Introduction to Yamas and Niyamas

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When you think about yoga, what’s the first picture that comes to your mind?

I bet it’s a person sitting on a mat, performing an asana or just meditating, right?
You are not wrong. Yes, yoga does mean meditating, performing various asanas to keep the body healthy and flexible but it’s so much more than that.

The system of yoga, which was designed over 5000 years ago helps in calming our minds and bringing us peace and happiness. To accomplish this, the art and science of yoga includes not just meditation and physical exercise but philosophy, lifestyle and behavior principles as well.

A man named Patanjali deserves credit for shaping yoga into what it is now. He is widely known as “The Father of Modern Yoga”. Surprisingly, there isn’t much known about him other than that he lived somewhere between the 2nd and 4th century BC and has written significant texts on Sanskrit grammar and Ayurveda.
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is a collection of 196 Sanskrit sutras divided into 4 chapters. The word sutra means thread and these 196 teachings come together to guide us in our spiritual journey.

According to The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the eight limbs that make up the yoga sutras are:

  1. Yama (Moral Discipline)
  2. Niyama (Observances)
  3. Asana (Body Postures)
  4. Pranayama (Breathing Techniques)
  5. Pratyahara (Sense withdrawal)
  6. Dharana (Concentration)
  7. Dhyana (Meditation)
  8. Samadhi (Enlightenment)

 

In this article, we’ll understand Yamas and Niyamas - the first two branches of the tree called Yoga.

Yamas

Yama, meaning moral discipline is about restraining yourself towards certain behaviours like violence, stealing, etc. while walking on the spiritual path of life. The five yamas of yoga are:

AHIMSA

Ahimsa, translated as non violence or non-harming, is the practice renouncing those feelings of anger, irritability, aggression and judgmental behaviour towards others and self.
If looked from afar, this principle does seem simple but when you give it a closer thought, you understand the subtle implications of Ahimsa. For example, when you couldn’t perform the yoga pose of Sirsasana perfectly for the 10th day in a row, the thought, “I am just bad at everything”, is a form of ahimsa to yourself.
You have to cut back on the negative thoughts directed towards yourself and also towards other people.
How do you go about doing that?
The first step is actually simple. Awareness.
Become aware of negative thoughts directed towards anyone, be it yourself, parents, friends or an unknown person. This will signal to your brain, “I need to stop thinking this”. With constant awareness and practice, you’ll be able to curtail those unwanted feelings.

SATYA

Satya, meaning truth, tells us to speak and live the truth at all times, keeping in mind the implications of the first yama, Ahimsa (not hurting anyone through the truth).
When you see someone’s report card and they have gotten a D grade in Mathematics, you think, “He must be so bad at math.” This becomes your truth. But is it really true? Couldn’t it be that he would have had a fever on the day of his Math exam? There could be ‘n’ number of reasons why he got a low grade, none of them being that ‘He is bad at math.’

If you think about it, in our day-to-day lives, we keep on assuming so many things to be true but in reality it’s the opposite. It could be that you’re prejudiced towards an employee or you heard someone’s gossip and believed it to be true. That is why this principle becomes difficult to practice.

To be good at this yama, try questioning your thoughts. Ask yourself- “Why am I thinking this?” Keep questioning yourself until you reach the true reason.

ASTEYA

Asteya means non-stealing. It says that you shouldn’t take anything that isn’t freely given to you. The larger picture says that this means not to steal material things, not exploit and the like.

But there’s more to it. It also includes not stealing people’s rights, time, energy, etc. For example, when you hoard face masks in this time of distress, you’re robbing a person who actually needs this necessity. In a way, you’re stealing their energy and time (they’d have to travel far to get a face mask).  

Asteya tells us to be more mindful of our actions and to refrain from letting greed overpower us.

BRAHMACHARYA

While the term Brahmacharya is well-known for its connotation as practicing celibacy, its essential meaning is energy moderation and to refrain ourselves from excesses. These excesses could be anything from loud music, buying things you don’t need, eating very oily foods, inappropriate sexual behaviour and so on. 

For example, you’re faced against a situation where your business is suffering from losses. You keep on stressing yourself, as a result you feel restless and you lose your sleep. Over here, the principle of Brahmacharya would suggest you to put your energy on coming up with different solutions and discussing them with the people you look up to, instead of wasting that energy on constantly stressing yourself with the problem.

APARIGRAHA

Aparigraha is the principle of non-possessiveness that urges you to let go of abundance and only have what you need.
In today’s world of online shopping, this could be a little difficult to practice which is why everytime you feel like buying something, ask yourself the following questions- “Do I really need this? What purpose will it serve? Am I buying it to impress people?”
Aparigraha also means to get rid of bad habits like smoking, negative thoughts, bad experiences of the past and so on.

Niyamas

Niyamas, meaning observances, constitute of the five principles that help instill self-confidence, happiness and the inner strength required to walk on this journey of life. The five niyamas of yoga are-

SAUCHA

The first of the Niyamas, Saucha is the principle of cleanliness. This cleanliness refers to everything inside and outside of you. From cleaning your body, house, messy and cluttered drawers to keeping your mind clean from judgments and negative thoughts.
Patanjali says, “Look more deeply at what the body is: The more you clean it, the more you realize that it is a decaying, impermanent thing. And thus Saucha helps break up excessive fixation with your body, or the bodies of others.”
Thus, in a way, this principle helps us be content with what we are and not chase those impossible-to-attain beauty standards of today.

SANTOSHA

 Santosha means contentment. While many of us believe that it’s about feeling happy all the time and being complacent, that’s not the case. Santosha means being grateful and appreciative of where you currently are in your life.
It’s accepting that you still can’t perform Sirsasana but you have at least started working on it. It’s about being grateful for having a roof to live under in these testing circumstances of COVID-19. 

If you only say one prayer in a day, make it ‘Thank You’. – Rumi

If you find it difficult to remain content, try smiling. Science says that even a forced smile can help elevate your mood and thus make you feel content. And do you know the best part? Smiles are contagious. So, in the process, you’ll end up making others around you happy too.

If you only say one prayer in a day, make it ‘Thank You’. – Rumi

If you find it difficult to remain content, try smiling. Science says that even a forced smile can help elevate your mood and thus make you feel content. And do you know the best part? Smiles are contagious. So, in the process, you’ll end up making others around you happy too.

TAPAS

 Tapas is translated as self-discipline or austerity. It means having the willingness to walk on rough paths and learning from the obstacles you face. 

Tapas could mean a lot of things. It’s trying to learn new things every day to advance in your career even if it takes up a lot of time, it’s avoiding eating that cheesy pizza to maintain your health or it could be stepping out of your comfort zone to get rid of your fears.
In a way, Tapas helps you explore your capabilities and strengths and work on your weaknesses. It helps you discover your limits and become more self-aware. 
Tapas has yet another interpretation of it. As the word tap means fire in Sanskrit, Tapas also means refusing to give up while chasing those things that you are passionate about, the ones that fire you up.

SVADHYAYA

“Your vision will become clear only when you look into your heart. Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakens” – Carl Jung

Svadhyaya means self-study. This principle requires self-reflection and contemplation as you start inquiring your own nature and thoughts. 

To practice Svadhyaya, you can start by asking questions like, “What makes me mad or happy? Why do I behave in a particular way? Why do I feel negative about this situation or person?”

The more questions you ask yourself, the more control you’ll have on your mindset and actions. Besides this, you can also practice daily journaling and meditation.

ISHVARA PRANIDHANA

 Ishvara Pranidhana, the last of the niyamas is the practice of yielding to a higher power or a higher self. It could mean anything from the God, Goddess, deity, universe, creator, or an infinite life source.

Ishvara Pranidhana teaches us that there is a greater force at work and we should let go of situations and things that aren’t in our control. In a way, this principle helps us, practice detachment, from the outcome and trust that whatever happens will bring lessons, peace, and understanding into our lives.

Conclusion

Think of Yamas and Niyamas as a path. Walking on it will bring bliss, understanding, and peace into your life.

Instead of trying to be perfect at these principles in the first-go, practice them gradually, taking things one at a time. With some time and continuous efforts, they will start coming naturally to you.

These two branches of Yoga sutras- Yamas and Niyamas are the perfect place to start if you want to unveil the true power of Yoga- both on and off the mat.

“Yoga does not change the way we see things, it transforms the person who sees.” – B.K.S Iyengar




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