The Yamas and Niyamas are guides that must be deeply contemplated. Any style of Yoga is more than a physical discipline. Yoga is a path, with a rich philosophy. Yamas and Niyamas are ten good common-sense guidelines for leading a healthier, happier life – bringing spiritual awareness into a social context. Both the Yamas and Niyamas are described as the ‘golden keys to unlock the spiritual gates’.
These codes transform each action into one that originates from a deeper and more 'connected' place within ourselves. From that state of being, we move closer towards wholeness, connectedness and unity, and start to not just 'do' yoga, but live and breathe 'yoga' in each and every moment.
The Yamas - Restraints
Ahimsa – nonviolence or non-harming Inherent in yogic philosophy, nonviolence and non-harming can have many interpretations and meanings. While the implications may seem obvious, violence can arise in unexpected ways. We can apply the principle of ahimsa to our everyday lives in simple ways—by sparing that harmless spider we find in our bedroom, carefully choosing our language (even when we’re angry).
Satya – non-falsehood or truthfulness Being truthful is not always convenient or easy, but deep down, we always know that it is right. Removing falsity from our lives creates a refreshing atmosphere of transparency and clarity. We can apply the concept of satya to our lives by living with openness, vulnerability, and integrity.
Asteya – non-stealing or non-coveting Stealing doesn’t necessarily have to manifest itself as robbing someone’s wallet or car. Stealing can also mean stealing someone’s time or even someone’s happiness. Coveting means a dissatisfaction with what we already have and actively craving more. We often believe that the grass is greener on the other side, but the truth is, the grass is greener where you water it. So, to practice asteya in our everyday lives, we can—instead—focus on gratitude and giving to create generosity of spirit.
Brahmacharya – celibacy, chastity, or sexual restraint Traditionally, yogis renounced their worldly possessions, their sexuality, and even their identities. They went to live as recluses in forests and caves. This extremism doesn’t necessarily coincide with the way most modern yogis wish to live their lives. But, brahmacharya remains an essential ethical restraint. Often translated in a modern context to mean “sexual restraint,” brahmacharya implies control over sexual desires and impulses. In everyday life, we can practice this by only exchanging sexual energy with one, committed, loving partner and regarding this exchange as sacred.
Aparigraha – non-possessiveness Similar to non-coveting, aparigraha means freedom from greed and desire. If this, then that. And it’s a dangerous cycle to fall into; because once 'this' actually happens, we replace it with a new 'if'. The best way to practice aparigraha is to find gratitude and reassurance in all that we do have and recognize unnecessary and frivolous desires.
The Niyamas - Observances
Saucha – purity or cleanliness The purity and cleanliness of saucha is both literal and metaphoric. Cleanliness and purity of body and mind are equally important to yogis. Today, we practice daily cleansing rituals such as showering and brushing our teeth which is definitely a part of saucha. We can further this cleansing by practicing pranayama (breath work) to clear stale prana (life-force energy) from our bodies. We can also create the purity of mind by carefully watching our thoughts, intentions, and actions.
Santosha – contentment Contentment is hard to come by these days. Similar to the concept of aparigraha, we always seem to be wanting something else in our constant strive toward reaching contentment. Yet, it always seems to elude us. According to yogic philosophy, our true nature is inherently content and we move away from this true nature because of our attachment to our egos (which we mistake as ourselves). Because of this, it is believed that santosha already is intrinsic within us; we just need to open ourselves up to its existence. We can do this by practicing meditation and feeling at peace with everything exactly as it is until we truly start to accept this inalienable truth.
Tapas – austerity, self-discipline, or burning spiritual passion We must fan the flames of our burning spiritual passion to remain on the devotional path of yoga. Creating self-discipline in the form of faithfully maintaining our daily yoga and meditation practice, adhering to a specific diet, taking time every day for self-care, or altruistically volunteering every week are all forms of tapas. Anything in which we create challenging but attainable guidelines to adhere to on our spiritual journey are tapas—they all help us fuel the fire of our sacred passion.
Svadhyaya – self-study Studying oneself is wildly important. We need to look into the mirror of our own souls and understand who we are on the deepest level. There is no spiritual practice that exists without knowing your own spirit so this practice is essential on the yogic path. We can practice svadhyaya by studying spiritual texts and we can undoubtedly learn a lot about ourselves through the practice of meditation. The self-reflection that occurs through such questions as, 1Who am I?1 or 1Why am I here?1 offer incredible insight into our own beings. Through honest contemplation of these questions and others like them, we can grow to better understand ourselves, all of humanity, and our role within it.
Ishvara Pranidhana – surrender to the absolute Life unfolds mysteriously. Often, we have no control over what happens. And, while this can sometimes be frustrating, it is also incredibly beautiful. More often than not, we need to let go of the reins and let life just happen. There is divine intelligence in everything and to practice ishvara pranidhana, we bow in awe and wonder to this mystery. We surrender and let go of control to allow whatever will be to be. Que sera, sera.
This moral and ethical code of conduct exists to make us think deeper about the way that we live our lives. These set guidelines were not created to make us feel bad about ourselves or our actions. For each and every one of us, there is always room for self-reflection and improvement and the yamas and niyamas help us to do just that.
These ten simple concepts can help us to live more fulfilling, honorable, principled, and yogic lives—if we have the courage and strength to practice and maintain them.
In our world of glamour and instant gratification it can seem more desirable and important to learn and perfect triangle pose than to practice kindness (ahimsa) in every moment. We tend to believe that doing a headstand will be more fulfilling and beneficial than only taking what we need from our planet’s natural resources (aprigraha). It can seem far easier to meditate for 20 minutes a day than to practice contentment (santosha) breath by breath.
Realising the ultimate goal of yoga Our thoughts, actions, decisions, interactions with others, our daily routines, our surroundings, everything can reflect the extent of our Yoga practice. Only by such inclusive and integrated practice can the ultimate goal of this ancient system be realised: bringing our bodies, minds and spirits into harmony to make us free from the bondage and miseries of life.
Maybe that is what we can call
self-realization or enlightenment.
'Sa tu dirgha kala nairantarya satkara sevito drudha bhumihi' (Sutra II- 14 / Patanjali)
'This becomes firmly grounded or firmly established in you when you attend to it for a long time, without interruption and with honor and respect.'
As twenty-first century yogis, we need to approach the Yamas and Niyamas with honor and reverence; as a patient and long standing practice with sincere trial and error.
Our physical practices of asana, pranayama and meditation will help us calm the mind and increase self-awareness and thus will help with practice of yama and niyama too.
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