Yama and Niyama

What constitutes, Raja Yoga, is listed in the second chapter, Sādhana Pāda in the YogaSutraSādhana Pāda means laying out the practical hints so a seeker can actually practice to make any progress on the yogic path.

यमनियमासनप्राणायामप्रत्याहारधारणाध्यानसमाधयोऽष्टावङ्गानि॥२.२९

Yama-niyama-āsana-prāṇāyāma-pratyāhāra-dhāraṇā-dhyāna-samādhayo’ṣṭāvaṅgāni||29||

According to this sutra the eight limbs, aṣṭāṅga are: Yama, Niyama, Āsana, Prānayāma, Pratyāhāra, Dhārana, Dhyāna and Samādhi.

This post is only an introduction to the first two limbs: Yama and Niyama. In Samskritam, Yama may be interpreted as restraint, discipline, self-regulation. Although, Niyama means observance, it can also considered as a form of discipline. There are five restraints and five observances; ten principles that operate on every action, word and thought.

Partaking solely in academic discussions or acting on pretense without strict adherence to Yama and Niyama is not conducive to put each principle into practice. The main object of this relentless ethical code is to eliminate completely all mental and emotional disturbances which charactize the life of an ordinary human being (Taimni). This prepares serious seekers to journey safely on the spiritual path.

At the outset, it is important to remember that morality discussed through yoga philosophy (principles) is not of the conventional type or even the ordinary religious type. Here, however, it is a transcendental morality aimed at liberating an individual from the bonds of illusion and ignorance. Consequently, the virtues expected from a seeker is of a much wider scope and has a deeper significance than what appears on the surface. Each virtue, then, has to be practiced to a higher degree of perfection. (Taimni)

Eknath Easwaran said taking “my life is a school” approach would provide numerous opportunities to experiment these priniciples. Whether it be marriage or rearing a child, graduate school or corporate life, phase of life – midlife or teenage; each provides its own challenges to practice all the ethics. This was what I needed to hear to bring the 8 limbs to life. With this attitude, obstacles became opportunities. When I did catch myself practicing any ethic, my nightly reflection was filled with gratitude. In this way, each conclusion – success or failure, charted my progress, deepened my faith in the tools and boosted my confidence to continue on the path.

Since it is difficult to find exact translations for Samskritham terms, I have included multiple meanings for each of the Yama and Niyama, in an attempt to preserve their authenticity.

Yama

अहिंसासत्यास्तेयब्रह्मचर्यापरिग्रहा यमाः॥२.३०॥

Ahiṁsā-satya-asteya-brahmacarya-aparigrahā yamāḥ||30||

The first limb, Yama, यम, restraint, deals with those behaviors that show respect for self and others. As we slowly begin to understand how we are all connected, we realize in caring for others we are also taking care of ourselves. Our daily choices create effects in the world that we may never know. This may be the most important reading for embarking on this path of awakening. (Charlotte Bell)

Yamas are guidelines, a framework from which we can begin a process of inquiry. Practicing the Yamas mechanically as commandments or simply because they are written in the sūtras does not lead to greater wisdom. (Charlotte Bell) Applying them to each context that arises in daily life and learning from the consequences of our actions furthers our inquiry and refines our practice.

Using the word restraint as Yama, may imply taking away certain privileges to be in a yogic frame of mind. On the contrary – it is so much more. I discovered that cultivating restraints is really cultivating the ability to manage my feelings – in essence – to recognize the urge to act or not act, and to stop myself from doing or saying things that are not sensible or correct.

Jack Kornfield describes the evolutionary process of practicing the precepts: “At first, precepts are a practice. Then, they become a necessity, and finally they become joy.”

यम

Restraints

अहिंसा       (Ahimsā) Non-Harming, Non-Violence, Kindness, Dynamic Peacefulness
सत्य          (Sathya) Truth, Authenticity, Sincerity, Benevolence
अस्तेय       (Astheya) Non-Stealing, Honesty, Abundance
ब्रह्मचर्य      (Brahmacharya) Moderation, Continence, Dedicated to the Divine
अपरिग्रह     (Aparigraha) Non-Hoarding, Self reliance, Renouncing, Simplicity, Generosity

For example, the first Yama is Ahimsā, non-harming.  Alice Christensen stated that Ahimsā is listed as the first discipline because the practice of the other nine ethics depended on it. According to her, when trying to practice the second ethic, Satya, truthfulness, lying to myself is a form of harming; or in the practice of the third ethic, Asteya, non-stealing, wasting my time is stealing from myself which is harming.

In Rāja Yoga, the traditional practice of Yamas is equated to taking a vow, an earnest promise of dedicated practice. Patanjali refers to it as a Great Vow, Mahavratham, in the Yoga Sutra (2:31). This implies the seriousness of accepting the responsibility of the practice of Yamas, (Niyamas too!) without the limitations of time, space, season, family, country, etc.; implying – although forgiveness is paramount when I fail, excuses are not entertained when Mahavratham, the Great Vow has been activated.

Niyama

शौचसन्तोषतपःस्वाध्यायेश्वरप्रणिधानानि नियमाः॥२.३२॥

Śauca-santoṣa-tapaḥ-svādhyāya-eśvarapraṇidhānāni niyamāḥ||32||

Niyama, नियम, Observances, the second limb, are those behaviors that convey positive, uplifting self actions. Charlotte Bell attributes these ethics towards conscious everyday living. She expresses how it helped her begin the process of shifting daily habits to align with what would become a lifelong commitment to yoga. As good as āsana practice made me feel, performing poses for an hour a day and stowing my mat and sleepwalking through the rest of my life was no longer an option.”

Niyama, is the act of perceiving and respecting the requirements of the laws of nature while recognizing our human imperfections and self-centeredness. “How we express the niyamasvten years from now may bear killer resemblance to how our practice looks today,” assures Bell.

As long as we apply ourselves to the practice of niyamas, it helps us cultivate gratitude and sacredness towards daily duties and activities, and makes us rely on the tools to bring us a step closer to discovering our true selves possibly through Samādhi, spiritual bliss.

नियम

Observances

शौच                 (Shaucha) Purity, Cleanliness, Clarity
सन्तोष               (Santosha) Contentment, Peacefulness
तपस्                  (Tapas) Effort, Heat, Discipline, Sacrifice
स्वाध्याय             (Svadhyaya) Self-Study, Reflection, Introspection
ईश्वरप्रणिधान      (Ishvara Pranidhana) Surrender, Faith, Gratitude, Devotion, Higher Purpose

For example, the first Niyama is Shaucha, Purity or Cleanliness, refers to both external and internal. The external concept of Śaucha suggests a clean body through daily ablutions, clean surroundings (owned and public), fresh and clean food to purify the body. Anger, hate, prejudice, greed, pride, fear, negative thoughts are known toxins to body and mind. Hence, purity of speech, clarity of emotions and dusting the cobwebs of the mind is internal Śaucha.

Wisdom

It is imperative to study each ethic and the eight limbs in detail to progress towards mastery. However, struggling to cultivate them may indicate that they are not present within or perhaps the opposite qualities exist. Since the eight limbs work together as one entity, gurus suggests that while you practice āsana, observe the behavior of the body. Regardless of what posture you are doing, the whole body participates; the inner intelligence restores balance and comfort (Swāmi Venkateshānanda).

When this happens ‘self-discipline’ begins to manifest effortlessly. In other words, practice eventually becomes effortless and even unnecessary when these qualities become the ground on which we live and grow. (Bell)

Next Post: First Yama: Ahimsā – Non-harming or Dynamic Peacefulness

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Bell, Charlotte.2007. Mindful Yoga Mindful Life. Rodmell Press

Christensen, Alice. 1998. Yoga of the Heart: Ten Ethical Principles for Gaining Limitless Growth, Confidence and Achievement. American Yoga Association

Kriyananda, Swami. 2011. The Art and Science of Raja Yoga. Crystal Clarity Publishers

Venkateshānanda, Swami. 2011. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Motilal Banarasidass Publishers, New Delhi, India.

warm ups

The dictionary definition of warm up is the act of preparation for a game, performance, or workout, involving gentle, loosening exercises. To perform the best on the field, stage, tennis court or a yoga mat, warm ups are absolutely essential.

Many in the yoga world agree warm ups are important. But with the push of power yoga and vinyasa flow it is not truly given an honest attempt in the classroom. In the past year the few classes I attended spent less than 5 minutes on warm-ups even on cold days. A couple of times I came home with pain in my lower back, needing to relieve it with additional asanas. Recently, I had to leave a class within the first ten minutes due to severe cramping in my left calf and hamstrings since the vinyasa began immediately after a brief centering with no warm up at all.

The Huffington Post had an article on how injuries related to yoga are on the rise. Is it because classes are lacking adequate warm up? It is the responsibility of yoga teachers to make sure all students leave the class injury free.

Thirties

When I began asana practice in my early thirties, I was suffering from sports related injuries. I found relief almost instantly in my lower back – a pain that had been nagging me for years. Then, during teacher training I discovered these back relieving asanas were preceded by a set of warm ups – detailed beautifully in one of the textbooks. Without a proper warm up sequence, these asanas would not have been as effective.

Still, in the infancy of my yoga teaching career, I seemed to have completely forgotten this crucial aspect and developed a misconstrued image of a ‘perfect’ yoga teacher. Ignoring the tenet of non-harming (ahimsa) and feeling the need to prove that I can teach a power vinyasa class in order to get a job at a studio or a gym led to costly compromises. Obviously, I had completely overlooked Patanjali’s advice in the Yoga Sutra – 1.12, (अभ्यासवैराग्याभ्यां तन्निरोधः॥१.१२॥) – which I interpret here as – the practice is successful only with detachment from the ego – i.e. letting go of illusionary perfection.

With continued study of the Yoga Sutras, I was able to erase the image of a ‘perfect’ yoga teacher and settled into giving my best one class at a time. I have been using the warm up asanas series for the past fifteen years to help me stay pain free (most of the time) and help others manage theirs as well. Many of my students have been coming to class for over six years and have active lifestyles – playing tennis, running or biking – with asanas to support their sports. I am happy to hear them vouch that the warmup part of the class prepares them to safely enjoy a more involved vinyasa.

Forties

Don’t believe it when people say that forties is the new thirties. My body signaled that a good warm up routine couldn’t be overlooked no matter what. Especially for those who came to the class looking to me to lead them safely in asana.

Very few people can jump out of bed and land in Trikonasana perfectly. It takes patience to identify the tight areas, recognize the muscles needed to create movement so that the “stretch” can occur effectively in Triangle pose. Sadly, I have had people leave the class because the vinyasa flow did not start right away. And – I believe one must be adequately warmed up to perform Sun Salutation correctly, despite the popular opinion that it should be used as a warm up.

Certainly, senior and gentle yoga have found their respectful place in the hierarchy of asana classes. Still, the schedule seems to be filled with power vinyasa classes. The vinyasa classes are designated as beginners, intermediate, or advanced, yet there ends up being a mix of all levels – ability and age. A few come to check if they can graduate from a beginners class to an intermediate one. Some refuse to use props to transition from one pose to another safely. Then, it becomes a serious responsibility as a teacher to not only initiate an effective warm up sequence but also to provide additional variations to make sure the students leave the classroom injury free.

As a student of the eight fold path and a teacher of asana, the vow of Raja Yoga binds me to ethical principles like ahimsa, non harming (Yama/Niyama). This dictates the necessity of being the enforcer of safe, injury free classroom experience. My sincere commitment to these ethics gives me the freedom not to second guess myself when instructing each asana. These ethical principles become my intention and a foundation for an energizing and a mindful class.

In essence, it is a must that yoga teachers be taught the philosophy of Yamas and Niyamas with its application to daily life.  Again, the wisdom of Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras 1:14, (स तु दीर्घकालनैरन्तर्यसत्कारासेवितो दृढभूमिः॥१.१४॥) irrefutably posits a measure for any practice – asana or teaching. That every teacher must practice these ethics for a long time to set a firm foundation before embarking into the world of teaching asana. The practicality of these principles will be reflected in your work as a yoga teacher and will be perceived by the students in the way you instruct them. It becomes a pleasure then to help the students understand that the warm up movements are designed to open and release the various tight spaces of the body gradually in preparation for more complex postures.

Fifties

It is an erroneous assumption that if one has been practicing asana, all your aches and pains, and diseases are cured. How can years of compromised dietary habits, sedentary lifestyle, genetic predispositon – disappear with just a weekly yoga class?

Now, in my fifties, inspite of regular asana practice, I wake up each morning quite stiff. Genetic predisposition of arthritis or process of aging – or both? Don’t expect me to touch my toes without warming up the hips, hamstrings, knees and lower back. Still, it is because of the ‘right’ warm-up asanas with props each morning that I am able to bend safely – to get down to my toes.

Recently, I began warming up at home before I teach a class, and then some more with my students – especially if I have to teach an early morning class. While some are blessed with flexibility and strength, others clearly aren’t. For those who aren’t, warm up asanas provide a sure way to initiate movements with care and confidence.

I realized that cutting down on warm ups to accommodate ‘difficult’ poses – whether to remove the boredom factor or to prove to my ego that I can still teach like other teachers is completely futile. Asana done correctly is not a competition, even with myself. Each of us needs to honor our bodies by acknowledging the aging process. Adjusting our asana practices with proper warm up, keeping in mind aging and other health related changes is simply a logical choice. A big part of mastery in practicing asana lies in sensing just how far to move into a stretch. Priority is to learn how to stay injury free so I can keep myself and my students practicing asanas safely well into our seventies.

It is a fact that the muscles are continually loosing their elasticity, joints will begin to creak – the body is aging even though the mind stubbornly ignores it. Have you noticed your body getting stiff due to lack of movement – especially after a long flight or six to seven hours of sleep, no matter your age? Gentle, loosening exercises called warm up is where you should begin.

Warming up for yoga-asana is called काय, Kāya or शरीर सञ्चलन, Śarīra Sunchalun. 

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my practice, my abhyasa

 “Yoga is 99 percent practice and one percent theory.”   Ashtanga Yogaacharya, Shri Pattabhi Jois

In the Fall of 2000, I felt a gentle push to begin yoga. Opening the yellow pages, I found YogaLife Institute, located only 3 miles away. On a warm September evening, I entered their doors for a simple yoga class. What I got was a royal introduction to the eight limbs of Raja Yoga. Here, are the beginnings of my practice before it turned into real Yoga-Abhyasa.

Although I was fascinated by Raja Yoga at the outset, I had to work hard at being disciplined, combating laziness on a regular basis. If I skipped a day of practice after hitting the snooze button or having to care for a sick child, it would quickly turn into a week, or more especially on voyages to India. Sadly, my practice was the first thing to be dropped when life got hectic. I had many reasons for not upholding my new year yoga resolution – some valid, while the rest which I validated so skillfully, fell into a long list of excuses.

The word Ahbhyasa in Samskritham means having an attitude of patient, consistent effort; a discipline; simply referred to as practice. To do anything well, including yoga (asana) requires practice; meaning it must be repeated over time to invite mastery.

Remember mastering shoelaces and abc’s, math equations and computer code? As adults we are called ‘experts’ in our professions. What about those not-so-flattering vices like anger, greed and worry?Through repeated practice, we are masters at these too.

I can be a master at procrastinating. I can also be a master at being critical, at reacting, at getting angry, worrying, making excuses – a long list. Becoming aware of my shortcomings was hurtful, but nonetheless, a wake up call to act, to change. And to change I needed guidance, a path – a prescription for practice if you will. That prescription was Raja Yoga. The hard part – undoing the effects of prior destructive mastery and replacing it with new constructive ones. Heeding to the call to act, I began the practice with the popular choice, asanas, poses.

I bought my first yoga mat a year after I joined Yogalife Institute. At first, it seemed like I was always in a hurry to get to class and find my corner in the classroom. I would lay down the yoga mat and mark my territory before the other students entered. Cornering off a space so no one else can have it, is selfish. Obviously, I had not yet learned the essence of yoga or understood the sacredness of the yoga mat.  

At that phase of my life, there was always something to do (infant in the house!). At the peak of this busyness, bright lights were bothersome, loud noises made me jumpy, chocolates made me cranky and Sundays brought the blues. Though I attended playgroups and planned birthday parties with a smile, there was a false impression of being in control. I did not know how to turn ‘off’. But for some unexplainable reason, after that first yoga class, the mat was always inviting. I fervently hoped that the busyness that accompanied me everywhere would melt away as soon as I settled on my yoga mat.

Each week my body and mind were in a state of anticipation. With child-like eagerness I arrived at the class happy to move and grateful to rest. Once on the mat, I realized how tight my body was only when I began to convince it to move and release. I noticed how shallow the breath sounded only when I was introduced to my own breath. And I hadn’t the faintest idea how loud my thoughts were until I experienced a moment of silence. No wonder I was not able to turn off and relax.

The class always began with centering – a process of noticing the breath by deliberately slowing down inhales and exhales and checking in with our thoughts. I wondered if today was the day that I would be successful in turning off my thoughts and find some peace. I wondered if everyone in class was thinking the same. Because each of us probably knew that we must leave behind the concerns of ordinary life, of chores and bawling kids, the world of meetings and schedules. I believe each one’s yoga practice is unique and an individual experience. However, was everyone hoping that they might get some relief from the stressful, chaotic and unpredictable nature of life by practicing on the mat?

Centering was followed by a 15 minute introduction to the week’s topic. Topics, based on the eight fold path of Raja Yoga, helped to set an intention for the day or the week. We began by using this intention while moving in asanas.

For example, Ahimsa, non-harming the first Yama (1st limb) as an intention, was a prerequisite for asana practice. Was I hurting myself in poses? Was I pushing myself into positions that caused injuries? Answers to these questions began the practice of Ahimsa. Being a novice, I was just looking for relief from my aches and pains. So I did not push. But, sadly, a couple of years later as I became somewhat proficient, competitiveness and pride crept in which led to injuries. This was when I was harshly persuaded to practice Ahimsa, each time I stepped on the mat.

After the 15 minute introduction, the instructor would start the warm ups and lead us through series of poses from standing to seated to lying down on the mat. In her calm voice she guided us through the movements. She somehow knew the right place to pause so we could breathe and experience being present. Soothing chants wafted in and out of my ‘hearing’ consciousness. It was exhilarating. It was calming. It was incredible. You get the idea.

When balancing in Vrikshasana, tree pose, my shaky legs did not upset me. In fact, it reminded me that I was still on the yoga mat and the best was yet to come. The sound of collective breathing of my peers while we moved through the asanas, was somehow comforting. The pain in my back became bearable and my posture improved because of asanas. Bottomline, it was sheer pleasure to be in my corner practiceing asana with others.

When it was time for relaxation in Shavasana, corpse pose, the instructor asked us to focus our attention on the breath. Then, she asked us to make each inhale a nourishing breath and each exhale a letting-go breath. What a wonderful way to train the mind and at the same time, help the body. After a few breaths, my mind drifted back to the habitual mental chatter (still does). Slowly I became aware that the breath had taken me deeper into the comfort and protection of the yoga mat. There was an elusive moment where time seemed frozen. Here,  I knew I could not be touched by the ups and downs of life.

The gentle sound of the singing bowl, roused me out of the stillness, signaling the finality of this earthly heaven. The end of the  class – but mostly a warning that real practice begins off the yoga mat. Then, with immense difficulty I stirred, not wanting to be awakened from this momentary peace. As we sat breathing as one, the instructor hinted to take the ‘peace’ off the mat and into the world we were about to enter. The chatter of the students at the door, waiting to enter for the next class signaled that we were already connected to the outside world. Then slowly, I rolled up the mat, tucked it carefully under my arm and would leave, taking with me the serenity of the classroom and hoping that it would last longer this time.

This routine went on for quite a while, a few years, until I signed up for teacher training. It took me a long time to realize that I was ‘turning off’ on the mat, but I am still learning to turn off at will. I left each class with a hope that someday I could live a life of inner calm without having to work so hard for it. Although at times I was discouraged when I “lost it”, I still returned to the class each week ready to try again. Each class was a preparation to face the triggers in the material world with renewed sense of hope, courage and compassion. However, when I did slip-up (many times and still do), I was/am able to slowly regroup by going back to the mat and to the tools of Raja Yoga.

For me, Abhyasa, daily yoga practice, specifically refers to performing the disciplines outlined in Raja Yoga, the path I was initiated into. My Abhyasa, is still evolving. To bring the eight limbs to life has been both frustrating and inspiring. Here, I realized, to invite mastery means that these practices must be done for a long time, and without a break.

I have learnt to move my body in various asanas using my breath. I have learnt how to center myself using my breath. I have learnt that yoga-asana practice is not just for the body; it is about training the mind using the breath. I am still learning how to settle my thoughts and anchor my mind to the breath to find those precious moments of peace. I am becoming aware that this practice is helping me to play the various roles in my life a little better. Now I realize that ongoing study of the eight fold path is mandatory in order to adopt a true yogic lifestyle. In other words, bringing the theory of Raja Yoga to life is what true Abhyasa, is all about.

I have a very long way to go before I can claim eradication of vices or everlasting calmness. Right now, I am happy  to show up on the yoga mat and on the meditation blanket – everyday, ready to work hard and enjoy my practice. Every morning I set an intention of Raja Yoga and every night I have to forgive myself for my lapses in order to begin again the next day.

The first step of Abhyasa is showing up. My favorite first line by Sage Pathanjali in the yogic text, Yoga Sutras, states – “Atha Yoganushasanum,” – “Now begins the instruction on practice of yoga.”

I translate it as “Now begins the true discipline of Abhyasa.”

Only when I show up each day, I can truly begin my Abhyasa .  

“Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible”. St. Francis of Assisi