Yamas and Niyamas: Classical Ethical Guidelines
The Yamas and Niyamas are disciplines that help us develop our character. A true practice of yoga includes the development of a good character. The philosophies of yoga recognize that ALL aspects of the 'self’ need to be cultivated to be healthy, and is a holistic practice: MIND/BODY/SPIRIT.
Yamas: Ethical Guidelines (Behavior restraints)
Disciplines for the yoga student to develop pertaining to her/his relationship their outer environment. These disciplines will help the yoga student to cultivate a healthy relationship with other people, nature, the Universe, and all of Creation. All the yamas apply to thoughts, words, anddeeds . There are five: Ahimsa (Non-Harming, Non-Violence), Satya (Truthfulness), Asteya (Non-Stealing), Brahmacharya (Moderation in ALL Things), Aparigraha (Greedlessness).
Ahimsa: (Non-Violence ; Love; Compassion)
Ahimsa means non-violence. It is more than the practice of not killing. The practice of Ahimsa begs for us to develop the ability to truly love, have compassion, and embrace all of creation. The yogi (a student of Yoga) believes that to kill, to destroy, or cause harm to a thing or being is to insult its and our Creator. Practicing Ahimsa brings us to the recognition that violence arises out of fear, weakness, ignorance or restlessness. We recognize that to curb violence, what is needed most, is to have freedom from fear. Violence is bound to decline when human beings learn to base their faith upon reality and investigation rather than upon ignorance and supposition. The practice of Ahimsa brings us to the recognition of our connection with all of creation. We gain the knowledge that every creature has as much right to live as we have. We gain the ability to look upon all creation, including ourselves, with eyes of love.
In an asana practice we use the Yama of Ahimsa towards our physical and emotion self. We can use the practice of Ahimsa to recognize when we are at our edge. We can use the practice of Ahimsa to cultivate a nurturing attitude toward ourselves and others in a class asana practice. We can learn to keep our ego out of the Yoga room and tune into what our bodies and minds really need to strengthen and develop in a positive way. Pain is not part of a yoga practice. To be violent to the body means we are no longer listening to it. Violence and awareness cannot coexist. When we are forcing, we are not feeling. When we are feeling, we cannot be forcing. One of the main purposes of the practice of Yoga Asanas is to cultivate feeling and awareness in the body. To cause pain, emotionally or physically, in any way, is to go against the Yama of Ahimsa, and thus the practice of Yoga.
Satya means to speak the truth, yet it is not always desirable to speak the truth come what may, for it could harm someone unnecessarily. We must consider first if we are practicing Ahimsa, it is top priority in the true practice of Yoga. We have to consider what we say, how we say it, and in what way it could affect others. If speaking the truth has negative consequences for another, and serves no purpose, then it is better to say nothing. A simple example would be:
The colors a person has chosen to put together, in an outfit they have on, is not very becoming. Keeping that opinion to yourself would be appropriate. There is no need to comment on the matter.
Satya should never come into conflict with our efforts to behave with Ahimsa (non-harming). If a situation will bring harm to another no matter what, choosing an option that would cause the least harm is the appropriate action. Another way to decide an what action to take is to ask these three basic questions:
“Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?”
Satya also means being genuine and authentic to our inner nature, having integrity, honesty, being honorable, not lying, not concealing, not down playing or exaggerating. Just basically being truthful in all aspects of life.
In your yoga asana practice, let your personality shine through and your needs of the moment be met. If you have had a very physical day, focus more on the calming down aspects of your practice. If you have had a mentally challenging day, focus more on the physical aspects of your practice. Don’t just decide, with out any thought, how your practice should go. Don’t let others sway your judgment on what is right for you. Be authentic and truthful to yourself, and practice what you know to be right. Your intuition is always right.
Not taking what is not yours - money, goods, or credit. Not robbing people of their own experiences and freedom. Not robbing yourselve of your own experiences and freedoms. Non-desire for another's possessions, qualities, or status. Not taking more than we need. Not wasting things, such as water, time, money, etc., especially someone else's. Having gratitude for the gifts we have been given. (It is stealing to not show gratitude for gifts of any kind. Breath, Life, etc.)
Your life is a gift, to you, as well as to the world. At
conception you have been given everything you need to become
who you are. Like a finger print, you are also unique. There
has never been, and will never be anyone just like you. What
you bring to the world can only be brought to the world by
you. What you choose not to bring to the world through your
unique gifts will be lost forever.
Breath is also a gift. It comes to us without asking. If we tried to stop our breath by holding it, we would eventually past out, and then our breath would come back in, without our conscious effort.
Using our breath we can change how we feel, the rhythm of our heart, and our energy. A slow breath can create calmness when agitated, a fast breath can bring more energy when tired, and a steady breath can help to bring focus to the mind. Choosing what quality we bring to our breath lets us enjoy the gift of breath more. Feeling gratitude for the gift of each breath can bring a new awareness to you. Try to feel a sense of gratitude for each breath, and feel how it changes your attitude as well as your life. Remember, if you only half breath, you can only half live.
In our asana practice we can use Asteya to let go of fear, and explore our 'self' on many levels.
The practice of having moderation in all things. Controlling our passions and desires
for pleasure: addictions to food, spending, work, drugs (caffeine), sex etc. Being moderate also in moderation. Allow for joy to be present in life, while cultivating a vigilant practice of Ahimsa (non-harming), toward yourself or others in your search for joy and happiness. Never let the need for any type of pleasure be in such excess that it controls you, instead of you controlling it. Keep alignment and balance in your. Stay connected with your Highest Self: mentally, physically, and spiritually.
In our asana practice we can use this concept to see the imbalances we create in our physical bodies by repetitive movement. Only doing what is easy or what feels natural can create imbalances. In our practice we feel and see what our bodies need and where imbalances are, and then we work to correct them. Allowing ourselves to be challenged, yet not over challenged.
Aparigraha: (Non-possessiveness, greedless, Non-covetousness, simplicity.)
Another facet of Asteya (non-stealing), which asks us to avoid the kind of stealing that is motivated by a greed springing from a perceived lack of abundance. Aparigraha is a greed that is rooted in jealousy. Jealousy means that we desire to be what someone else is, or to have what someone else has. Jealousy is based out of fear. Maybe a fear of being inadequate. In practicing Aparigraha, we do not hoard or collect things beyond our needs, physically and/or emotionally. Not being controlled by our fears. Collecting things only distracts us from our inner self, our true self. Rather than finding out who we are, we hide behind our collections, allowing our collections to define who we are.
Practicing Aparigraha helps you to find who you truly are, to find your uniqueness within, and to then fulfill your life's mission that only you can fulfill. In finding your true self, you no longer feel the desire to have what someone else has, or be what someone else is, finding contentment within.
In your yoga practice, learn to practice alone, even in a large class. Look to discover and to learn, not to judge or compare yourself to others, and then bring your gaze inward. In this way you will stay in tuned to your own body, your own capacity, and your own needs. Learn to continually challenge yourself, to let go of your fears, to move from your comfort zone, to allow yourself to go deeper while never going past your edge. Learn to let go and enjoy the journey.
Niyamas: Ethical guidelines (Personal restraints)
Ethical guidelines and practices for the Yoga student pertaining to their development of their "self" and are inner practices. Observances of one’s own
cleanliness body, mind, and spirit, including thoughts, words, and deeds. There are five: Svadhyaya, Tapas, Samtosa, Saucha, and Ishvara Pranidhana.
Svadhyaya: (the study of the self)
This practice of self study is an all encompassing practice. We do this consciously or unconsciously every moment of every day. What yoga tries to instill in us is the awareness of when we are reacting instead of acting, and living with awareness or non-awareness. Simply put, "Learning to just pay attention and be aware in every moment of your life." As you learn to truly live life with total attention, every moment is an experience to learn from and appreciate, even the not so fun times. With an unconscious living of life, we keep repeating patterns that cause us and those around us harm and suffering.
In our asana practice we use Svadhyaya to learn about our 'self' in many ways. We learn to be able to be the Seer to see the seen. As we learn to pull back and watch our 'self', we gain much needed knowledge to take into life.
Below are some quotes from two well know Yoga Teachers from India. They were some of the first to bring Yoga to the West.
Self Study, when it is developed to the highest degree, brings one close to higher forces that promote understanding of the most complex. The more effective our study, the more we understand our weaknesses and our strengths. We learn to nullify our weaknesses and use our strengths to the utmost. Then there is no limit to our understanding.
(From T.K.V. DESIKACHAR, The Heart of Yoga)
A person practicing svadhyaya reads their own book of life, at the same time that they write and revise it. There is a change in their outlook on life. They start to realize that all creation is meant for adoration, that all creation is divine, that there is divinity within them, and that the energy which moves them is the same that moves the entire universe. By Svadhyaya the student understands the nature of their soul and gains communion with God (the Creator, The Universal Spirit, The Higher Self).
(Paraphrased from BKS Iyengar, Light on Yoga)
Tapas is derived from the root ‘tap,’ which means to blaze, burn, shine, suffer pain, or consume by heat. It therefore means a burning effort under all circumstances to achieve a definite goal in life. It involves purification, self discipline, and austerity. The whole science of character building may be regarded as a practice of tapas. Tapas is the conscious effort to achieve… and to burn up all desires which stand in the way of this goal. A worthy goal makes life.... Life without tapas is like a heart without Love. By tapas the Yogi develops strength in body, mind, and character.
(Paraphrased from B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Yoga, p. 38)
Tapas is a physical, mental, and spiritual refining or polishing. In our hatha yoga practice, tapas can help us to push through hard places in our practice, to strengthen our bodies and minds when we are tired, to move through fear and/or self doubt, and to try things we might not believe we can do. Tapas, in our practice, is also the creation of an inner heat within the body, which then cleanses the body of toxins through our sweat.
Purity of the body is essential for well being. While good habits like bathing purify the external body. Asana and Pranayama cleanse it internally. The practice of Asanas (yoga postures) tones the entire body and removes toxins and impurities caused by over-indulgence. Pranayama (control of the breath) cleanses and aerates the lungs,
oxygenates the blood and purifies the nerves. Cleansing of the mind through Svadhyaya (self-study) helps to keep the mind clear from disturbing emotions like hatred, delusion, and pride.
With concentration, one obtains mastery over the senses. This internal cleansing brings radiance and joy. It banishes mental pain, dejection, sorrow, and despair and brings benevolence. When one is benevolent, one sees the virtues in others and not merely their faults. The respect which one shows others makes him self respecting and able to
fight their own sorrows and differences. This makes one ready to enter the temple of body and see their real self in the mirror of their mind.
Besides purity of the body, thought, and word, pure food is also necessary. It should be eaten to promote health, strength, energy, and life. It should be simple, nourishing, juicy, and soothing. Men are the only creatures that eat when not hungry and generally live
to eat rather than eat to live. If we eat for flavors of the tongue, we over-eat and so suffer from digestive disorders which throw our systems out of gear. The yogi (a student of yoga), believes in harmony, so they try to eat for the sake of sustaining health and life. They try not to eat too much or too little. They look upon their body as the rest-house of their spirit, and guard themselves against over-indulgence.
Remember, if you do not take care of your body, where will you live?
(taken from B.K.S. Iyengar, 'Light on Yoga)
In our asana practice we strive to bring purity and strength by practicing the asanas. We treat our bodies with repect by keeping in tuned to what it needs.
Samtosha is the practice of contentment, equanimity, peace, tranquility, and acceptance of the way things are in the present, right here, right now. Cultivating a sense of joy in just being alive and aware, cultivating an appreciation of the moment, and not feeling bad for what isn't, but being able to enjoying what is. It is the ability to be honest with where you are right now, and be okay with your self, and then growing and learning from that place. Samtosha does not mean 'putting up with' but rather, 'working from.' The yogi (a student of yoga) feels the lack of nothing, truly enjoying that which they have. Constant comparison with others creates discord and a lack of appreciation for what one has. So, see what you have, work to acquire what you NEED, and then be content. Set the goal to 'Live Simply, so that others may simply live.' Besides, 'The more you have, the more you have to manage.'
In our ansana practice we use Samtosha to see where we are each day. We become aware of where we are each time we come to our mat, and then work from that place. We learn to recognize changes and to accept those changes as part of life and our learning process. We learn to stop comparing ourselves to others, to lose the need to be better than someone else in order to feel content with ourselves and with who we are. We become and appreciate our 'self' and begin to recognize our 'True Self.' Our mat is the stage we practice playing out life and its outcomes through our practice of the Asanas. Watching, as the Seer, our actions and reactions in a miniature playing out of life. We then are able to step off our mats and into life with a better recognition and understanding of ourselves and our tendencies, and then bring that awareness into our life off our mat.
Ishvara Pranidhana: (transcending the ego, Complete surrender to God, or your Highest Self):
Dedication of your life to God, or the Highest Self that dwells in each of us. Service to others is serving God/your Highest Self. Surrendering to the knowledge that there is a power greater than yourself, and that there is nothing you can do by yourself. Recognizing that all things in the Universe are connected and need to be respected. In order for you to exist, they need to exist. Ishvara Pranidhana is the practice of losing focus on the 'self,' the practice of strengthening yourself, so you can use your gifts to help bring about balance and harmony to the Universe as a ‘whole.'
As we contemplate this concept in a class asana practice, what can we do to contribute to the group practice? We can bring to class an uplifting spirit, a respect for others, an organized space, an attitude for learning, asking questions when needed for our learning as well as for the learning of others, and being willing to fully participate at our own level. We become sensitive to our own inner knowledge, our own intuition, and come to know that it is always right.