8 Limbs of Yoga for Harmony: Yamas and Niyamas
Updated: Jun 21, 2019
When I tell people that I practice Yoga, one of the first things they usually say to me is "Yoga is not for me, I am really stiff" or "My body is not made for Yoga, there is no way I will be able to get my body into that posture"
Yoga has become popular as a form of exercise or gymnastics where being able to stand on your head or hands is considered practicing Yoga. Social media pictures also promote the idea that doing Yoga requires a person to get into some ridiculously difficult shape. So most people have come to associate the word Yoga with the physical aspect of Yoga, which is actually only one part of it known as Asana.
I fell in love with Patanjali’s eight limbs of Yoga. Yes, my asana practice is very important and that is how I initially got into Yoga, it is not the main reason I continue to practice Yoga. Although I cannot yet honestly say that I am a practitioner of all the eight limbs, I do aspire to become one. It may take a lifetime, or multiple, but I know that it is something that is here to stay.
This post introduces the Yamas and Niyamas which are mentioned as the first two of the eight limbs of yoga. In each aspiring yogi, they are the foundation that needs to be well established so as to gain clarity and equanimity in body, mind, and soul.
The Yamas and Niyamas are like the roots of a tree, which need to be well established and nurtured in order for the tree to bear its fruits (Samadhi i.e. liberation).
The Yamas and Niyamas
“The Yamas comprise non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, continence, non-greed. The Niyamas are purity, contentment, fiery discipline, study of spiritual books, and surrender to divine power (self-surrender).” - Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, Chapter II, Sutra 30 & 32; translation by Swami Satchidananda
The Five Yamas
Yama can be translated as discipline, restraint, self-control, or moral observance. It describes the ideal attitudes and behavior patterns that we should have towards others and the external world.
Ahimsa means non-violence in thought, word, or action towards oneself, all things and all sentient beings. It is not just about refraining from violence but it also means kindness, friendliness and being considerate to others and yourself. It means adapting an attitude of consideration and kindness in everything we do.
Most of us constantly judge, criticize and compare ourselves to others. This is a form of violence towards the self as the judgments and criticisms create negative emotions, which are imprinted in our subconscious and in time they negatively affect our body chemistry causing harm on a cellular level.
Changing negative thought patterns is for me one of the most difficult aspects of non-violence. One of my new mantras has become compassion, non-judgment and forgiveness towards others and myself.
Every time negative thoughts pop up, I repeat these words to myself. This really helps to diffuse any negativity and it brings my mind back to the present moment.
Satya means truthfulness i.e. speaking your truth but without hurting others. Since truth is only relative and one person’s truth may not be valid for the other person, it is important to consider the impact of speaking your truth. If speaking your truth will hurt others, then it is better not to speak at all. We must always consider ahimsa before we decide to speak our truth.
According to the Mahabharata, the words of the person who always speaks the truth will have great power. Whatever this person says will manifest in reality.
As explained in The Heart of Yoga by T.K.V Desikachar, the actions of one who speaks the truth will always be consistent with their speech.
Although we should only speak pleasant truths, we should also always refrain from lying. A person accustomed to lying needs to have a very good memory because they need to remember what lie they have told to which person and for what purpose so as not to loose their reputation.
This heavy burden of always being alert with your words will eventually take a toll on your relationships because one day the liar is bound to forget and get into trouble.
We do not have to have a perfect memory if we always speak the truth. A person who always speaks the truth will have a childlike quality of lightness and joy in their dealings with others. They will be open and have nothing to hide.
Asteya means not stealing or taking things that do not belong to us. It can also mean not claiming to deserve things that we have not worked for. Even being envious of what others have could be considered stealing. We should also not take advantage of others especially when we are in the position of power and the other is weak.
It is not asteya when we make people wait for us when we are late. Wasting other people’s time, is stealing their time. If we claim too much of a person’s time, we may be stealing time from other people that need their time.
Some books translate Brahmacharya as self-control or sexual abstinence. In The Heart of Yoga by T.K.V Desikachar, Brahmacharya does not have to be complete abstinence rather it is control of sexual desires and refraining from promiscuity. It is especially important for a spiritual seeker not to waste too much energy on the pursuit of sexual pleasures. This time and energy could be better spent on practicing Yoga.
Aparigraha can be observed by living a simple life, without accumulation of unnecessary, material possessions, negative emotions and thoughts. Observing Aparigraha means we are non-judgmental, lack expectations and are detached from our values and beliefs.
Aparigraha also means complete detachment from success or failure and the need for security. It means letting go of all that no longer serve us on our spiritual path.
Everyone has their own definition of what is necessary for a simple life, so it’s important to be honest with oneself in determining what is consider necessities. Talmini classifies necessities as those things required to keep the body and soul together. All things that solely increase comfort and enjoyment are luxuries.
That said, the mindset with which we relate to objects, how easily we can part with them, is of greater importance than the amount of possessions. But even if we are fully detached from our possessions, Talmini argues that the time and energy we spend accumulating and protecting them is a waste and will only keep us away from attaining our true life’s purpose.
It is important to note that detachment is not indifference; rather by letting go we become more open to receiving all that which the world has to offer.
“By letting go, it all gets done. The world is won by those who let it go. But when you try and try the world is beyond winning” - Lao Tzu
Niyama can mean requirement, self-restraint, or obligation. It describes the ethical guidelines on how to relate to the self for a spiritual or harmonious way of life. They can guide us on how to adapt smoothly to changes in outer conditions so as to remain at peace internally and live a blissful life.
Sauca means cleanliness or purity of the body, mind (thoughts, intentions and emotions) and actions. The outer body should be kept clean by bathing regularly and wearing clean clothes.
The inner body should be kept clean by eating a clean diet, refraining from consuming any intoxicating substances that may add to the toxic load of the body, and performing cleansing practices like neti, basti and tongue cleaning regularly.
The mind can be kept pure by closely watching what we feed to our five senses, for it is through these senses we receive information from the external world, which is processed by our minds and imprinted into our subconscious.
It is the misuse, overuse or underuse of our five senses that causes disturbances or impurities or toxins of the mind leading to negative emotions like anger, greed, frustration etc. Asana and Pranayama can help with cleansing our organs of toxins and impurities. Mantras can be used to cleanse the mind.
Santosha means being content in whatever situation we find ourselves in life and with whatever we have. It means being modest and accepting every situation as it is without wishing for things to be different. It is setting intentions, taking action, and yet not being disappointed when the result of our action turns out differently than initially intended.
Logically it is really simple, because unless we accept the cards we have been dealt in life, we will continue to suffer miserably for there are so many given things that we cannot change. The lack of contentment is usually the cause of many addictions, attachments, and suffering.
Consciously practicing Santosha on daily basis makes life a lot easier. It means becoming aware of the importance of not complaining, staying calm when things don’t go as planned and just keeping in mind that however bad the situation may be at this moment “this too will pass”.
Many people will never be satisfied with anything they have achieved. Greed for status, knowledge, recognition, and sense of achievement stands in the way of Santosha.
“Contentment counts for more than sixteen heavens together”. T.K.V Desikachar – The Heart of Yoga
Tapas means penance, austerity, great effort, fiery discipline or burning desire to follow a certain (spiritual) path. It can also be described as dedicated practice. Discipline tends to be a difficult issue for many people.
There is a tendency, in the modern world to get bored quickly. People try new things and give up quickly. In Yoga, this lack of discipline is considered an obstacle to progress.
Svadhyaya means self-inquiry or self-examination. According to the Heart of Yoga by T.K.V Desikachar, it literally means, “ to get close to something” i.e. getting closer to your true nature by studying yourself. “All learning, all reflection, and all contact that helps you to learn more about yourself is Svadhyaya.
Svadhyaya can also mean studying ancient texts in order to have a reference point for understanding ourselves. Books, situations, experiences, relationships with friends and family are tools to reach deeper self-understanding.
Ishwarapranidana means surrender to God or to a greater divine power. As explained in The Heart of Yoga by T.K.V Desikachar, it can also mean to “lay all your actions at the feet of God”. What or who is this God you should surrender to? To me, God is nature, and nature is God. God may be whatever or whoever according to your (religious) beliefs.
Surrendering to God, means having faith that whatever happens, it will all work out for the better. It means not being afraid of making certain decisions or trying to avoid certain “bad” consequences.
It means having faith that if you undertake things with pure intentions, the outcome will always be meaningful whether it may be perceived as positive or negative. It means doing your best and leaving the rest to universal laws of nature to make sure it all falls into place nicely.
According to The Heart of Yoga by T.K.V Desikachar, the more we reach a state of vidya (mental clarity and correct apprehension), the less frequently things will go wrong in our lives.
Ego, making demands, aversion and fear are the greatest causes of lack of clarity also known as the four branches of avidya. One needs to eliminate or minimise the four branches of avidya in order to truly surrender to a greater power.
Once we erase the ego, stop making demands, stop rejecting things and eliminate fear, then we have truly surrendered to the divine force of nature. We are no longer trying to be in control or under the false misconception that we are in control.
And finally, understanding that you are not your mind, and that this body is only a temporary vehicle will release you from the need to control everything that happens in this life.
“I am not this hair, I am not this skin, I am the soul that lives within”, Rumi.
With knowledge and awareness of Yamas and Niyamas, we can gradually become more conscious of our attitudes, behavior and their consequences. Being constantly aware of the Yamas and Niyamas in day-to-day life decisions is a form of Yoga practice.
We can use the Yamas and Niymas during our life journey for the process of self-reflection and self-understanding, to explore our attitudes, behaviors and the related consequences. They can be especially useful for reflection when we face conflict in our relationships. They can help us understand our actions and the reactions of others.
In times of conflict we tend to lose perspective due to ego i.e. always needing to be right or better than the other person. However by reflecting on the Yamas and Niyamas, we can learn to let go and reduce the effect of the ego on our behaviour.
I believe that if we are successful at changing our attitudes and behaviours to continuously reflect the teachings of the eightfold path, we would essentially be increasing positive karma and decreasing negative karma.
You are encouraged to apply the Yamas and Niyamas during asana practice “on the mat”, but even more so in your daily lives “off the mat”.
It is believed that the sincere practice of these ethics in all life situations is a crucial factor for spiritual evolution, and the key to a general wellbeing on this earth.
Peace to all!