Yoga Philosophy Beyond Asanas: Integrating Yamas and Niyamas in Life
Yoga philosophy runs deep, dating back to thousands of years ago. The many teachings were followed avidly by yogis – whether it meant daily rituals, a yogic lifestyle or incorporating learnings from texts to overcome problems and obstacles (such as the teachings Lord Krishna gave Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita).
It was much later that Maharishi Patanjali, known as the Father of Yoga, structured a type of guideline for yogis – the Eight Limbs of Ashtanga Yoga. These Eight Limbs of Yoga say that it is not just the physical practice of asanas or pranayama that lead to liberation, but systematically following certain behaviors and attitudes are also important. He outlined the first two limbs as the Yamas (social norms) and Niyamas (self-discipline rules). There are five Yamas and Niyamas that are essential for society and individual growth. These norms are meant to foster a peaceful and compassionate way of living, leading to happiness. Let’s look at what are the yoga Yamas and Niyamas and how can you integrate them in your life:
The five Yamas are ethical principles for society. They are concerned with how we relate to people, take care of each other and how to behave in society. They represent core values for a life with ease, kindness and integrity. The five Yamas teach us to violence, lying, stealing, wasting energy and possessiveness.
- Ahimsa or Non-violence: This Yama encourages us to live a life where we are not harming ourselves or others. Avoiding physical, emotional and mental violence is Ahimsa. It is non-violence of thoughts, words and actions. A simple way to practice Ahimsa regularly is by being mindful of thoughts and behavior, making space for consciousness and peace. Think of things that make you happy and peaceful, and avoid those that make you irritable or hostile. Being aware of negative thought patterns or feelings of anger towards yourself or others, avoiding food and beverages that are harmful to your body and minimizing harm to creatures around your home is also Ahimsa. Instead, practice kindness, acceptance and forgiveness.
- Satya or Truth: The second norm or Yama is the practice of truth. Seeing things as they really are instead of allowing personal perceptions to come in the way is recognizing universal truth. But in a simple sense, Satya is all about being honest and truthful in your words and actions, towards yourself and others. Start by acknowledging when your personal perceptions are influencing emotions or actions. Look beyond them to recognize what is real and what is not. Be truthful to yourself and avoid denials. Be open to expressing yourself accurately and honestly. Avoid covering up the truth or omitting details as it can lead to misunderstandings, rumors and gossip.
- Asteya or Non-stealing: Asteya is the practice of not taking that which does not belong to you. This is not just about avoiding stealing objects, but also making unfair bargains, taking more than you should, not putting your 100% towards a task or pretending like something is yours because the original source is not around. The first step to practicing Asteya is being aware. Be aware of when you are taking undue advantage, like if you are slacking off at work, for example. Avoid saying things that may steal someone’s thunder or joy. Create small goals such as doing your best everyday, helping others, keeping your promises, being generous, kind and considerate, making fair bargains, etc. Consider what you truly need and act accordingly. For example, if you are at a friend’s birthday dinner, don’t overeat because your friend is sponsoring the dinner. Eat what you can or what you usually do and appreciate your friend for treating you to dinner.
- Brahmacharya or Celibacy: This Yama is about restraining from overindulging in sensory pleasures which can lead to unhappiness. Brahmacharya encourages us to control desires and reduce attachment to sensory indulgence. It is not about avoiding everything joyful, but about seeking pleasure in moderation. Start by avoiding anything that stirs up emotions like overstimulating foods, loud music, violent movies, inappropriate sexual behavior, etc. Avoid activities which are overly addictive. Make food choices for health and not pleasure. Try to be mindful of your wants versus needs.
- Aparigraha or Non-possessiveness: Similar to minimalism in the modern day, Aparigraha teaches us to let go of what we do not need. Rejecting the urge to own more and more materialistic things, letting go of possessiveness of things, people and situations and finding joy in a simpler life is Aparigraha. By doing so, we are able to make space for new energy and experience. Be mindful when you go shopping, whether it’s for groceries or otherwise. Consider whether you truly need an item or maybe you can pick it up next time? Clean out your wardrobe, desk and drawers regularly to get rid of items you do not use now. Whether an item is yours or someone else’s, treat it with the same respect and care. Accept emotions and thoughts, meditate on them and let them go.
The Niyamas are self-discipline guidelines that encourage us to take care of ourselves. They teach us to prioritize our health and well-being and how to gain contentment from the simple things. The five Niyamas are about embracing cleanliness, contentment, purification, self-study and observing habits and surrendering to the higher power.
- Saucha or Purity: Referring to personal cleanliness and hygiene, the first Niyama explains the importance of being clean, inside and out. Purity of the mind (thoughts, emotions), body and in actions is Saucha. When the mind is pure, you can be more clear and calm. Avoiding clutter in the mind or physical space and allowing freshness to enter is a way to practice Saucha. Doing daily cleansing practices like brushing teeth, taking a bath, etc. and regularly cleaning one’s own environment is also Saucha.
- Santosha or Contentment: Joy, happiness and contentment that cannot be shaken despite external events is Santosha. Being steady in thoughts and emotions allows you to be content and happy. This happens by accepting life and life situations as they are, and knowing that no matter what you are safe and happy. With Santosha, you learn that even though life is not perfect, you have control over how you feel. For example, you may not achieve a Headstand or Handstand perfectly on the first try, but the attempt and the progress brings you joy and contentment.
- Tapas or Perseverance: The third Niyama teaches us to persevere to achieve what we set our mind to. Put in the efforts, irrespective of the results. This develops discipline, enthusiasm, willpower and the determination to reach one’s goal. This could be anything from exercising to reach a certain weight loss goal, waking up early for a yoga class, practicing meditation daily, working hard to achieve success in business, etc. Even holding the Headstand or Crow Pose is Tapas. You are using all of your strength and focus to stay still for a few deep breaths.
- Swadhyaya or Self-Study: Taking the time for self-study to learn, grow and to discover your own potential is Swadhyaya. It brings you closer to your true consciousness and the Divine power. Over time, Swadhyaya leads to a deeper study of the ultimate consciousness. Studying your own functions and habits, understanding your dreams and desires is Swadhyaya. Simple ways to practice this is by answering questions about yourself. Are you a self-starter? Do you need constant motivation? Are you organized and punctual? Learning about your own traits will improve your awareness. You will become more compassionate towards yourself and others.
- Ishvara Pranidhana or surrendering to the higher power: The last Niyama leads us to surrender. It teaches us to let go and surrender to the higher power or God. This Niyama helps us understand what universal power is and who God is. We learn to place our faith and trust in this higher consciousness. We grow closer to the supreme being, learn to become detached and unworldly. One can start with simple observances and to let go or not to control small situations.
Practicing the Yamas and Niyamas requires patience and dedication. You won’t see any instant results or gratification. Unlike asanas, Yamas and Niyamas are not going to reflect muscle soreness or the feeling of releasing tension from the back. The Yamas and Niyamas are a perfect example of how yoga is a way of life or a lifestyle, and not just about the hour spent on your mat practicing asanas. Like many things in life, start small and as you grow, you can incorporate more. Insteading of thinking of them as a ‘to-do’ list or a mandatory rulebook, think of it as a guideline to living a practical life that leads to bliss, love and contentment.
In a yoga teacher training course, students learn the Yamas and Niyamas in-depth, and listen to experiences of teachers on how to incorporate them. This makes it more accessible and applicable.