There’s not much that’s more frustrating to a long-term yoga teacher than the belief yoga is just a form of exercise, so here’s a brief interpretation of the yamas and niyamas in accordance with Patanjali’s sutras.
Umm Firstly, What Exactly Are The Eight Limbs (Astanga)?
- Universal ethics (Yama)
- Self-discipline/purification (Niyama)
- Postures (Asana)
- Breath control (Pranayama)
- withdrawal of the senses (Pratyahara)
- Concentration (Dharana)
- Meditation (Dhyana)
- Super-consciousness/bliss (Samadhi).
It’s important to understand that actually, asana is only aspect of this entire philosophy. In other words, it’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it and the attitude with which you approach it. Asana without any knowledge or consideration of the yamas and niyamas could just as easily be described as gymnastics.
Ahimsa = Sensitivity/Kindness
Respecting yourself, the environment and others. Over-indulgence, gluttony, drug and alcohol abuse, bullying, lack of consideration for others – these are all insensitive and aggressive behavioural patterns. When it comes to”yogasana”, sensitivity means always considering how you feel today, right at this moment, and adapting your practise accordingly. Acceptance of where you are at and doing your best rather than being competitive and taking risks. Being considerate and respectful in class might mean wearing deodrant, bringing a towel if it’s hot, wiping your mat down for the next person if it’s not your own, perhaps avoiding garlic or shoes that make your feet stinky! It means being respectful so it could mean paying others on time for their services or making sure we pay back what we owe. It also means making the effort to be on time so as not to disturb others who are in the “zone”!
Satya = Truth/honesty
Being true to yourself means always acting (rather than re-acting) from your heart and never deliberately misleading someone. Sometimes being true to yourself may involve telling white lies in order not to hurt someone’s feelings. In a yoga class, as above, we need to stay true to ourselves and our body and never do anything that puts us at risk or that doesn’t feel right just because we have a desire to achieve above all else.
Asteya = Non-stealing/Generosity
Not stealing or taking what does not belong to us doesn’t really need to be explained but in a yoga sense, non-stealing can also be interpreted to mean not taking over someone’s space or stealing their thunder. For example, taking full credit for something. It could even mean mis-using information that we have been trusted with and betraying someone’s confidence. Occasionally, when life gets too much, we may feel the urge to vent about stuff that we are upset about to our friends and family in a negative way. We are all human, but must be aware that if we get into a habit of this, we end up draining other people’s valuable reserves of joy and energy and they may begin to avoid us. Instead of taking, we could try to be more giving. We could listen attentively, ask questions and practise being generous instead.
Aparigrahaha = Healthy Detachment/Non-Greed
Obviously non-greed can relate to gluttony and over-indulgence but also it relates to how much we feel we are entitled to take compared with what we actually need (from the environment, from others, from ourselves). It is difficult to avoid desire and attachment to the idea of owning “stuff” or experiencing “sensation” in the world we live in, saturated as we are by marketing and media. We are continually lead to believe that more is more. Advertisements are created to subliminally suggest that certain things we didn’t even know we wanted will make us happier – although it is rarely the case. In a class situation we can feel competitive sometimes – not just with others, even with ourselves! – and our desire to achieve or “get somewhere” with a particular pose means that we may have missed yet another opportunity to reflect, inquire and to simply enjoy exactly where we are at that moment.
Brahmacharya = Moderation
Although brahmacharya is sometimes translated to mean celibacy or abstinence, this isn’t a particularly natural state of being for a living creature! In a modern context, it is understood to mean that as much as possible, we should try to exercise moderation in all things; to be responsible human beings, to forever seek the highest truth, to always be respectful and to not let our senses get the better of us!
Saucha = Purity
Purity of thought, of deed, of the spoken word. Purity of what we consume; the things we eat and the products we use in and around our home, place of work and on our bodies. Stress comes in many forms so it’s important that we can monitor our environment and try to use the most natural things available. We should also try to spend our free time wisely. The music we listen to and movies or television shows we watch should not induce stress but should makes us feel calm and happy. Socially, we should spend the majority of our time hanging out with people that bring out the best in us by making us feel positive. And as much as possible, we should only do things that make us feel as if we are being enveloped in a warm embrace. This way, we are more equipped to counteract the stressors we cannot control.
Santosa = Contentment
Being happy with what we have. Letting go of attachment to ambition or desire to own/be/do more. This is not the same as not having or even working towards a goal. The idea is to let go of the outcome and simply just allow the process to unfold by being consistent with the action. Practise contentment by finding things to be grateful for every day. Maintain awareness that you are always doing/being the best you can with whatever it is you have at that particular moment.
Tapas = Burning enthusiasm, Doing Our Best / Discipline
Staying on the path. Letting go of laziness, never giving up and committing to doing one’s best without being attached to the idea of success or failure. Following a healthy routine (but not becoming attached to the routine!). Observing our own behavior. Mindfulness of thought, action and deed. Change and transformation begins with tapas.
Svadhyaya = Self-study
Never putting the books away! Always watching our behaviour, reactions. Contemplation. Allowing ourselves to learn from mistakes. Never being fearful of making mistakes. Letting go of what has passed and only taking from it what is useful for right now.
Isvara pranidhana = Surrender to the highest (It is what it is!)
Allow things to unfold, having faith – accepting the things you cannot change, understanding that life ebbs and flows and that there are highs and lows. You cannot have peace without calamity, heat without cold, movement without stillness. Worrying about what might be doesn’t change things and if you look back on your life and all the things you have managed to come through (and all the things our parents/grandparents have managed to come through), we can see that “ this too shall pass..” if we can let things be without attachment to fear or thoughts of “What if…….”.