Yama & Niyama

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.

First the Yamas:
Ahimsa – Non-violence or non-harming
Satya – Truthfulness
Asteya – Non-Stealing
Brahmacharya – Right use of Energy
Aparigraha – Non-Greed or non-hoarding

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.

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.

Niyamas – Svadhyaya

In the second book of the Yoga Sutras, sutra no. 44 it says:

“By study of spiritual books comes communion with one’s chosen deity”

Svadhyaya then means spiritual study and one refers to the study of what can be called holy scriptures. As yoga has come to the West by storm, much of the wisdom has been interpreted and reformulated by people without competence or understanding. By searching on google and studying there, you will therefore most likely end up on the wrong track. When studying spiritual texts, it is essential to look at the source of the information.

Svadhyaya does not only mean to study texts, but also to perform your sadhana (Spiritual practice) in which you have been initiated in. Regular practice becomes study. By doing so we get the ‘ista devata samprayogah’ – the vision, or darshan of God.

Niyamas – Tapas

In the second book of the Yoga Sutras, sutra no. 43 it says:

“By austerity, impurities of body and senses are destroyed and occult powers gained”

The direct meaning of tapas is ‘to burn’. By the physical tapas of fasting, we burn away excess fat along with other toxins the body has accumulated. At mental tapas, we burn old impressions. By verbal tapas, to observe silence, we control speech. When we burn, we feel some warmth and pain. We go through suffering. So tapas also means accepting suffering. When a person suffers, he or she can be considered blessed as he or she cleanses himself of impurities. If we are to create a clean and stable mind, we must accept pain, suffering and poverty. We get even more utilization if we can accept pain at the same time as we bring joy to others. Even a cloth must go through tapas to be clean. First it should be washed in warm water with soap, while it spins around in the machine, then it is dried in a dryer and then it may even have to be under the iron. We do not do this against the cloth out of hatred, but from a loving place where we just want to get the cloth clean again. In this way we can see that pain can also be a result of love. In the same way, we have to go through pain to be clean, and if we can adopt the same understanding of the cloth for our own pain, we can more easily accept it. When we can think like this we are true yogis. By this we meet pain and embrace it. By fully understanding this, we will never find fault with others who abuse, scold or insult us. If beautiful words make us happy, while insults make us sad, we know that our minds are not yet strong. Insults help us see our weaknesses. It is said that the highest form of sadhana (spiritual practice) is to bear an insult or injury with a peaceful mind. Anyone can repeat a mantra a thousand times. The power of controlling the mind and senses comes from practicing tapas.

Once upon a time there was a man who wanted to make a saint angry. He began to insult him. “Do you see how many lives you destroy with your teachings ?!” The saint smiles at the man. “Do you not understand my language ?!” Asked the man. “Yes,” replied the saint. “How can you be so calm ??” The saint replied, “What if you had come and given me a gift, but I did not want it. What would you do? ” “I would take it back,” the man replied. “Yes,” replied the saint. “In the same way, I do not want the insults you have given me. So you can have them for yourself. ”

Dealing with a situation in this way requires enormous strength and courage. A person who only attacks physically can be physically strong, but mentally weak. Mental strength comes from tapas, accepting pain. The pain is no longer painful, but fun because we have realized the benefit of it.

It is important to add that even if you change your view of pain, it does not mean that you should inflict pain on yourself or others.

Niyamas – Santosha

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.

I andre bok av Yoga Sutras, sutra nr. 42 står: 

“By contentment, supreme joy is gained”

When we talk about ‘contentment’, we are talking about being satisfied, regardless of what happens outside of ourselves. Our happiness does not come from outside, so external situations will not affect our satisfaction. What comes may come, and if it does not come, it does not matter..

One person is born in a big city and another is born in a slum. The reason is karma. It is our actions from the past that create reactions. So one should be satisfied regardless of the situations we are thrown into.

The first step to achieving perfection is to realize that no matter how we feel, it is our own responsibility. Many people blame everything for their own dissatisfaction and misery, but we must realize that we have created it ourselves. To blame anything but ourselves for not being happy and perfect is to relinquish responsibility for our own lives. If I were to make a recipe for how to get depressed, then this would be step 1. Once we have understood that our perfection is our responsibility, we must see that our problems and challenges are like the tests and exams we had at school. Once you have learned what you are going to learn, the exam is easy, and we finish the subject. If we have not learned what we are supposed to, the exam becomes difficult, we do not pass and we have to sit for the exam again. In the same way, you will notice that challenges may come more or less the same, time and time again. If life’s challenges remain the same, it only means that you have not learned what you need to get ahead. With this perspective, we can rather face challenges with open arms, and perhaps even with courage and curiosity. When we no longer have an opposition to life’s challenges, contentment will not be far away.

By mastering contentment, one will achieve the highest form of joy.

Niyamas – Saucha

Saucha is the first of five Niyamas in the 8 limbs of yoga. When we talk about the Niyamas we talk about practices regarding ourselves. The word Niyama is often translated as ‘positive duties’.

In the second book of the Yoga Sutras, sutra no. 40 it says:

“By purification arises disgust for ones own body and for contact with other bodies”

A sentence that may seem scary, but let me elaborate. When purity is observed one will feel that even our own body is unclean. Impurities are eliminated every second. Through the breath we excrete carbon dioxide and through the skin comes sweat and then we have urine, feces and saliva. No matter how much perfume we put on, it only hides the impurities. No matter how well we try to hide it, it will come back. By realizing this, we create a new relationship with the body. We do not neglect it, but our bodily focus will disappear. Our attractions for other bodies will diminish, which will save us a lot of time and energy. As we spend more time on deeper aspects of life than our bodies, and go into the spiritual, we will gain an understanding that we are not our bodies. The real unity is not created between two bodies. What we call a masculine and feminine body are just two different pieces of meat. We will not achieve nirvana by putting two pieces of meat together.

People misunderstand Tantra yoga as something that has to do with sexual unity. In the Tibetan tantric system, shiva and sakti are discussed – where shiva is the masculine aspect and sakti the feminine. It is not about our physical form, but about the positive and negative forces in each individual. In hatha yoga we call it sun and moon. Ha means sun; tha means moon. The inner sun is in our solar plexus; the moon is at the base of our spine. To be united, these must come together. This is known as the ‘Prana-Apana union’. The energy that flows down must turn up and be returned to its source. The heat produced in meditation rises and affects certain glands, which then produce ‘nectar juice’. This flow from the bottom of our spine through the nerves, builds them up, makes them more alive and helps them become almost immortal. The word nectar (amrta in Sanskrit) means ‘immortal’. The body will be filled with light (ojas and tejas and will be converted into a ‘yogic body’).

The second book of the Yoga Sutras, Sutra No. 41 states:

“Moreover, one gains purity of sattva, cheerfulness of mind, one-pointedness, mastery over the senses and fitness for Self-realization.”

First you understand the body, then the heart becomes pure as well. When your heart is pure, you are always happy. Concentration of the mind happens automatically, without you having to try. Only an unclean mind runs from end to end, forcing us to bring it back again and again. The senses are also controlled and then comes ‘atma sarsana yogyatvani’, ready for Self-realization. These are all benefits of following Niyama’s first compliance.