Most people enter into a yoga practice thinking of it as an ancient and profound exercise ritual. They can easily be mistaken that the end goal is perfect poses or asanas.
However, the truth is that that “Yoga neither begins at Asana, nor does it ends with Asana.” Yoga really means Union. It is the Union of your Consciousness with that of the Universe’s (Samadhi).
And Asana is only the third out of the eight limbs of a yoga practice, according to Sage Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga Sutras (Eight Limbs of Yoga).
Eight Essential Limbs of Yoga in order
- 5 Yamas – The Don’ts for an Ethical Conduct
- 5 Niyamas – The Do’s for Self-Discipline
- Asana – Release of blocked physical energy
- Pranayam – Utilizing Prana (manifested in the breath) or life force effectively
- Pratyahara – Detachment from sense objects
- Dharna – Concentration
- Dhyan – Meditation
- Samadhi – Self Realization
Yama to Samadhi is a step by step journey within an integrated system. Unfortunately, Yogis today explore any of the limbs between Asana and Samadhi in random order. They often neglect the first two limbs (Yama and Niyama) that are essential tosecure and ground their practice. Back in the day, when yoga was taught in ashrams, these were mandatory vows that enabled the pupil to take his yoga practice beyond the mat and truly reach great heights. Else, the practice could prove to be not only futile, but also perilous.
What function do the 5 Yamas and 5 Niyamas serve?
Simply put, they provide the strong internal discipline that grounds you so that you can elevate safely. Yama and Niyama are like the roots of a tree, the tracks of a train or the foundation of a building. No structure can stand too long without a foundation. The practitioners and preachers of Kundalini made sure that the dangers of an improper or untimely Kundalini elevation were publicized. Even Buddhism lists its path at Sheel (Discipline), Samadhi and then Gyan.
The path of Yoga has the ability to release very subtle energies that need to be handled with great care else they can get trapped in unwanted places. The derailed energy of a Sattvic practice with a Rajasic/Tamasic lifestyle manifests itself sometimes as an inflated ego, increased judgement of others or anxiety and depression. Occasionally, it also leads to spiritual gurus turning into sex offenders.
The Yamas and Niyamas allow us to tame our egos and keep our nervous system unperturbed. They are the insulation around the electricity (subtle energies) created so we protect ourselves from getting electrocuted. Just as every organization needs law and order to survive and thrive, so does the inner organization of our Being.
Yama and Niyama are that foundation, that insulation, that internal law and order.
Why are Yama and Niyama challenging?
Yama and Niyama do not provide instant gratification and may seem boring to us, given the general appetite of our generation for sensory indulgence. At the same time, they hold no commercial value for anyone for them to be marketed widely.
For the handful of those who read about the Yamas and Niyamas take them for their literal meaning and fail to look at them for their subtle implications. Asteya goes way beyond stealing material objects and Ahimsa way beyond physical non-violence.
We need to look at our Yamas and Niyamas with a fresh perspective, making them relevant and useful in our lives today. This article aims to offer ideas and a deeper meaning to the first two limbs.
The Five Yamas – The Don’ts for an Ethical Conduct
- Ahimsa – Literal Meaning – Non violence towards any form of life.
Ahimsa has been taken too literally. How can Ahimsa mean only physical non violence when our physical existence in this form is so transient. Any abrasion towards another can mean Ahimsa. For example, sometimes holding strong judgement can feel very corrosive to the judged. Physical violence can heal but mental trauma can stay with a person for lifetimes. True Ahimsa requires us to ask –
- Am I making anyone uncomfortable in my presence?
- Are my words or actions altering another person’s state of mind significantly?
- Do I consider myself as supreme over others?
- Do I directly/indirectly put others down?
Only when we strive to accept others for whatever point they are on their journey, can we truly practice Ahimsa.
- Satya – Literal Meaning – Truth
Truth too, goes beyond just speaking the truth. It means being true to ourselves and respecting ourselves for who we really are.
- Am I pretending to fit in?
- Does the judgment of others scare me from being on my path?
- Do I seek to constantly please others?
- Do I refuse to acknowledge how I feel in certain situations?
We need to shed our layers and become fully comfortable in our own skin so that we can endure Satya. As we do this, the need to lie, pretend or deny will disappear and truth will emerge naturally.
- Asteya – Literal Meaning – Not Stealing
Our law mostly ensures that stealing material objects from others has its consequences. But stealing can have a more deep rooted meaning.
- Do I take credit in places where its not due?
- Do I get possessive about people in my life and desire to keep them for myself?
- Do I steal my loved ones, of the right to be themselves?
Asteya means not trying to displace things from where they naturally belong. It involves having great faith in ones destiny and believing that whatever is ours, will eventually come to us.
- Aparigraha – Non Possessiveness or Non Hoarding
This is a natural successor to Asteya. The fundamental principle behind both is that everything is transient and in motion. When we stop that motion by holding on to material objects, people and emotions, we block the natural flow of energies that are essential to spiritual growth.
- Do I get possessive about people as well as my belongings easily?
- Do I hold on to emotions longer than I should?
- Do I lack faith in the arrangement of the universe?
Aparigraha is easy when we understand that our soul travels only with its karma. All our worldly pursuits will be burnt with our funeral pyre.
- Brahmacharya – Literal meaning – Celibacy
Back in the day, Brahmacharya meant ‘celibacy’ for the sadhu and the student, while it meant ‘restrained recreational sex’ for the householder. However, our forms of recreation have evolved and grown, and we need to expand the definition of Brahmacharya to mean overall mindful consumption.
- Do I exercise restraint on the amount of media/social media I consume?
- Do I allow my taste buds to dictate what each of my meals are?
- Are my sensory indulgences without checks and balances?
Even though Kama (sensory indulgence) is an important life goal, it needs to be balanced by Dharma (right pursuits). Brahmacharya does not mean suppressing natural urges, but it means mindful consumption.
The Five Niyamas – The Do’s for Self-Discipline
Practicing the Five Yamas really set you up for the Niyamas and they fall in place effortlessly. The pupil who practices the code of ethical conduct (Yamas) with integrity is ripe to move on to the next limb.
- Tapas – Literal meaning – Practicing Austerity
The meaning of Tapas is to burn. Tapas is practiced to cultivate self control so that the yogi can strengthen his mind and not be lured by sense objects. Tapas does not have to mean staying hungry if that does not work for you. Tapas can start small and yet be effective.
- Going on a Digital fast for a few hours or a day or more.
- Observing noble silence/maun vrat
- Giving up something you enjoy for a small period.
Anything that allows us to acknowledge our cravings and burn them, helping us emerge stronger counts as Tapas.
- Santosh – Literal Meaning – Contentment
The Yamas, when followed well really help the yogi to sow the seeds for contentment. Knowing that our life is nothing but the manifestation of our karmas helps us to accept whatever comes our way. Cravings are bundled up energies, manifesting sometimes in physical pain and sometimes, in emotional discomfort.
Santosh can be enhanced by
- Being grateful for human life every single day.
- Looking at those whose life may be more challenging than ours and being able to feel truly compassionate towards them.
- Striving to neutralize any negative karma we may have created.
- Finally, by constantly bringing ourselves into the present moment
Santosh isn’t easy but when we realize that the only moment you have is this current one, it is possible to settle right into it without the thought of past or future. It is a state of mind devoid of threats, fear or anxiety.
- Shauch – Literal Meaning – Cleanliness
Physical cleanliness is good but mental hygiene is even more important . It entails regularly freeing ourselves of the mental grime we carry with us. This internal baggage really wears us down and prevents us from rising on our spiritual path. We need to check in with ourselves and ask questions like –
- Do I hold resentment towards anybody or anything?
- Can I forgive others and myself?
- Can I acknowledge my fears and see where their root lies?
- Are my reactions and beliefs aligned?
- What are the triggers that make me act in ways that I regret later?
Keeping the Mana sheeta (calm), constantly freeing it of trapped energies of negative emotions provides for a clean environment for energies to flow and grow.
- Svadhyay – Literal Meaning – Self Study
Studying the scriptures and philosophies regularly helps to address our doubts as well as sharpen our understanding. That is one part of Svaydhay. The second part is our daily spiritual appraisal. This can be challenging but the following ideas can help
- Writing down what the Yamas and Niyamas mean to us personally.
- Reviewing challenges that make us waver from our chosen path and solving them.
- Strengthening coping mechanisms.
Svadhyay or introspection is what keeps us focussed on our path. It clears the path for transformation.
Ishvar Parinidhana- Literal Meaning – Surrender to the Almighty
Ishvar Pranidhana means surrendering your actions to the power of the universe. This can happen only when the other Yamas and Niyamas have been practiced to cultivate unshakeable faith in the higher power. This does not mean giving in to chance or destiny, but knowing that we don’t know everything.
We carry with us baggage and scripts from several lifetimes that have unusual ways of manifesting in this life. Ishvar parinidhana is the belief in the fact that as long as we keep walking on and enjoying the path, we will get there eventually.
The Yamas and Niyamas are not rigid boundaries or vows. They are to be treated like Guidelines or Work In Progress. With constant introspection and sharpening, they become second nature.
They set the strong foundation that help us to build character, perseverance and strength that is required to be a true Yogi!