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The Yamas and Niyamas - Where the Yoga Begins

“We all wish for world peace, but world peace will never be achieved unless we first establish peace within our own minds.” ― Geshe Kelsang Gyatso



Ancient texts such as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali focus very little on physical yoga postures (asana), and in fact when Patanjali speaks of ‘asana’ he is in no way at all referring to Headstand or Warrior II; he’s talking about the position you choose to sit in while meditating – your ‘seat’. Living yoga means integrating the principles of yoga into our thoughts, words and actions; it means taking yoga beyond the mat. The 8 limbs of yoga are:


1. YAMA – Restraints, moral disciplines or moral vows

2. NIYAMA – Positive duties or observances

3. ASANA – Posture

4. PRANAYAMA – Breathing Techniques

5. PRATYAHARA – Sense withdrawal

6. DHARANA – Focused Concentration

7. DHYANA – Meditative Absorption

8. SAMADHI – Bliss or Enlightenment


When we speak of practicing yoga we should include all aspects of yoga. When one practices just the physical aspect of yoga, which is Asanas, and refers to it as the practice of yoga is like ripping a hand off of the human body and calling it a human.


The practice of yoga begins with Yamas and Niyamas which are guidelines to help us on the life path.


Yamas


This first limb, Yama, refers to vows, disciplines or practices that are primarily concerned with the world around us, and our interaction with it.


Ahimsa: Non-harming, non-violence


Ahimsa—often translated as “non-violence” or “non-harming”—is the opportunity to make space within your consciousness for peace. All the anger, separation, and aggression disappear, which allows us all to be who we are, to accept everything and see everything and everyone as a part of Divine, to relate to the world in a whole new way. The practice of Ahimsa starts from within - be gentle to yourself, treat yourself nicely and this will be the way to treat the world around you, all living things in nature.


Satya: Truthfulness


The Yoga Sutra holds truth among the highest of ideals. Satya requires that we consider both the spoken and unspoken aspects of your words. Don’t gossip, even if the information you’re giving is true, but rather speak only of the highest. Use your words to elevate the listener. When you do so, you elevate yourself in the process. By becoming silent within we are able to examine the roots of speech on an inner level, which enables us to better control our gross outward communication. This way we are able to establish a way of interacting with the world that includes both ahimsa and satya, both peacefulness and truthfulness.


Asteya: Non-stealing


Asteya is commonly translated to mean refraining from taking anything that is not freely offered, the first things most people think of are money, clothes, food, and other tangible stuff. But there’s more to asteya than what is found on the material plane. There are lots of things we can steal, like time when we are late. We can steal someone’s energy. We can steal someone else’s ideas if we represent them as our own. To practice Asteya, consider what is truly needed and refrain from letting desires persuade you to take more. Respect the time and energy of others, give credit where credit is due.


Brahmacharya: Right Use of Energy


Brahmacharya is often translated as ‘celibacy’ , but beyond restraining the sexual energy, It literally means ‘walking in the way of God, It’s about energy conservation and not letting the senses rule your behavior. The Right use of energy leads us to consider how we actually use and direct our energy. Brahmacharya also evokes a sense of directing our energy away from external desires – you know, those pleasures which seem great at the time but are ultimately fleeting – and instead, towards finding peace and happiness within ourselves.


Aparigraha: Non-possessiveness


Aparigraha, which often translates as ‘non-greed’, ‘non-possessiveness’, and ‘non-attachment’. The word ‘graha’ means to take, to seize, or to grab, ‘pari’ means ‘on all sides’, and the prefix ‘a’ negates the word itself – basically, it means ‘non’. Aparigraha is one of the central teachings in the Yogic text the Bhagavad Gita, we should never concern ourselves with the outcome of a situation, we should only concern ourselves with what we’re actually doing right now as we work towards that outcome. To practice Aparigraha, try a simple practice - acknowledge abundance and practice gratitude.




Niyamas


Niyamas are five recommendations for healthy living that are at the core of yoga philosophy, and they comprise the second limb of yoga. The second limb, Niyama, usually refers to duties directed towards ourselves, but can also be considered with our actions towards the outside world.


Saucha: Purity


Saucha involves keeping things clean, inside and out, both physical and mental hygiene. Get rid of clutter (mental and physical), scrub the floors as well as your bodies (inside and out), simplify your life. Keep your being clean, though don’t get too hung up on the idea of literal purity only. When you work at purifying the body, you begin to understand that it will never be perfectly clean. Saucha helps break up excessive fixation with your body, bringing the understanding that it is perishable.


Santosha: Contentment


Santosha is interpreted as the greatest happiness, the underlying joy that cannot be shaken by life’s individual events. Contentment is really about accepting life as it is. Life will throw whatever it wants at you, and you ultimately have little control. Accept it with love and gratitude, learn from it. The process of Santosha is relaxing into where you are in your moment right now and realizing that it is perfect. Santosha is like a deep relaxation possible in Savasana (Corpse Pose). We cannot find contentment, but we can create the space for it.


Tapas: Right Effort


Tapas’, which often translates traditionally as ‘austerity’ or ‘discipline’ or “internal fire,” and the Yoga Sutra suggests that when tapas is in action, the heat it generates will both burn away impurities and kindle the sparks of divinity within. Cultivating a sense of Tapas in our physical practice could mean trying poses we usually avoid or find difficult, or leaning mindfully into our edge within a tough asana. Tapas is the willingness to do the work, which means developing discipline, enthusiasm, and a burning desire to learn. You can apply Tapas to anything you want to see happen in your life. In yoga, it’s often seen as a commitment to the practice.


Svadhyaya: Self-Study


The Yoga Sutra suggests that the study of the Self leads you toward communion with the Divine. You can develop Svadhyaya as you move through everyday life. It might be a contemplation of the ultimate or observation of your routine, habits, and the ways you operate on a daily basis. Svadhyaya is a skillful and systematic investigation of how things are. When you practice self-observation, you begin to uncover and address the unconscious patterns governing your life. Also, the study of sacred texts, such as the Yoga Sutra, the Bhagavad Gita, Buddhism’s Heart Sutra, or the Bible. Study helps you understand the universality of life experiences and thereby increases your compassion for yourself and others.


Ishvara Pranidhana: Dedication to the Highest


The term ‘Isvara Pranidhana’ is made up of two words; Isvara, which translates as ‘Supreme Being’, ‘God’, ‘Brahman’, ‘Ultimate Reality’ or ‘True Self’ and Pranidhana, which means ‘fixing’. We surrender to this Supreme Being, Universal Consciousness, which in essence means cultivating a deep and trusting relationship with the Universal Flow. Yoga Sutra II.45 says that liberation—the highest happiness—comes only from a love of, communion with, and surrender to, God. To embrace Ishvara pranidhana, it helps to understand what “God” is. It’s about offering oneself to the divine matrix. It’s letting our own holy essence guide our actions and catching the sacred power of life. This higher power is there for all of us. We can always pause to look for the higher essence in any situation.


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