05 Sep The Yamas and Niyamas: The Foundation of a Healthy Yogic Way of Life.
I come across articles from time-to-time on social media describing the reasons why people stop practicing yoga, or simply criticizing some different aspects of yoga. It seems to me that many yoga practitioners do not have the correct understanding of what yoga truly means. Yoga is a way of living your life that goes far beyond breathing exercises and postures taught in many yoga studios nowadays. Once you embrace a yogic lifestyle it will be with you every moment until death and even beyond. Yoga is essentially about connecting with the divine spirit within. How could this be discarded so easily?
Many people equate the idea of ‘asanas’ with the term ‘yoga’ incorrectly. The asanas or postures are just a small portion of yoga. Truly dedicated yogis and yoginis, however have come to understand that the many aspects of yoga extend beyond asana contrary to what is promoted in advertising and on social medias.
When you truly learn what yoga is, as described in ancient scriptures and practice the yogic principles sincerely you realize that you cannot simply ‘leave yoga’. Yoga is NOT something that is simply practiced a few times a week in order to relax, increase flexibility, or to stay in shape, while these are the side effects of yoga; they are not the main objectives.
There is so much more to yoga and a good introduction to yoga is “The Eight Limbs of Yoga’ as described by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras 2.26-2.34 of which ‘asana’ is just one of the eight limbs.
Yama or social discipline: The Yamas are the first component of the 8 limbs Yoga. It is how you behave in the world. The Yamas are universal laws of nature respected everywhere. There are 5 Yamas:
Ahimsa (non-violence or non-injury) means to NOT cause pain or harm to all living creature, either by thought, word, intention or action. Ahimsa necessitates harmless mind, mouth, and hands. The purpose of Ahimsa is to spread love and compassion towards all living creatures.
Satya (or truthfulness) is more than just telling the truth. It means that our actions should be in accord with our words and thoughts. In order to raise our consciousness, we need to live truthfully at all times. Truthfulness is absolutely necessary to lift the veil of illusion.
Asterya (non-stealing) means to take something without permission that does not belong to us. The word “steya”, means greed based on a perceived lack of abundance. So stealing stems from the belief that there’s not enough for everyone. Asteya also applies to waste in all of its forms: energy, water, and unnecessary material consumption.
Brahmacharya (sexual control) is very often understood as complete control over the sexual instinct. However, Brahmacharya means to control all senses. Brahmacharya is a life style that leads to the realization of God. Self-realization is impossible without practicing self-restraint and control over the 5-senses mind.
Aparigraha (non-possessiveness) is the limitation of material possessions to what is necessary. A person who wishes to achieve liberation from the cycle of life and death has to acquire control over his senses and avoid attachment to material possessions, places or persons.
Niyama or self discipline: The Niyamas are the second component of the 8 limbs of Yoga. As I once heard Georg Feuerstein, a German Indologist, say, it is how you behave when no one is looking. There are 5 Niyamas:
Sauca (purity) is cleanliness of the body, mind and environment. Purity of everything that passes through all channels, mouth, ears, eyes and mind. Practicing yoga increases healthy behaviors and reduces unhealthy ones. Hatha Yoga prescribes many practices for purification of the internal body.
Santosha (contentment) is being content and satisfied with whatever we have, whether it is very little or a large amount. Santosha is to enjoy what life brings us each and every day.
Tapas (endurance) means to endure difficulties and challenges with positive intention. Tapas is all action done with faith and without the expectation of specific results.
Swadhyaya (Self-study) goes beyond acquiring knowledge. Svadhyaya is the study of the self through contemplation. The Yogi through swadhyaya understands the inner challenges of the body, mind and spirit and achieves communion with the Divine.
Ishwara Pranidhana (surrender) is the practice of faith, dedication, sincerity, and patience to transcend the ego, which is very resistant to surrender. Ishwara Pranidhana starts with the lost of the identity of self and emerges as Ishwara the God. Practicing Ishwara Pranidhana leads to Samadhi (the union).
Asanas – the many postures and the most physical portion of the yoga lifestyle, also the portion of yoga that is often misrepresented as the whole of a yoga lifestyle.
Pranayama – the breathing exercises practice with or without asanas or postures
Pratyahara – withdrawing of the senses
Dharana – mental focus on an object
Dhyana – concentration of divine
Samadhi – union with the divine
Very few of those who seem to cast off yoga as perhaps a fad, or criticize aspects of it, truly comprehend the real meaning of Yoga. Some believe that perhaps a combination of ‘asanas’ and ‘pranayama’ are the only parts of a yogic life they need to adopt, while very often following many of the ‘yamas’ and ‘niyamas’ without awareness. If these practitioners of yoga could surpass the initial ‘asanas’ and ‘pranayama’ taught in some of the yoga schools, they would then understand that yoga is not something to be achieved. They would realize that a yogic lifestyle is part of every moment and breath, influencing the different aspects of their life in many indescribable ways.