The Yamas and Niyamas
The Yamas and Niyamas are the foundations of Yoga. They are not to be seen as some form of religious code of morality. They are practiced to break away from our limitations and gain insight into our reality and true identity.
The Foundations of Yoga
The development of a solid foundation is necessary in order to build any structure. In yoga, these are the Yamas and Niyamas. They represent a positive, ethical, wilful foundation upon which we can evolve and become true yogis.
Yama is self-discipline and Niyama a fixed observance or positive conduct. Through our conduct we strengthen our will power, and through our will we strengthen our mind. Only with a strong, positive, free and unlimited mind, can we aspire to enter into the deepest domain of meditation and Yoga, known as Samadhi.
The order of the five yamas, is deliberate. These are:
- Ahimsa or Non-violence
- Satya or Truthfulness
- Asteya or Honesty
- Brahmacharya or Sensual Abstinence
- Aparigraha or Non-possessiveness
First we must abandon violence, in thought, word and action. We must become completely harmless if we wish to remain in positivity. Ahimsa requires us to abstain from even thinking of harming another being. This includes insults, manipulation, arguing, failure to help another when we can, to approve of another person’s violent actions, etc. However, it should be clarified, it is not considered violence, when acting in self-defense or in defense of righteousness. When we get established in Ahimsa, we obtain peace.
On an initial level, Satya is about being truthful and speaking the truth. Thought, speech and action should all be in harmony, which can only happen with the truth. When we lie, our speech or action are not in harmony with our minds, which is aware of our deception. This includes, bragging, exaggerating, etc. When we practice truth, we gain truth of ourselves, our real nature, which gives us harmony. If we think one thing and behave in another way, we stop being in harmony.
On a higher level, it is only when we practice truth that we gain proficiency in attaining the ultimate truth, which in the end is the core of yoga in itself. A higher or secondary practice of Satya would therefore be, to remember at all times that everything is an illusion, including our personalities. That our true nature is unlimited and it is only our temporary personalities that are limited. One should remember this at all times, and live as an observer. This is a higher practice of Satya.
To practice non-stealing is to practice satisfaction. When we practice non-stealing we give up appropriation and understand that not everything must be ours. We appreciate the difference between love and possession. We long to possess out of greed or desire, fulfilling our own ego at the expense of other people’s misery. This is done on many levels, from removing small objects which we think have little value to their owner, to tax avoidance, corruption, etc. Even stealing ideas, or making other people’s knowledge and experiences one’s own is a form of stealing. But more importantly, gluttony and greed are also regarded as stealing. When we hoard too much money and use it only for ourselves, we are stealing opportunities from others. By eating too much, more than is necessary, we are unnecessarily stealing other beings’ right to live. When we give up stealing and possession, we conquer the need of having to give the ego everything it demands, and it’s at this moment that we gain true selflessness, we become unattached and truly free.
Many people confuse Brahmacharya with celibacy but this is wrong. It actually means one who is established in a higher identity, or a higher consciousness. For this, we must transcend our limited nature. This is easiest achieve to by control of the senses. Conscious sexual restraint is one way to achieve this, because sexual union is the strongest of our urges, since it’s the action that preserves us as a species. By the practice of Brahmacharya we attain complete fearlessness, which gives us a heroic level of courage and confidence.
Non-possessiveness makes us free from cravings, desires and all form of possession and greed. At this point, we stop being a slave to our senses, and can control their cravings. We stop being prey to attachment, disappointment, anxiety, jealousy, anger, lust and depression, which all arise from sensory needs and cravings. These desires can be objects, people or even of spiritual experiences and qualities, and must be overcome by practicing non-possessiveness.
When we become non-possessive we become unattached, which makes us impartial and free. Our love and compassion is no longer restricted or reserved for family and friends but extends to all beings in equality, and we experience true peace and joy.
The order of the five Niyamas is:
- Shaucha or Purity
- Santosha or Contentment
- Tapas or Austerity
- Swadhyaya or Self-study
- Pranidhana or Surrender
Shaucha is both internal and external purity. External purity (bathing, cleansing, etc.) is practiced to strengthen inner purity. It is said that with the practice of shaucha, one starts to become pure; impure thoughts decrease and it becomes easier to follow all the yamas and niyamas. Internal purity removes lust, anger, greed, jealousy, etc.
Internal purity includes freeing the mind from distraction, unnecessary thoughts and haunting memories. Slowly, as we practice internal cleansing, we let go of all the unnecessary aspects of the limited self and it becomes easier to understand our true reality.
Contentment bestows peace, as it cuts our desires from the very root. Once contentment is achieved we stop lingering in the past and obsessing about our future. We live in the moment, fearlessly in serenity. Contentment is one of the biggest tools for breaking one’s limitations and achieving higher consciousness.
Austerity is a dynamic practice in which we overcome our own limitations by will. Through austerity we learn how to restrain the senses and control our minds. Austerity such as observance of silence, or occasional fasting increase our power of endurance. Dealing with laziness and acting even when one does not want to, is also a form of austerity. Through the practice of austerity, we vigorously intensify our will power and can change the course of our life by will.
Self-study is enquiry into the nature of the self. It is in trying to understand our reality beyond our persona. It includes analyzing our fears, attachments and desires. To understand everything that motivates us, and why. Self-study clears our doubts (which are often the cause of our failures), inspires us and gives us clarity and confidence
Surrender is the greatest of all Niyamas. At this stage, we surrender ourselves to a higher reality. We understand there is something beyond what we recognize through our senses. We can call this mother nature, god, the universe, destiny or whatever we like; it is accepting that not everything can be controlled, and remaining content no matter what the outcome of our efforts. If we perfect this niyama, we dissolve our ego, and are able to go to the very depths of yoga and reality, as we have perfected Faith, the greatest of all emotions.