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.

Yamas – Aparigraha

Aparigraha is the fifth and last of the five yamas in the 8 limbs of yoga. It means non-greed, non-possessiveness and/or non-attachment. The essence of this yama is to take only what we need, keep only what serves us in the moment, and let go when the time is right.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says ‘Let your concern be with action alone, and never with the fruit of action. Do not let the result of action be your motive, and do not be attached to inaction’.

If we do things because they are the right things to do, the outcome does not really matter.

The second book of the Yoga Sutras, sutra no. 39 states:

“When non-greed is confirmed, a thorough illumination of the how and why of one’s birth comes.”

Greed and gathering of things you do not really need reinforces the feeling that life is not already complete. This is also about receiving gifts. Often when you receive a gift, it comes with an underlying expectation that ‘since you received it, you can do something for me’. By receiving gifts, we often bind ourselves and lose our neutrality. If, on the other hand, we are strong enough to withstand the “obligation” we can receive gifts. This obligation can often be very subtle and difficult to detect. As we have seen in the other Yamas, it is not just about the materialistic things, but it could also be about our behaviour. We can be greedy for attention, affirmation, love, compassion etc. If we dont find fulfilment within ourselves we will start looking outwards, and since this will only give us temporary effects, we become greedy for more. 

The vast majority of us have much more than we need. We keep things longer than we need, and we collect more than we need. There are several reasons why we have things we do not need. Some things have sentimental value, other things remind us of something from our past, other things we have not used in 20 years, but it could be that some time in the future, we would need them again, or maybe it’s just nice to have.

Yamas – Brahmacharya

Brahmacharya is the fourth yama in the 8 limbs of yoga. It means ‘right use of energy’, and often translated to celibacy. It actually translate to ‘behaviour that leads to brahman’ which in other words mean behaviour that leads to a higher power/the divine/god.

The second book of the Yoga Sutras, sutra no. 38 states:

“By one established in continence, visor is gained”

Brahmacharya means ‘the way to the Divine’. We are all looking for happiness and joy, whether it is consciously or unconsciously. When we do not find it, we often settle for pleasure. Pleasure can be beautiful but is very limited. The deeper we go into pleasure, the deeper we attach ourselves to it. If the thing or person you have attached yourself to is taken from you, you will be crushed. When we live in this way, our existence becomes one of great attachments, which creates a lot of suffering. When one practices brahmacharya, it means that we are not setteling with pleasure, but rather want to find the source of inner happiness.

In brahamacharya, it is the sexual temptations that are most talked about. Maybe it’s because they are the hardest temptations to resist, or maybe it’s because it’s the biggest pitfall. Many people associate brahmacharya with celibacy, but it is mainly about having self-discipline to resist pleasure because one has a desire to achieve something greater.

Brahmacharya challenges us to make more conscious choices and to be more present in what we do and why we do it.

The reason why sex can be a big pitfall is because here one will be very deeply involved and therefore it creates very large amounts of karma. By conserving our sexual energy, we also preserve not only physical energy, but also mental, moral, intellectual and spiritual energy. When this energy is preserved, it is transformed into a subtle energy (ojas), which tones the whole personality, builds nerves, improves brain power and calms the mind. This energy again is what becomes our glow or aura.

Yamas – Asteya

Asteya, the third yama in the 8 limbs of yoga. It means non-stealing. It sounds simple, but its because we usually think of stealing in the terms of materialism only. There are so many other things we can steal. Attention, credit, space, time, peace and so on.

When we look at Asteya it relates to behaviour caused by thoughts, or fluctations of the mind(Vritti). ‘I’m not good enough’ or ‘I don’t have enough’. The practice of yoga is about uniting and in many ways becoming whole.

In the second book of the Yoga Sutras, Sutra No. 37:

“To one established in non-stealing, all wealth comes.”

When we talk about stealing, we look at it from a deeper perspective than from society’s constructions. On a universal level, everything you take, without giving anything back is stealing. It could be the neighbor’s car, a bar of chocolate from the store, a flower from the meadow or a breath of fresh air. In order for us to survive, we have to take resources from nature, either directly or indirectly. When you just take without giving anything back, we carry an attitude where we take it for granted and that our life is more important than other forms of life. If we are to synchronize with unity, this attitude must go away. It’s not about counting every breath and making sure we give back what we owe, but if we find gratitude for everything that is available to us, we will naturally find a way to repay it. Without food, it is said that people die after approx. 30 days, without water it can happen in less than a week, and without air we only talk about minutes. Being aware of how fragile our lives are and how dependable we are can bring tremendous gratitude. By integrating gratitude into life, giving back will happen effortlessly, and our lives will become lives of service to others. 

Yamas – Satya

Satya is the second yama in the 8 Limbs of Yoga. It literally translates as ‘true essence’ or ‘unchangeable’. Even though our thoughts and emotions are interchangeable they form our own personal truths. As you may have experienced, what you once knew for certain, you later realised was not true.

In Sanskrit, the vibrations of the sounds in the words uttered have a direct connection to its meaning. The sound ‘sat’ holds the meanings; ‘unchangeable’, ‘that which has no distortion’, ‘that which is beyond distinctions of time, space and person’, and ‘reality’.

In yoga, we strive to find the truth of who and what we are. We search for that which is unchangeable, with no distortion and that is beyond distinctions of time, space and person. By calming the mind to such a degree that stillness happens, then we experience the unchangeable. We experience the truth.  

Even though we can look at truthfulness in many aspects of our lives, the essence of its practice is to un-identify with all we believe ourselves to be, as well as all our beliefs of what life outside ourself is. For truth to enter we must make room for it, and we do that by letting everything we think we know go.

The second book of the Yoga Sutras, Sutra No. 36 states:

“To one established in truthfulness, actions and their results become subservient.” 

This means that when one is well established in truth, our desires will manifest themselves effortlessly. Sri Swami Satchidananda writes: “If you are always truthful, if no lie comes from your mouth, a time will come when all you say will come true. Even if you say something by mistake, it will happen, because by the practice of Satya the words become so powerful and clean that honesty observes you. It wants to be with you always. If a curse is spoken, it will happen. If a blessing is said it will happen. The more we lead a life of honesty, the more we will see the results, and that will encourage us to be more honest. ” To lie is to try to manipulate reality. We cannot change what is by pretending  it to be different. Whether we lie to protect ourselves, or to protect others, it is a fear-based act that reinforces the feeling of separation. To lie is to create ripples in the reflection of the truth. A promise of absolute honesty means we can not even tell white lies. If honesty will lead to trouble, difficulties or harm to someone, we should rather remain silent. For example, instead of saying “I do not know”, we can be honest and say “I know, but I do not want to say.” By establishing oneself in honesty, comes the state of fearlessness. You do not have to be afraid of anyone and can always live an open life. When the mind becomes clear and real, our true ‘Me’ will reflect without deformity, and we understand truth in its own original nature