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.
You may wonder why this is important for a yogic practice. So, yoga means union and it means breaking the illusion of separation between subject and object. Experiencing life as one. Albert Einstein understood what yogis have known for millennia’s. All energy is the same energy, yet we experience life in the dimensions of inner and outer world. Yoga is about not only seeing, but experiencing the outer and inner world as one and the same. The behaviour that the yamas are guiding us away from are behaviour that enhance the experience of separation. For instance, had we experienced everyone as the same as us we would not harm them in any way. We wouldn’t lie, we wouldn’t steal, hoard or spend our energy trying to fill a void(as we would already feel complete). So by practicing the yamas, we are synchronising our lives with the truth.
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.
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.
Santosha is the second of the five Niyamas and it means contentment. To practice Santosha does not mean to be content with everything and for that reason not seeing a reason to do anything. The way I see it, it’s more about finding accept and not leaning your peace and happiness towards external factors.
For example, if you find yourself in a bad situation and you get stuck in ‘had I only done this!’, or ‘It would have been so much better if..!’ you can practice Santosha by accepting the reality, which in this case would mean to let go of the alternative universes you keep imagining. It’s first when you accept what is you have the power to change it. Why would you change it if you are content you may ask. Well, to be content with something does not necessarily mean you like it. You might be content, because your inner peace and happiness is not disturbed by whatever is happening, but that does not mean you sit and watch while bad things happen.
So the practice of contentment is to find gratefulness over the things you have. The deeper the practice, the less you need to in order to tune into gratefulness, where the ultimate goal is to find gratefulness in simply being alive. When being alive alone is enough to fill you with gratefulness, you will have no problem feeling content in any situation. Your actions will no longer be compulsive. You will simply act on what’s the right thing to do, rather than the thing that may give you the best boost.
Remember, you came into this world with nothing and you will leave with nothing, everything in between is just a big bonus. Be thankful for it!