The Yamas and Niyamas of Yoga

Our perception of yoga

Most of us come to yoga for physical reasons (feeling unfit, sore back, bad knees etc), we don't realise how broad a thing yoga is until we've been practising for a while.

My understanding of yoga before my first class was that it was people being bendy. I had the misconception that you had to be flexible to do yoga. I'd heard of 'Aum' and knew people sat crossed legged with their thumb and index finger touching (which I now know as Chin Mudra). I had no idea what the benefits were or that there was a level of philosophy to it. I literally stood on my mat, staring oddly at my teacher who was explaining various things I had never heard of.

Years down the line and I am still learning. One of the reasons I love yoga is because you can always learn something whether this be a new posture, a school of philosophy or something about your Self (with a capital S to signify our higher and divine nature).

Yoga is like an onion

Yoga has many different layers to it. There are four main forms of yoga: Raja Yoga (Royal Yoga - control of the mind); Karma Yoga (selfless service); Bhakti Yoga (yoga of love and devotion); Jnana Yoga (yoga of self study and knowledge). 

Raja Yoga is where the eight-limbs of yoga sit. These eight limbs are: Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyhara, Dharana, Dyhana and Samadhi. These are the eight guidelines yogis follow. As you may know, asana is the physical practice you do on the mat and pranayama is the breathing you do. At an average yoga class, you will only be taught about two of the eight limbs. 

To the point of this blog...

This blog will focus on two more of those limbs; yamas and niyamas. These can be compared to the ten commandments (but please don't panic, we aren't talking about yoga being religious here - we're talking about the principles of being a good person).

Yamas are the abstinences we practices and niyamas are the observances. There are five of each.

The Yamas

The Yamas are: ahimsa, satya, asteya, bramacharya, aparigraha.

Ahimsa means non-violence. This means practising non-violence against others and ourselves. We are our worst critics. I believe it's easier to put this into practice when it comes to others. It's easy for us to show compassion to others, to not want to hurt anyone. However, we quite often don't apply this to ourselves. We are violent towards ourselves in the way we view ourselves, the way we think about our actions and how we treat our body. When we feel down, instead of excepting that's how we feel, we tell ourselves to 'get over it', 'you're useless', 'you can't do anything right'. We can learn to be more gentle with ourselves in order to practice ahimsa.

Satya means truthfulness. In order to encompass truthfulness into our yoga practice, we can learn to be honest with others and ourselves. Try not to tell lies and try to listen to your body and mind to stay true to what you need. No-one else's opinion matters. It's important to live with integrity.

Asteya means non-stealing. As a yogi we should never take what is not ours. It links with satya and the last yama, aparigraha.

Bramacharya means celibacy. At the time when these yogic texts and scriptures were written, life was very different. Yogis would go off and live in caves alone, leaving their family behind if they had one. In today's society, and especially in a Western society, this is not practical. Therefore, one of my teachers told us to think of bramacharya as being with one person whom you love. It's a practice of being faithful and loyal in a loving relationship.

Aparigraha means non-greed or non-covetousness. This yama tells us to ensure we don't want for other people's possessions. It teaches us to not hoard or have too many material possessions. It also teaches us to not be jealous of what others have and to practice gratitude. 

The Niyamas

The Niyamas are: sauca, santosha, tapas, svadhyaya and ishwara pranidhana.

Sauca means purity. This niyama helps us to ensure we are living purely. This can mean many things and can be practiced in many ways. We can practice sauca by making sure we remain clean and hygienic, that our practice area stays tidy and we eat good food. You can also expand this to mean living with purity in the world by being environmentally friendly whenever possible.

Santosha is contentment. This links with aparigraha for me as we learn to live without greed and at the same time, this teaches us to accept what we have and be grateful. The more contentment we can practice for the things we've been blessed with, the easier life feels. We aren't constantly chasing a desire so our mind can become more peaceful.

Tapas means austerity. Shiva is the God, in Hinduism and yogic philosophy, who likes austerities. These are purifying to the body and soul. We aren't talking about not eating for a week or living with one arm up in the air (like some extreme devotees of Shiva do!) We are talking about not having those biscuits at work, giving up caffeine for a week or fasting one evening. Your austerities never have to be huge - anything small and do-able (and that's the main thing) is perfect. 

Svadhyaya means self-study. We are able to practice self study while doing asana. This allows us to look deeper inside to find all our hidden depths. We can also practice svadhyaya by reading spiritually enlightening books or spending time with advanced yogis and teachers.

Ishwara pranidhana is related to surrender and worship. Some use this as a way to connect with the divinity inside and outside of us. If you feel uncomfortable with the idea of worship (I understand, it's usually understood in a religious context), you can always practice surrender in a personal manner. The next time you're feeling sad, surrender to that emotion, embody it totally without your harsh self critic. Learn to let go and lose that sense of control we often feel we need. 

I hope by having a deeper understanding of some of the eight limbs of yoga, your home practice can flourish. I know that it helped me to learn about the philosophy so I could better understand the aim of my yoga practice.

NB: I used The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali - translation by Swami Satchidananda to write this blog. I recommend it to learn more about Raja Yoga.