Yamas and Niyamas, asana poses, mudras, and mantras, we explore yoga’s ethics and values in creating a lifestyle of wellness and bliss.
So what’s it really all about?
Too often people presume it’s a class you go to, to workout and stretch in funny positions with hard to pronounce names. However written in the Sanskrit (an ancient India-European language of India, in which the Hindu scriptures and classical Indian poems are written) is a collection of spiritual, physical and mental practices. The asanas (poses) are just one of many elements that make up yoga. The meditation is another. However there is so much more to it.
I was very fortunate that my first yoga teacher about 25 years ago taught me that it is the Asanas and the pranayama (the breathing), the yamas (social restraints) and the niyamas (self-disciplines) that are ethical principles that guide how we interact with other people and how we take care of ourselves. My yoga teacher ran courses not just classes. So you immersed yourself in a learning program in a bid to better your outlook on life.
An integral part of yoga is the Yamas (social - philosophy of non-harming/non-violence in thought, word and actions, truthfulness, non-stealing, ‘right use of energy', non-greed/non-hoarding) and the Niyamas (self-discipline - purification-cleanliness, Contentment-happiness, joy, Self-Discipline, Self-Study, Self-Surrender) which are a series of observances and things to do to focus on reining in or controlling poor lifestyle resulting in a personal choice to live well.
It’s a lifestyle with balance and harmony that so many want to adopt yet don’t know quite how to achieve that balance. A yoga lifestyle restores health, energy, youthfulness, mental and physical wellness, expels physical and mental toxins, develops your intuition and it helps you to emit positive energy out into your world whilst helping you to combat negativity.
This is a considerable contrast to the gymnastics poses of yoga used to promote it in the media. Sadly many are put off, thinking “I’m not flexible I could never do that” and therefore are missing out on a life improving philosophy. Simply put it is a way of life not an exercise class.
In the Yoga Sutra a seminal collection of texts written between the 2nd and 5th century BC, philosophers outline an 8 limbed step-by-step path for purifying the body and mind.
The 8 Limbs of Yoga
In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra (the mother book of yoga written over 2000 years ago), the eightfold path is called ashtanga, which literally means “eight limbs” (ashta = eight, anga = limb). These eight steps basically act as guidelines on how to live a meaningful and purposeful life. They serve as a guide for ethical conduct and self-discipline; they direct attention toward one’s health; and they help us to acknowledge the spiritual aspects of our nature.
The ultimate goal of yoga is union with the Divine. I often think this is why mainstream yoga shy away from the traditional teachings. It’s sometimes difficult to synergise this level of spiritual connection with a ‘group exercise environment’ in a broad enough manner that it may encompass any belief system, religion, earth connection or spiritualist values. For me the key is an open mind and an acceptance that religion and spiritual belief is different for every person. How they manifest that ‘Divine’ connection is uniquely private and a reflection of their individual stage of spiritual awakening and connection.
Ideally the 8 limbs can help you achieve radiant health, increased mental powers, and purity of mind and body.
The 8 limbs are as follows:
1. YAMAS- (restraints) or ethical rules. These ask practitioners to avoid violence, lying, stealing, wasting energy, and possessiveness, letting go of grudges.
The five yamas
ahimsa (nonharming); satya (truthfulness);
asteya (nonstealing); brahmacharya (sexual moderation); and aparigraha (nongrasping).
2. NIYAMAS (things not to be restrained) are qualities to observe and cultivate. They ask the practitioners to embrace cleanliness and contentment, to purify ourselves through heat (not just hot yoga but heat of friction, or mental discomfort), to continually study and observe our habits, and to surrender to something greater than ourselves.
The five niyamas being:
saucha (purity), samtosha (contentment), tapas (dedication), svadhyaya (self-study),Ishvara pranidhana (devotion to the highest Self).
3. ASANA - The postures that promote physical health and stamina.
4. PRANAYAMA is means for controlling breath and vital energy.
The final four limbs are subtle methods of working with the mind.
5. PRATYAHARA is the withdrawal of your senses from the material world in order to still the mind.
6. DHARANA is concentration, in which you strive to achieve one-pointed mental focus.
7. DHYANA is meditation, which helps extend your uninterrupted concentration.
8. SAMADHI, or superconsciousness, is union with the Divine—the doorway to bliss and the culmination of the yogic path.
Interestingly much of the teachings of ancient yoga teachings and contemporary beliefs align. Modern principles of peaceful, sustainable, healthy living effectively are the new yoga, and it’s rather a shame this beautiful life philosophy has been watered down to an image of often sexualised body transforming exercise. There are however many incredibly dedicated yoga studios and teachers committed to the teachings of yoga philosophy. So before you start your yoga journey do your homework, ask questions of your teachers class content and ensure you’re not missing out on the best parts of the practice, the true learning.