, we skillfully surrender to what is happening and we discover what the universe wants from us and for us.
The more we study and read about the yamas and niyamas, the more we can use them in our progression into a fully realized humans. We can use these principles to make our lives happier and more fulfilled.
The yamas will help us learn how to live better with our world, our fellow humans, and the creatures of the earth.
The niyamas will help us let go of habits and practices that don’t serve us, and can help us let go of our limited beliefs.
Practicing in our modern world:
There are many ways to follow the yamas and niyamas today. Most of these ways will be explorations and decisions that you feel can help you express these principles clearly in your life.
We can open up to more joy and gratitude, which is an endless loop as it will bring more things to be grateful for in our life. As we stop grasping and seeking for material things, praise or possessions, we can be satisfied with our life right now, as it is.
Holding the principle of Santosha in our lives, we can breathe deeply and know that it is in the present moment that we find our gratitude. We can choose to accept what is, which brings its own peace, instead of wishing for something different.
We can feel the warm cat on our lap, the sun on our face and know that this moment is perfect! Feeling this acceptance for what is, we stop hoping and wishing things were different. We will have more inner peace.
Keeping a daily gratitude journal can be a positive way for us to start appreciating what is and is a daily habit that many extremely successful people claim has brought them the most change in their lives.
We can also struggle with tapas, having the self-discipline to do what is needed. For example, we can want to have a daily yoga practice, a daily meditation practice, a daily writing practice, and yet we can often push those aside because of fatigue or other interests or distractions(such as a good Netflix pic!). This will invariably interrupt our focus.
Using the niyama of tapas, embracing the heat of daily self-discipline, we can once again focus on doing what is needed so that our long-term goals of a healthy, happy lifestyle are met. Working on daily goals and practices before we go into rest or recreation mode can bring personal satisfaction.
All of the yamas and niyamas combine and form a solid base for a fulfilled life on and off the yoga mat. They encompass most of the challenges that humans face, from others and from themselves.
By reading about them, meditating on them and talking about them with our communities, we can start to incorporate them more fully into my life.
We also need to have self-compassion for times when we will fall short of the mark. Humans are far from perfect and we can be our own worst enemy. This means embracing Ahimsa towards ourselves, stopping the critical voice in our heads.
Probably the most important yama and niyama for many is this yama of Ahimsa. Our critical voice threatens to devour us at times. Being the witness and hearing that negative thought and questioning it, or at least noting it as “there it is, my critical voice/monkey mind” will help us to tone it down and hopefully, eventually, get rid of it!
Patanjali has opened the gate to a more open, carefree life by giving yogis a path to follow. These yamas and niyamas help prepare us for a full yoga practice. They help prepare us to experience more peace and joy. We can use them to create more satisfaction and take our yoga practice off the mat and into our lives.
Michelle Fyfe - Medium
Read writing from Michelle Fyfe on Medium. I write about health, happiness, life, writing, and fulfillment. Writer…
Michelle Fyfe has been a pharmacist for over 25 years and is passionate about using holistic, natural methods of achieving true health; developing new, healthy and simple lifestyles with a side effect of increased energy, happiness and fulfillment.
She is a certified yoga teacher, completing her 200 hr teacher training in May of 2017. She has been practicing yoga for ten years.
She is working on her first book called: The Five Keys to Health — A Pharmacist’s Guide to Holistic Living.
Follow her blog — Healthy Living Tribe at https://healthylivingtribe.ca