As discussed in my earlier blogs, it is important to understand that yoga is much more than asana (physical postures). Being a Yogi or Yogini is an all-encompassing lifestyle choice, and not just something that you do a few times a week on a sticky mat. As outlined in the eight limbs of yoga in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, prior to, or at least in conjunction with, the practice of asana and pranayama (breath work), the practice of the Yamas and Niyamas (restraints and observances) should exist.
The Yamas consist of five ethical directives that, when adhered to, bring the practitioner into harmony with the surrounding world and with his or her community. For one cannot practice yoga in a mindset or environment full of conflict. The Niyamas are five observances to ensure that the mind and body of the practitioner are not polluted.. These ten practices are similar to the moral codes set out by most world religions and are a must, for any practitioner who wishes to progress along the spiritual path of yoga.
The Yamas consist of Ahimsa, Satya, Asteya, Brahmacharya, and Aparigraha.
Ahimsa means non-violence or non-harming. This applies to the obvious imperative of not harming other humans, but it also includes not harming the earth, animals, or yourself. This is why Yogis should be vegetarians. It also refers to more than physical violence; one must not intend harm in thought, word or deed. In yoga class, do you push too hard to compete with others or to fulfill your own expectations? If so, then you may be harming your own body and disobeying the very first Yama.
Satya is truthfulness or honesty. This means that you must be honest with others and even more importantly with yourself, which is certainly a challenge but feels so brilliant when accomplished. Again honesty must occur in thought, word, and deed. Honesty must not be used harm others, and may be withheld if it causes more harm, overall, than good.
Asteya refers to non-stealing or non-hoarding. Obviously we are not supposed to take something from another that doesn’t belong to us, but this also includes envy and begrudging others for having what we want. Asteya tells us not to acquire things under false pretences or by cheating—including taking credit.
Brahmacharya is interpreted in different ways in accordance with our evolving society, but originally it meant sexual abstinence. Now it usually refers to sharing intimacy with only your lawful partner, since most modern Yogis have families and careers, and are not cave dwellers or monks! The idea is that unnecessary indulgence in the sense organs, especially the powerful sex organs, weakens the mind and causes a person to lose vitality. More modern practices of brahamacharya include simply staying away from vulgar people and places.
The last of the Yamas is Aparigraha, which is non-greed or non-selfishness. What is essential is detachment from and non-desire for things, results, and expectations. For instance, one should not try to acquire material wealth to become happy, or only practice yoga to achieve a pleasing body shape. Also, one should only eat as much as is necessary to sustain life.
The five Niyamas are Saucha, Santosha, Tapas, Svadyaya and Ishvarapranidhana.
The first is Saucha, which translates as purity or cleanliness. This refers to the internal and external self. Internally one becomes clean by eating natural healthy foods, avoiding intoxication, and by abstaining from unclean thoughts such as hatred and jealousy. Externally one must keep the body clean from dirt and sweat, and keep a tidy home and lifestyle. It is also advised to avoid contamination from others.
Santosha means contentment. It can also be understood as simplicity or peacefulness. The idea is that you should be content with whatever conditions you find yourself in, whether poor, rich, tall, short, married, single, etc. Desiring to have more or be different than you already are causes pain and disappointment. Only through acceptance of exactly who you are right now, can you find true joy. No matter what does or doesn’t happen in life or on the yoga mat, never feel dejection or regret. Simply be happy with whatever is.
Tapas is translated literally as creating heat but refers in this case to austerity or discipline. Such practices as fasting or a regular asana and pranayama routine, which discipline the body and sense organs, should be maintained with conviction, even when the going gets tough. The temporary effects of such practices can be unpleasant (have you ever wanted to skip your yoga practice for just one day because you felt tired or sore?) but tapas requires that you not give up under hardship.
Svadyaya is self-study. This doesn’t mean psychoanalysis, but rather calm introspection towards the spiritual self, in settings such as meditation. Practices like chanting OM, reciting mantras or vedic verses, being grateful and praying to the supreme being of your choice will allow you to develop a connection to that deity. This also helps you get to know your own mind better and watch out for it’s deceitful tricks.
Isvarapranidhana means giving yourself over completely to the belief in a higher power. A Yogi must believe in the existence of a supreme being and hand their life over to that god, whoever and whatever that means to him or her (Buddha, Brahma, Christian God, Mother Goddess, etc). One wishing to achieve oneness via the yogic path, must devote all the fruits of his or her life, including yoga practice, to a god.
All of these moral principles and actions require effort on the part of the practitioner and may not come naturally until practiced regularly. Eventually these intentions and thoughts become deeds and habits, and will ultimately determine your destiny. Getting on the mat and twisting yourself into a pretzel is not enough. Practicing the Yamas and Niyamas, along with the other six limbs of yoga, prepares the mind and body for freedom, which is what we are moving towards as Yoga practitioners.
“What defines you as a person is what you do when no one else is looking.”