The yamas and niyamas of yoga are the first two disciplines of Ashtanga yoga. To understand the yamas and niyamas, we need to understand Ashtanga yoga and its origins.
Ashtanga yoga is described as the 8 (astha) limbs (anga) of yoga. Ashtanga yoga is derived from the ‘Yoga Sutras of Patanjali’. Ayurveda and yogic culture give high importance to Ashtanga yoga as the 8 stepping stones of yoga that lead you to the goal of every yogi – self-realization.
Every step in Ashtanga yoga is important to master, and they need to be mastered in the order described by Patanjali in the Sutras.
What are the 8 limbs of Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga (in order)?
- Yama – External discipline
- Niyama – Internal discipline
- Asana – Body posture
- Pranayama – Breath discipline
- Prathyahara – Mastery of the senses
- Dharana – Focus of attention in meditation
- Dhyana – Sustaining focus of attention on a single point of awareness
- Samadhi – Self-realization or enlightenment
As you can see, the yamas and niyamas are the first 2 limbs in Ashtanga yoga you need to master. To break it down into simple text, the yamas are external disciplines. This refers to how we as people interact with our surroundings.
Niyamas on the other hand, are the internal discipline. This refers to the internal reflection needed to gain self-mastery and self-control of the mind and body.
Let’s break these down further to get a deeper understanding of each code of conduct.
What are the Yamas?
There are five yamas that we need to master to advance our journey into yoga and self-realization.
1. Ahimsa or Non-Violence
Ahimsa or non-violence is essential on our journey to enlightenment. When we practice non-violence towards others and ourselves, we refrain from creating karma that binds us to the cycle of life.
Ahimsa includes all forms of violence, from our actions to our thoughts.
2. Satyam or Truthfulness
Satyam is a moral code of conduct that we all should practice, regardless if we are on a journey to enlightenment or not. Living with truth and always being truthful, even in the hardest of circumstance, frees the body and mind.
Honesty in who we are towards ourselves and others is a sign of respect for the divine that exists within each person.
3. Asteya or Non-Stealing
Our modern society views stealing as a crime too, so this is not hard to understand. However, in yoga, this goes deeper to mean stealing someone else’s time or energy. When we are not pouring into someone else, we are in fact taking from them. That is asteya. Another way that we steal from ourselves is not being grateful or depriving ourselves of the self-love we deserve. This is asteya too.
4. Brahmacharya or Non-Excess / Celibacy
In the Indian culture, if you hear of someone being a brahmacharya, he is said to be celibate. There are various schools of thought about why someone needs to refrain from sexual acts when trying to master the yogic way. Most cough it up to giving in to the desires of the flesh – hence feeding the ego.
However, there is another way we look at this in Ayurveda. During the act, when the person reaches climax, the release of shukra is said to deplete the person of their ojas.
When ojas is lost, the person becomes weak (in terms of energy reserves). Practicing yoga takes energy, focus, strength and creative potential.
Losing this energy reserve / creative potential during sexual intercourse, reduces the strength needed to carry on the practice of yoga.
Here are the descriptions of the two sanskrit words:
What is Shukra?
Shukra is the purest form of creative potential in every person.
What is Ojas?
Ojas is the strength of a person’s mind and body.
5. Aparigraha or Non-Possessiveness
Aparigraha is freedom from attachment. We should not be attached to people or things. When there is attachment, we are claiming something outside of us as ours – which is another way to strengthen the ego.
Strengthening our desires and greed is not helpful on the path to enlightenment. Enlightenment is the ability to give up every earthly association. When we “want”, we move away from enlightenment.
What are the Niyamas?
Just like the yamas, there are five niyamas we need to master to advance our journey to enlightenment. These are:
1. Saucha or Cleanliness
Saucha which can be translated as cleanliness or purity of the body and mind. Cleanliness of the mind without cleanliness of the body is useless, and vice-versa. Common daily rituals today are included as part of the process of saucha.
These include taking baths, brushing your teeth (although yogis did that with herbal twigs not the plastic brushes we use today), tongue scraping, neti-pot cleansing, and even fasting to cleanse the body of food and its toxic remnants.
Cleansing of mind include techniques such as pranayama (one of the 8 limbs listed above), meditation, and mantra chanting.
2. Santosha or Contentment
Santosha is happiness or contentment in self. We are asked to be content with who we are, where we are, and what we are – at all times. In this state of being, there is an absence of ‘want’. We basically want nothing. We are happy here and now, always.
The yogic lessons state that when we want something, we are moving away from our higher Self and closer to ego. Again, as has been the theme of the yamas and niyamas (and the Yoga Sutras), moving towards egoic state will only drive us away from self-realization.
3. Tapas or Self-Regulation
Tapas is keeping up with our fiery discipline or spiritual passion. This burning (tap in Sanskrit) keeps the flames of spiritual fire burning high and hot. This passion can only burn strong when you are committed to your practice of yoga, and have the discipline to go with it.
4. Swadaya or Self-Study
Swadaya is self-study. It is the advancement of your spiritual practice through learning from others’ journeys and mistakes on their path toward self-enlightenment. We can do this through teachings, books, classes, etc.
Swadaya also includes looking within and learning about who we are as Spirit. When we learn more of who we are, we can iron out the samskaras or inbuilt traits that are preventing us from advancing as individuals both in the physical world, and the spiritual world.
One of the most common questions to trigger this journey within, is to sit in meditation daily and just ask yourself “Who am I”. Wait for the answer to appear to you over weeks or years. Sorry, sometimes it does take a long time, thus the need for the other yamas and niyamas on your journey to self-realization.
The wait is worth it though. On your journey, you will discover so many wonderful and magnificent events both in your mind and in your physical world, that unravel the mysteries to who you truly are.
5. Ishvara Pranidhana or Dedication to the Path of Knowing God/Universal Truth
Surrender. Ishvara pranidhana or surrendering, is the final act of the niyamas that reminds us about how significant and insignificant we are to the larger oneness. We are all part of the universal energy – we are one. However, because of our individual egos, we see everything as separate.
When we surrender to a higher power, we are acknowledging the divine that exists. This divine is orchestrating all the events that make up who we are. Acknowledging that through surrender completes the practice of the niyamas.
I hope you were able to understand the comprehensive extent of the yamas and niyamas and why they are needed as the first two limbs of Patanjali’s ashtanga yoga. The goal in both the yamas and the niyamas is to move further away from ego, and closer to your higher Self. If you intend to go on this journey towards self-realization, you will need these foundational limbs, to give you the strength to conquer the other 6 limbs towards samadhi / enlightenment.
Have you started any of the yamas yet? Let me know below!
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