The yamas and the niyamas
In Patanjali's yoga Sutra, the eight limb path is called ashtanga, which means "eight limbs". Essentially these eight steps act as guidelines on how to live a meaningful, purposeful and committed life. they promote andoral, ethical and self-disciplined approach to life, they direct attention towards one's health an acknowledge the spiritual aspects to one's nature.
The eight limbs include yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and Samadhi. Most practitioners are familiar with asana (postures) and pranayama (breathing exercises) but know very little about the other limbs. Here I have set out a little about the first two limbs, the foundations, yama and niyamas which are ethical and spiritual practices:
The five yamas are primary yogic values, principles and observances – essentially ethical foundations for living one’s life. The five yamas include:
- Ahimsa is often translated as non-violence, but it is not just about avoiding violence. It is about having consideration for all beings and living in a way that causes as little harm as possible. Yoga wishes happiness for all beings and respects the sacred nature of all life. This is reflected in yogic prayers and chants for universal peace.
- Satya is truthfulness in the deepest sense of the word. We should be true to ourselves and to others, and speak the truth. We should approach the world with pure intentions, promoting the cause of truth in the world in our actions and expressions.
- Asteya is non-stealing so that we only take what is freely given, to take only what is needed in life, to live simply. Further we should not take credit for what we have not actually done. In the highest sense, nothing belongs to us, we are only stewards of nature’s resources.
- Brahmacharya refers to the proper usage of our sexual energy, which has great power not only for creation but also for destruction of applied carelessly. Thus unless we use this energy in a conscious manner, much pain and suffering will be caused in the world.
- Aparigraha is often challenging to translate but equates to non-possessiveness. This means not accumulating any unnecessary possessions outwardly or inwardly, being able to step back and to watch and to observe what we grasp for. Further the mental side is also important, because even if we may not physically possess something, we may still hold or cling to it in our thoughts and emotions.
As for the five Niyamas these are more internally focused than the Yamas. They are five basic attitudes behind yoga practice, ways of holding, conserving and internalising our energies. The Niyamas include:
- Tapas means discipline and is a conscious commitment to an aim and staying with it through all distracting desires and obstacles. Tapas refers to the inner heat or fire of yoga that can develop higher capacities within us and arises from our own inner seeking. Essentially it includes the austerity or self-control necessary to turn our awareness within.
- Svadhyaya comprises self-study and getting to know the self. It is understood that we have much potential in our life but we cannot use it without the ability to see inside ourselves. In the broadest sense it means fulfilling one’s individual dharma, or purpose in life.
- Ishvara pranidhana appears throughout the Yoga Sutras as a prime principle of devotion to the divine presence. It is a consecration of our energy to the cosmic power – taking shelter in this supreme state.
- Saucha refers to purity in the broadest sense of the term, purity of body, speech and mind. This means engaging in things that are purifying including a vegetarian diet.
- Santosha is inner contentment so that we should be content with what we have outwardly, finding our true happiness within – practicing contentment in all life.