The first two limbs of the ‘8 Limbs of Yoga’ are Yama and Niyama. They are both five guidelines to how to live well. Once you learn them you’ll realise that in many ways you already practice Yoga. The Yamas and Niyamas are the first of the 8 limbs because it will be foundation of your practice. The more you are able to commit to these guidelines, the easier the rest of your practice become. I’ve never met anyone who disagree with these guidelines, because its essentially all about coming back to our true nature.
Although it seems pretty straight forward when you look at it like this, it goes much deeper than you might think. For example, when you look at Ahimsa – non-violence or non-harming, most people will think about the direct action of being violent or harm someone. What about the way you think, eat, drink, say and how you move your own body. There is the direct harm we cause, and there is the indirect harm. For instance, how was the clothes you last bought produced? Or how was the food you last ate produced? Did it cause harm to the planet or workers?
Don’t worry, we’re not perfect, and these guidelines are not here to put us to shame or fill us with guilt. In fact, if we let that happen, we put harm to ourselves(!) So, relax and use these guidelines to enhance your awareness and change your behaviour towards wellness.
The Niyamas are:
Saucha – Cleanliness
Santosha – Contentment
Tapas – Discipline
Savdhyaya – Study of the self
Isvara Pranidhana – Surrender to a higher being or higher power
As the yamas are more directed at how we interact with the outer world, the niyamas are more focused on the self. You may also notice the yamas are about what not to do and the niyamas are more what to do.
As you practice these more, you’ll notice how the rest of your yoga practice will enhance greatly. In hatha yoga we strive to become balanced, and by practicing the yamas and niyamas we live a life that do not cause inner conflicts, delusion and attachments, so your life become more harmonious and balanced.
Isvara Pranidhana is the last of the Niyamas. Its made up of two words; Isvara, which translates to ‘Supreme Being’, ‘God’, ‘Brahman’, ‘Ultimate reality’ or ‘True Self’ and Pranidhana which means fixing. It’s interpreted as surrendering to the higher self. In other words you can say its about building a deep and trusting relationship with the universe.
As we work our way up the limbs, the yamas and the niyamas we see that they are not placed in random order. The translator of the Sutras, Swami Satchidananda says that if you’re able to master this one Niyama, there is no need to practice an of the others. In order to surrender to your higher self, you must let go of all impurities (saucha), you’ve found contentment(Santosha) in your higher self, you have the discipline(tapas) because your why is so strong and there is no longer any need to study self(Svadhyaya).
In every action, honor the Supreme Being, that is Isvara Pranidhana.
Svadhyaya, the fourth Niyama, meaning ‘self-study’. When reading yogic text you will find there is a difference between ‘self’ and ‘Self’. The self is the false self, whereas the Self is the higher self. In Svadhyaya we practice studying the false self, meaning our physical form, our ego, attachments and identity.
By studying the self we become more aware of our behaviour as it creates a separation between the body- and mind and the Self as the awareness, breaking the illusion that we are the body and mind.
Svadhyaya can be practiced by simply observing your thoughts without engaging in them, or it could be to observe your body as you move from asana to asana, or by questioning your intention behind your behaviour. It could be to put yourself in uncomfortable situations and be curious about how it affect you. You may take a look at your habits and patterns and challenge them.
It is easier to see what we are not, than to see what we are. You may look at Svadhyaya as a practice of eliminating illusions.
Tapas, the third of the five Niyamas. It means discipline which is a highly misunderstood practice. Many belive that discipline means to commit to something and stay with it no matter what. This would be stupidity because every day is different, and what is important today might not be important tomorrow. It might be the right thing to do something today, but any other day it could be the wrong thing to do.
Practicing discipline is about doing the right thing at all times, whatever that might be. It’s about not falling into habits or compulsive behaviour. See, on the spiritual path every habit is bad, because making something a habit essentially means to do something without awareness. When it comes to compulsive behaviour its actions rooted in our personal desires, rather than conscious choices.
To become good at Tapas, we need to train our willpower (read more about willpower here).
Our willpower is like a muscle, and just like any other muscle, some days its capable of more than others. So there is the physical aspect of how strong the muscle actually is, and then there is the mental force that drives the muscle. This mental force is know the why we do the things we do.
We’ve all heard stories of moms who’s been able to do the impossible when their child is in danger. This is not because their muscles suddenly grew, but because their ‘why’ was so strong and clear.