Nirodhaḥ Yoga Blog
THE YAMAS AND NIYAMAS
These great vows are universal, not limited by class, place, time or circumstance.
- Patanjali, Yoga Sutras 2.31
Many people (yours truly included) begin yoga by taking a yoga class with lots and lots of asanas, aka yoga poses. We can become fascinated by our bodies’ abilities and overcome some physical limitations through regular, focused practice. However, if we are too attracted to the physical aspects of yoga, we will completely block further development on the more subtle aspects of ourselves.
This is why the Yoga Sutras list two limbs of Raja Yoga (or Ashtanga Yoga) before the third limb, asana. The Yamas and Niyamas are like the dos and don’ts of yoga. They guide us to practice yoga ethically, so that we don’t create additional problems for ourselves or others. They are the foundation of yoga practice, which is why they are listed first.
First, we must learn how to practice yoga without violence; not forcing our bodies into a position that is painful, nor sending negative thoughts to ourselves as we practice. When we learn how to practice yoga without violence, we can transfer this effort into our daily life.
Learning to take care of our needs, setting healthy boundaries, and being kind to ourselves. Applying the concept of non-violence, or Ahimsa, to ourselves will teach us how to apply it with others. When we approach others non-violently, they respond to us in kind.
Truthfulness or Satya is the way to mental clarity. If we are truthful with ourselves in our practice - listening to our bodies to discover what we need at that moment - we are creating a connection with ourselves that we can tap into even off our yoga mat. We learn to listen to the inner messages we receive and honor them.
Then, our every thought, word, and deed slowly bends toward the truth. We become incapable of being false with ourselves or others. Others become more comfortable being truthful with us.
When we learn to practice non-stealing, Asteya, we know that whatever comes to us comes of its own will and on its own time. We learn not to force ourselves into poses or situations that don’t suit us at that moment. We develop insight about how wrong actions lead to poor outcomes and how right action leads to a deep sense of peace within ourselves and with the rest of the world.
Brahmacharya or moderation teaches discipline and non-attachment to external objects. By moderating our senses, we develop the ability to control our impulses, restrain our sensory organs, and create the realities we want in our lives.
We are able to lessen our attachments to things outside of ourselves and find the true spring of peace and happiness within us. We do not need external things to be happy.
You might be amazed at how things become attracted to us when we stop grasping for them, whether that is something material or more subtle. So non-grasping or Aparigraha is a way of lessening our attachments as well.
Grasping for things we don’t already have leads to discontent and grasping onto things we already have but may lose is the path toward disappointment. All external things come to an end eventually. When we notice ourselves grasping for something, we can remember that true contentment comes from within and not from external things.
Saucha or purity is the first Niyama and sometimes seems impossible to achieve. Even if we cannot express purity all the time, we can still work to continually refine ourselves.
Each moment is an opportunity to polish our thoughts, words, and actions to find greater purity. Each moment we are not expressing our true nature, which is purity, can lead us to greater understanding and development of this virtue. When we develop purity in our lives, we develop harmony in it as well. Things become easier and less stressful.
Contentment can also feel like a big challenge, especially in a society that encourages us to consume evermore, pushes us to achieve recognition from others, and frightens us into fearing loss. Santosha is not about putting on a false face when sadness, anger, or grief comes. Santosha encourages us to take our feelings in stride and realize that this too shall pass.
Instead of hanging on to happy times and pushing sadness away, we can learn to sit with feelings as they come and let them go dispassionately, realizing that all things are in a constant state of change, except our deepest self, which will never change. Rest your contentment in yourself.
Discipline leads us through the tricky trappings of our ego. When our ego says, “I can sleep in and do my yoga practice tomorrow.” Or “no one’s watching. If I take this, no one will know.” Or “I won’t feel happy unless I am/get/become…”
Tapas develops a will of steel to overcome these trappings of our ego. Discipline develops strength and trust in our practice and leads to greater confidence in our dealings with the outer world.
Self-inquiry, or Svadhyaya creates awareness of our unconscious conditioning. When we run into similar situations that are painful to us, we learn to ask, “why am I constantly coming up against this challenge?” Instead of, “why is the world against me?” After all, we can’t control the outer world but we can learn to control ourselves.
When we are in control of ourselves, we stop causing unnecessary pain for others and therefore, ourselves. We learn about the nature of our true self, which is beyond the body, breath, mind, intellect, and even, ego.
Finally, my very favorite of these great ethical principles, Ishvara Pranidhana, which means surrender to a higher power, the universe, or God. This means that we transcend our limited self and merge into the universal and infinite. This may be a challenge for those of us who were taught to fight for what we want and never accept “no” as an answer.
Ishvara Pranidhana teaches us that we can be engaged in our world without being attached to outcomes. This is the way to true peace and contentment. In the words of the inimitable Swami Satchidananda, we do our best and leave the rest.
Using these, the “ten commandments of yoga” will give us greater ease and joy in our lives. They will develop harmony in our mind, ego, and with others. They will teach us how to transcend our limited understanding in this human body and merge into our place in the world.
We are part of the universe and the universe is a part of us. All we have to do is surrender to that.
Just some thoughts about yoga as I go...
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