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Yamas & Niyamas: What are they all about?

Yamas & Niyamas: What are they all about?

yamas and niyamas devotion

The Yamas (restraints) and the Niyamas (observances) are part of Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga – widely considered as the path and goal of yoga

They are not, however, intended to be taken as rigorous sets of “do’s and don’ts” but rather as guidelines on how to treat ourselves and the world around us.

10 Yamas & Niyamas

The Yamas identify five behaviours where mental and emotional turmoil arise from and aims to teach us a better way of managing and avoiding these turmoils.  They pertain to how we regard ourselves and the world around us. 

To visualise this relationship, imagine yourself standing with your arms outstretched horizontally – the Yamas teach us to treat ourselves with respect and kindness first, which will eventually radiate outward to affect how we interact with people and situations.

The 5 Yamas

  1. Ahimsa
  2. Satya
  3. Asteya
  4. Brahmacharya
  5. Aparigraha

1. Ahimsa – Non Violence

The first Yama has been translated to mean “non-violence” or “non-hurting”.  I have also heard that it is the realisation of the first illusion, which is separation.  This explanation illuminates that we live very individualistic lives.  Individually and as a society, we are solely concerned with things that have a direct impact on our lives. We are even separated from ourselves. 

You may have heard it in yoga classes that one of yoga’s goals is to help us get back in touch with our true selves, our own true nature.  An aspect of this is when we achieve a sense inner peace, stillness of the mind and perceive ourselves as part of everything around us.

Because of this illusion of separation, we are disconnected from ourselves, each other and everything else.  We then don’t hesitate to inflict harm on ourselves and each other;this is where pain and suffering originate from. 

If we believeand live in this separation then another person’s lifewill have no meaning to us.  The infliction of suffering – in any form, be it physical, verbal, mental – on an individual or societal scale will mean nothing to us so long as:

1) we get what we want and

2) it doesn’t happen to us.

If we recognise that, in fact, we are not separate but are all connected, that we are all made of the same energy, just manifested in different forms, then, I believe, suffering can cease.

2. Satya – Truth

To practice Satya is to practice honesty towards ourselves and others without the need to exaggerate, minimise, conceal or embellish.  It is a state of accepting and stating what is without doubt or delusion. This applies not only to words but to intentions and actions as well.

But how do we act with truth? I think it should be clear that Satya should not be used as an excuse for stagnation of the mind and body.  One can not say “This is who I am” and stop in his or her development.  Growth of the mind, body and spirit cannot be falsehood unless if what you are doing causes harm to yourself or others.

Words, intentions and actions go together if we want to live in truth.  We can not say “I want to do this or that” without any genuine intention nor action.  For example, we can say to ourselves “I want to be enlightened”; when our intension is pure and we actively participate in attaining this goal, then we are being truthful.  If the intention is there but without action, then it is a falsehood.

There is a delicate balance between Ahimsa and Satya.  We’ve all heard the phrase “the truth hurts”.  So how do we live in truth without causing hurt?  As with the previous discussion, Satya should not be used as an excuse to say and act in ways that would cause harm to us and others. 

The truth should be tempered with compassion, kindness and common sense.  For example, you found out your friend’s partner is cheating.  Do you just blurt this out in a room-full of people; or possibly in front of their children?  Perhaps tell your friend in an email, text message, Facebook?  All of these are ways to tell your friend the truth, but are you ‘just being honest’ or hurtful?

3. Asteya – Non Stealing

Stealing, in this sense, isn’t as clean cut as “Do not take what is not yours”, which is culturally (as in humanity) associated with material things.  In recent times, this has extended to intellectual properties as well – a concept that straddles the tangible and intangible. 

This is a good jumping point to explain Asteya, because Asteya not only refers to the theft of the material, but also the emotional, mental and spiritual.  For example, when one is being unduly critical of another, that person is stealing the other’s sense of self confidence, drive, focus and faith in him/herself; or when someone is insisting on having things their way, they are stealing other people’s right to choose a different course of action.

Asteya also teaches us not to acquire for the sake of having – the illusion that we are in need or giving in to desires and wants.  Acquisition should be based on a genuine need.  This is not to say that we should live ascetic livesor deny ourselves “stuff” that makes us happy. 

By all mean, go on that holiday, buy that gorgeous top, that new gadget,or that cute bag you’ve been eyeing for weeks!  But pause for a moment and ask yourself: Can I afford it? Do I need it now? Do I really want it, or am I just being jealous of the people who do have it? Will it be used or just forgotten as soon as I buy it? 

Will it be a holiday I want to enjoy with family or friends or just another Facebook update?  If we get for the sake of having, we are stealing from people who might have a genuine need for it, whatever “it” is; or perhaps stealing from ourselves other opportunities or choices that may come our way.

4. Brahmacharya – celibacy, moderation of the senses

The most popular definition of Brahmacharya is celibacy.  This maybe because when we talk about controlling desire and its excesses, the popular assumption is sex.

I believe Brahmacharya is the practice of assessing and controlling one’s desires – whatever they may be.  This does not mean we are forbidden to “want” for something.  Above, I mentioned that the practice of Asteya guides our acquisitions. 

However, we should also acknowledge that as humans, especially in this age of easy access to whatever we want, it is normal to “want” for things that are not necessarily essential.  The practice of Brahmacharya in this instance is the practice of tempering our wants and desires. 

By itself, desire is not something to be shunned.  It is a good motivator, with the object of our desire as our goal.  But when desires go into excess, it turns into an obsession and we are thrown out of balance.

Applying this idea sex and celibacy, the practice of Brahmacharya teaches us to hold respect for oneself and our partner in higher stand than that of physical gratification. 

When the act of sex is done through mutual respect and a genuine desire to share a deeper devotion to each other, then the act is pure and without malice but when there is any source of suffering present – intimidation, force or violence of any kind – then the act of sex loses its purity. 

I’ve heard sex described as a “divine act”; so when this most intimate connection between two people is sullied by anything one could possibly think of, then it loses its “divinity” and becomes a source of pain and suffering inflicted on ourselves or our partner.

5. Aparigraha – Non Greed

Aparigraha has been defined as non-greed, but again, this does not only apply to the material.  Greed is the outward manifestation and action of attachment; so it is our propensity to become attached to things, thoughts and actions that we should look out for.  When we “dig our claws”, as it were, into something, then we are going against Aparigraha.

Over-attachment breeds fear of losing the subject of the attachment; and from fear comes pain and suffering.  When there is pain and suffering, our mind and spirit is in constant flux; there is no stillness in the mind and peace in the spirit; there is only separation because there is no balance.  Aparigraha liberates us from overly attaching our minds and spirits to anything and frees us to come in to balance.

The Yamas (restraints) and the Niyamas (observances) are part of Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga – widely considered as the path and goal of authentic yoga.  They are not, however, intended to be taken as rigorous sets of “do’s and don’ts” but rather as guidelines on how to treat ourselves and the world around us.

The 5 Niyamas

  1. Santosha
  2. Sauca
  3. Tapas
  4. Svadhyaya
  5. Isvarapranidhana

As the Yamas affect how we treat ourselves and how we relate to others, the Niyamas encourage us to look deeper within.  Again, imagine yourself standing, but this time with your feet firmly planted into the ground and your arms reaching up to the sky. 

The Niyamas have a very grounding effect on our mental and emotional wellbeing while at the same time giving us a profound sense of freedom through relinquishing preconceptions of how things should be and trusting that things are as they are meant to be.

1. Santosha – Contentment

This Niyama can be misconstrued as inaction, lack of drive and inspiration because, taking what the word means, there is nothing more that we should want or need.
To practice Santosha is not about complacency but to have the grace to acknowledge and accept ourselves just as we are.  If we are comfortable in our own skin, as it were, then this acceptance becomes the foundation for our mind and spirit to grow. 

Contentment liberates us from the illusion that we “have to be” this or that.  Planning for the future, making life decisions, directing our choices in a manner that would be beneficial and contribute to our life style – these are all part of living.  Santosha does not mean that we should forego these things and be stuck where we are. 

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But rather, find contentment in what you have then build on that.  Santosha helps us appreciate the blessing we already have.  Without Santosha, we will be too preoccupied with regret for the past and anxiety for the future, detached from the present and out of balance.

2. Sauca – Cleanliness

Sauca is cleanliness and purity.  In the Sutras (as translated by BKS Iyengar), this means purity of the body, in and out.  We do asanas, kriyas, pranayama, pratyahara and meditation to purify the body and mind in order for the spirit to be purified as well.  I would like to also define this as “unclutteredness”

For example, our thoughts may be pure and clean, but are there too many things in there?  Is the mind too busy?  Our speech may not carry with it ill-will, but are we speaking with clarity and focus?  Our physical environment may be clean, but are things in order? 

I believe unclutteredness completes the thought and intent of Sauca. As a photographer, I use “negative space” – a blank area or areas in the composition – as a tool to bring the eyes toward the subject, creating a sense of focus and clarity for the viewer. 

Being free of clutter – in our minds, emotions and environment – can give us the same sense of spaciousness and peace because of the stillness of that “blank space”, as literal and figurative breathing space.

3. Tapas – Fire

Tapas is to the spirit as Agni (our digestive fire) is to the body.  It is the fire within us that drives our desire to learn, grow, commit to a practice and better ourselves with enlightenment as our objective.  As mentioned earlier, desire in itself isn’t “bad”, only its’ excess. 

Without Tapas, we are uninspired and lose direction, which can lead to a scattered mind and a spirit that will always feel there is something lacking.  Tapas gives us direction, focuses our energies and helps us find and fulfil our purpose.

4. Svadhyaya – Self-study

As Tapas directs our spirit, Svadhyaya directs our mind.  This Niyama asks us to look inward and study ourselves; to assess where we are now and where we want to be in our Yoga journey and our personal lives. 

During times of emotional upheavals, either “good” or “bad”, Svadhyaya helps us ground these emotions and find stillness through the study, contemplation and practice of the sutras and teachings of Yoga. 

Svadhyaya acts like a mirror held up to our face when we find ourselves starting to judge or overreact.  It also enables us to live in a state of gratitude and joy because they are not contingent on any outside force; this inward contemplation brings about a sense of peace and oneness with everything outside the body.

5. Isvarapranidhana – Surrender to Self

“All is as it is meant to be”.  This has become my personal mantra and it is squarely anchored on my practice of Isvarapranidhana.  This Niyama asks us to surrender – to a deity, a belief, the universal energies or any spiritual idea. 

It is to trust that whatever is happening to us is happening for a reason and this reason has no label of “good” or “bad”, “punishment” or “reward”, but simply something the Atman or individual spirit has to go through to receive the lessons or blessings from that experience.

It is easy to mistake the concept of surrender as giving up or dispiritedness – why do anything if nothing is under our control?  In this instance, Isvarapranidhana is itself anchored in the concepts and practices of Santosha and Tapas.

We can find contentment (in the present) yet still be motivated (to transform and evolve).  In this way, we are active participants in our own lives and enlightenment while maintaining inner peace, an equilibrated mind and the freedom to surrender to a force greater than ourselves or to “what is”.

The Yama Aparigraha also helps in understanding Isvarapranidhana because the former teaches us not to get overly attached and the later, to let go.

In truth, I believe the reason why Isvarapranidhana is the last because all the other nine Yamas & Niyamas prepare us for this surrender.

As Ahimsa is the first because it opens our eyes the root of suffering – separation –Isvarapranidhana unburdens us and lifts us closer to Samadhi through surrender.

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