This week we are going to focus on the internal and external guiding principles of yoga’s philosophy, the yamas and the niyamas.
As described in the in The Heart of Yoga, the yamas and niyamas are the ways in which we practice yoga as per our intentions toward others and our behavior to those around us, including our environment.
The Yoga Sutras, written by yoga scholar Patanjali around 200 AD, describes the pathway to experience Samadhi, or a feeling at one with all things, the end goal of yoga. In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali describes the 8-limbed path of yoga, 8 different ways we practice working toward Samadhi. It’s important to understand the 8 limbs of yoga are not to be practiced sequentially. Rather, they are explained in the Yoga Sutras listed from gross to subtle and practiced all at once. They are simply listed in the order from gross to subtle.
The first two limbs on our journey toward Samadhi are Yamas and Niyamas. These are considered the most gross because they are ways of practicing how we are in relationship to ourselves and others.
The Yamas refer to our relationship with others. The following is a list of the Yamas:
Ahimsa: Nonharming. I believe that non-harming is the first observance because if you are still operating under the illusion that another person is fundamentally different than yourself, that belief acts as the non-starter to the other practices. First, do your best to not harm another being. The lower law of Ahimsa is not to harm but what Ahimsa truly refers to is the ability to not only see others as the same divine expression as yourself, but to treat that other person with the divine dignity they (and you) deserve. Ahimsa not only admonishes non-harming, but it’s higher law invites us to not hate another person either. Therefore, the true law of Ahimsa is pure love. I believe that this is what predicates all the other yamas, niyamas (and all the other limbs of yoga, therefore) because if you understand the connection of all things and can express the divine presence of love, then all the other principles become readily understood and practiced.
To truly understand and be in complete love, shoots you directly Samadhi, like a secret passageway to the end of the race.
Satya: Truthfulness. Sometimes it’s hard to speak the truth but truth is fundamentally bound to your identity of your being. Satya invites us to consider our words and actions by how they might harm another. Never use Satya as a way of causing harm. Sometimes the truth hurts but Satya and Ahimsa invite us to practice truth in a way that doesn’t harm another.
Asteya: Non-stealing. Like it states in the Gayatri Mantra, as mentioned in Week 3 of Deepen Your Practice, if I truly understood the unity of all things, I would have the thing that I’m searching for. So, it truly doesn’t make sense to steal something from someone else if I understand that I am stealing from my own expanded identity of Self.
Brahmacarya: Right Relationship. The word Brahma means truth and carya is the same root as car, the vehicle that drives you. So, Brahmacarya is all about driving to truth, specifically holding relationships that keep you driving toward your highest self. If the only thing you have in common with a friend that you both hate so-and-so, then that’s not a relationship that is rooted in your own fundamental goodness. Sometimes this yama refers to only holding sexual relationships in the light of how that action drives us to understand our own divine potential. As you might imagine, this is an often hotly debated (no pun intended) topic.
Aparigraha: Not taking advantage. The basic message is to avoid opportunities to take advantage of the situation. Don’t exploit another person for your own advantage.
Next in the realm of practicing understanding ourselves through the practice of yoga is moving more from the outward realms of the yamas to the subtler and inner realm of the niyamas.
The following is a list of the niyamas, the attitudes that we hold within ourselves:
Sauca: Cleanliness. The principle of Sauca (pronounced sow-cha) is about keeping your body, mind, and spirit, clean. I believe this refers to keeping your space around you clean, as well as keeping your body pure with good food and nutrition. Within Sauca, is the invitation to also keep our mind pure by not harboring thoughts or fantasies that would cloud us from always moving toward our highest nature of being.
Samtosa: Contentment. Being content is a spiritual practice. The false notion that the grass is always a greener can be a cancer that will our ability to be present with what we have here. I like to practice contentment by appreciating those things which I find immediately in my environment; I like to go to the little library near my house rather than the big library down town because I like to practice celebrating what I have in my back yard. I like to patron the restaurants in my neighborhood and make friends with the owners because I believe in local business and would prefer to support my neighbors rather than a chain restaurant. This is one of the ways that I practice contentment. Once, while in savasana, a voice came into my head, my own voice, but maybe the wiser part of me. It said, “ What if this was all there was? Can you be happy with the way that life is right now, rather than waiting for what might lie over the next horizon?
Tapas: The heat necessary for transformation. Any growth, be it physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, financial, career, or anything else, is going to experience a little bit of friction. This friction is tapas. I like the analogy of a kiln: you can shape the wet clay all you want but when you put the clay into the kiln and through the heat, your clay vase comes out the other end unalterably changed to be the capable vessel it was designed for. Understanding this heat for transformation process gives us perspective for the challenges we face in life. Another example that I’d like to thread through this and the following two niyamas is running. I love to run. When starting to run after a season off, I will expect to experience a little of the friction of working my muscles into shape as well as sometimes even fighting the desire to stay at home curled up with some Netflix instead of the effort of going out and hitting the trail.
Svadhyaya: Self-knowledge. Tapas invariably leads to a deeper understanding of Self. There are many ways to practice this principle but using the example above, if I were to go through the challenge of running, I’d learn quite a bit about myself, including how my body moves, where my appropriate levels of exertion lie, and even what my character looks like when faced with a challenge. Like graduating from one high school and then onto college, so too does this self-knowledge qualify me to experience a deeper level of learning in the form of tapas. This tapas leads to greater self-knowledge, deeper tapas, deeper self-knowledge, etc. Until finally, this process is superseded by the last and ultimate, the inner-most principle, Isvarapranidhana, which means to lay it down at the feet of God.
Isvarapranidhana: To lay it down at the feet of God or to see all of your actions with a divine perspective. If using the running example, I maintain my cycle of tapas and self-knowledge knowing that somehow this experience of running is the simple tool that is helping me to understand my own divinity. That tool could be yoga, family, art, science, whatever. The perspective of what all of our work is leading us toward is at the heart of this niyama.
I’ve created a myth that illustrates these last three niyamas, the most important in my opinion, in a way that think is fun and interesting. Please stream or download if you like a good story.
I'll have that uploaded on my Deepen Your Practice page in a day or so. Check back in to hear this fun story.
In addition to the book that we are reading from with my current Deepen Your Practice course, The Heart of Yoga, another great book to have in your yoga library is Bringing Yoga to Life by Donna Farhi. In it she takes principles like the yamas and the niyamas and applies them to every-day situations that I feel really makes these principles come alive in a modern context. Not only is Donna Farhi an amazing teacher, but she’s also a great writer.
If you want to learn about the yamas and niyamas straight from the source, check out Desikachar’s translation of the Yoga Sutras in the back of The Heart of Yoga. One of Desikachar’s gifts is his economy of words to distill the meaning of this ancient and important text without confounding it with verbose and labored explanations.