Approximately two thousand years ago, a sage by the name of Patanjali composed the Yoga Sutras, a collection of 196 aphorisms on yoga. It is one of the most influential and classical treatises on yoga philosophy and practice. In Chapter 2 of the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali prescribes adherence to an eight-fold path of yoga, otherwise known as “Ashtanga Yoga” (not to be confused with the Ashtanga style of yoga practice taught by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, see ashtanga vinyasa yoga).
These eight steps of yoga include: 1) Yamas―moral codes, restraints, 2) Niyamas―observances, 3) Asana―posture, 4) Pranayama―control of the breath, 5) Pratyahara―withdrawal of the senses, 6) Dharana―concentration, 7) Dhyana―meditation, and 8) Samadhi―absorption with the object of one’s meditation.
The Yamas and Niyamas are the preliminary practices that help one develop a yogic lifestyle. The five Yamas consist of: 1) Ahimsa―non-violence, 2) Satya―truthfulness, 3) Asteya―non-theft, 4) Brahmacharya―preservation of sexual energy, and 5) Aparigraha―non-greed.
The five Niyamas consist of: 1) Saucha―cleanliness, 2) Santosha―contentment, 3) Tapas―heat, discipline, 4) Svadhyaya―Self-study, and 5) Ishvara pranidhana―devotion or surrender to a higher power.
By integrating these principles of yoga into our daily living, we begin to see yoga as more than just a physical practice. We begin to see yoga as a way of life. In the modern world, it seems we are so rushed that we want to bypass the philosophical aspects of yoga and get on with its practice. But by embracing the spiritual realm of yoga, we can engage in a more authentic practice of this ancient tradition.
Here is a brief explanation along with tips & suggestions of how to start practicing the Yamas & Nyamas:
The 1. Yamas have to do with how we relate to others. They are essentially ethical standards that remind us that we do off the mat is equally as important as what we do on it.
a. Non-Harming (Ahimsa) In Sanskrit the prefix a means “not,” while himsa means “harming, injuring, killing, or doing violence.” Ahimsa, the first of the yamas and the highest ranking among them, is the practice of non-harming or non-violence. This is the key, the sages tell us, to maintaining both harmonious relationships in the world and a tranquil inner life.
At a deeper level, ahimsa is less a conscious process than a natural consequence of yoga practice. As our journey unfolds, it leads to awareness of the peaceful and enduring core that is our true nature; the desire to prevent harm is a spontaneous expression of that awareness. We begin to realize that the inner self in others is identical to our own inner self, and we wish no harm to come to any being.
Practice Tip: Practice being more kind, accepting, and forgiving of yourself and others. According to the sages, when ahimsa is fully embraced, an inner confidence emerges that is deep seated and surprisingly powerful.
b. Truthfulness (Satya) The word sat, in Sanskrit, means “that which exists, that which is.” Satya, in turn, means “truthfulness”—seeing and reporting things as they are rather than the way we would like them to be.
Practice Tip: Inwardly learn to recognize the cascade of fears and other negative emotions that prompt you to twist reality. Once you have understood and processed these fears, your thoughts, speech, and actions can be realigned with the truth, even as you look more deeply into your needs and desires. Outwardly, refrain from telling lies and speak with kindness, compassion, and clarity.
c. Non-Stealing (Asteya) The word steya means “stealing.” When it is combined with the prefix a, it yields the third yama, asteya: non-stealing. We are most likely to associate stealing with tangible objects, but intangibles, such as information and emotional favors, are more likely to be the objects stolen in our world.
Practice Tip: Because the urge to steal arises from a sense of unhappiness, incompleteness, and envy, the solution is to practice giving any chance you get. Give food; give money; give time. Since wealth is ultimately a state of mind, you will feel increasingly wealthy; and through selfless giving, your sense of inner wealth may bring you outer wealth.
d. Moderating the Senses (Brahmacharya) The literal translation of brahmacharya is “walking in God-consciousness.” Practically speaking, this means that brahmacharya turns the mind inward, balancing and supervising the senses, and leads to freedom from dependencies and cravings. And the sages tell us that when the mind is freed from domination by the senses, sensual pleasures are replaced by inner joy.
Practice Tip: Making wise choices about the books and magazines you read, the movies you see, and the company you keep will help you conserve energy and keep your mind focused and dynamic. Being moderate in all sensual activities so that you don’t dwell on them, staying committed and faithful to one partner in a relationship that is mutually supportive—this is the middle path of brahmacharya.
e. Non-Possessiveness (Aparigraha) Graha means “to grasp” and pari means “things”: aparigraha means “not grasping things,” or non-possessiveness. It helps us achieve a balanced relationship with the things that we each call “mine.”
A yogic maxim says, “All the things of the world are yours to use, but not to own.” That is the essence of aparigraha. Whenever we become possessive, we are in turn possessed, anxiously holding onto our things and grasping for more. But when we make good use of the possessions that come to us and enjoy them without becoming emotionally dependent on them, then they neither wield power over us nor lead to false identities and expectations.
Practice Tip: Examine your own tendencies toward possessiveness. Do you take better care of an object in your possession than one belonging to someone else? Do you acquire more of something than you can use? Do you depend too much on others, give more in a relationship than is healthy for you, replace mutual give-and-take with the need for tight-fisted control, or attempt to increase your self-esteem by gaining someone else’s love? The practice of non-possessiveness helps us to examine our assumptions and guides us back to healthy relationships with others.
The 2. Niyamas relate to our relationship with ourselves. They offer us a framework for self-discipline and remind us of the importance of our actions (and inactions).
a. Self-Purification (Shaucha) Shaucha means “purification; cleanliness.” It includes a number of techniques for cleansing the body as well as the mind, and it has even been called the aim of the entire system of yoga. The sages say that shaucha is not only the foundation for bodily health, it is also the doorway to deeper and more tranquil states of meditation.
Practice Tip: Select wisely from the many choices of food, emotions, and thoughts waiting to come into your body and mind. As the body becomes purified you will experience radiant health; as the mind becomes purified you will feel increasingly clear, friendly, and cheerful.
b. Contentment (Santosha) The word santosha means “contentment” as well as “delight, happiness, joy.” It comes from an experience of acceptance—of life, of ourselves, and of whatever life has brought us. When we are content, we are happy. Thus—and here is the key to this niyama—through the power of contentment, happiness becomes our choice.
Practice Tip: Let go of the past. Do not condemn yourself for not being wiser, wealthier, or more successful than you are. Free your mind of expectations. Then you will see life in a larger context and be able to ride its ups and downs with equanimity.
How do you achieve contentment when inwardly you are disappointed and striving for change and improvement? Create it. Try to keep in mind the yogic premise that whatever you have in the present moment is enough. Once you do this, happiness will find an enduring place in your life; whatever aspirations you have for the future will simply add to your joy.
c. Self-Discipline (Tapas) The literal definition of tapas is “heat,” in this case the heat that builds during periods of determined effort. Tapas accompanies any discipline that is willingly and gladly accepted in order to bring about a change of some kind—whether it be improved health, a new habit, better concentration, or a different direction in life. Tapas focuses energy, creates fervor, and increases strength and confidence. The practice of asanas is a form of tapas for the body; meditation is a tapas that purifies and focuses the mind.
Practice Tip: Remember that tapas can go hand in hand with any task—even something as mundane as cleaning the bathroom floor. Whenever we perform our actions with full determination and effort, they are performed with tapas.
Through the ardor of tapas, choose to make healthy changes in your life—but focus on only one or two changes at a time. Take small steps that can be accomplished successfully, and find replacements for habits that are unproductive.
d. Self-Study (Svadhyaya) Svadhyaya means, literally, “to recollect (to remember, to contemplate, to meditate on) the Self.” It is the effort to know the Self that shines as the innermost core of your being.
Practice Tip: Begin with the study of writings that inspire you to feel the presence of the indwelling spirit. Then begin to apply svadhyaya in your daily life by practicing the yamas and niyamas, the asanas, breath awareness, and meditation, and learn to recognize when you are acting in harmony with your goals and when you are unconsciously acting counter to them.
e. Self-Surrender (Ishvara Pranidhana) Ishvara refers to all-pervading consciousness; pranidhana means “to surrender.” Together, these words may be translated as “trustful surrender to God,” the last and most important of the niyamas, and perhaps the most difficult for students to embrace. Self-surrender is not a process of defeat or of mindlessly submitting to another’s will. It is the act of giving ourselves to a higher purpose.
Practice Tip: When you practice meditation, observe the thoughts and desires that distract your concentration, and instead, rest your attention in the center of your being. At such times you may be able to transcend the limitations of your attachments and sense the presence of inner stillness.
In whatever form it presents itself, that experience, the sages tell us, guides us toward wholeness and the fulfillment of our inward quest.
3. Asana (Postures) The limb that most people know and love, asana makes up a large component of many modern yoga styles. Asana is nowadays used to describe the physical postures that offer a ton of health benefits including increased flexibility, core strength, physical and mental balance and detoxification. Traditionally, the purpose of asana (which translates as “to sit”) was to prepare the body for the internal practices that follow.
4. Pranayama (Breath Control/Extension) Prana is the vital life force that pervades every aspect of creation and exists within us as energy. The breathing techniques of yoga literally help to expand our energy and begin to move our awareness away from the physical body and into our more subtle layers.
5. Pratyahara (Sense Withdrawl) When information hits the senses (touch, smell, hearing, sight and taste) the mind is stimulated. Pratyahara teaches us to withdraw from this external stimulation and bring our focus inward.
It is an important preparatory stage of meditation. Even if we sit within a quiet space we can’t completely avoid all sensory stimuli (particularly sounds) but we can train ourselves to be unaffected by it, which paves the way for meditation to happen.
6. Dharana (Concentration) Concentration is taking the mind to a single point of focus. It’s quite tough to concentrate when the mind is jumping around responding to sounds and smells, hence the importance of Pratyahara. At the stage of concentration, an agitated and busy mind may experience erratic thoughts, colours, images or shapes (or all of the above) and learning to ignore them is part of the practice.
The key is having something to concentrate on, a word or mantra, a symbol or an object, which helps the attention come to a single point.
7. Dhyana (Meditation) Extended periods of Dharana as above, will naturally lead to meditation. They may appear to be the same thing, however while Dharana takes the awareness to a single point of focus, Dhyana is ultimately pure awareness without a specific focus. The mind has been stilled to the point of few or no thoughts (any we do have simply float in the background without our awareness becoming distracted by them).
We may move in and out of Dharana and Dhyana as we continue practicing, but the key word here is practice. In meditation, the mind and body experience a profound sense of peace and relaxation and even a few minutes can be deeply rejuvenating.
8. Samadhi (Pure Consciousness) Samadhi is when a practitioner merges with the object of their meditation and becomes at one with it and their surroundings. This is sometimes described as bliss or ecstasy, but it is not an experience of emotion (as the experience of the self and the ego have dissolved). The practitioner simply becomes pure consciousness, at one with the divine.
If you want to know more, get yourself the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali – awesome book!