This week we’ll start looking at the individual components of the eight-limbed path, starting with yama and niyama. These are the moral guidelines for yogic living suggested by The Yoga Sutras, but not moral in a religious or retributive sense. No punishments are tied to particular actions (or inaction), but the inherent progression of the eight-limbed path toward the goal of Samadhi, or enlightenment, will likely be thwarted, or at least delayed, if observation of the yama and niyama is not practiced. There is noYoga Entity standing with crossed arms in judgment of your strict adherence to the guidelines; they are merely tools to help individual yogis and yoginis, if nothing else, achieve a more fluid agility in every aspect of their lives: spiritual, physical, and mental.
Let’s start with the yama, or moral restraints. They may also be interpreted as rules for social conduct. They are:
~ Ahimsa, non-violence/non-harming
~ Satya, truthfulness/non-deception
~ Asteya, non-stealing
~ Brahmacharya, control of sexual energy/chastity
~ Aparigraha, non-greed
Now for the niyama, or moral observances. These may also be thought of as guidelines for personal conduct. They are:
~ Sauca, cleanliness and purity of body, mind, and surroundings
~ Santosa, contentment
~ Tapas, purification practices/discipline
~ Svadhyaya, study and practice
~ Ishvarapranidhana, connection to a higher power
There are ten of them! Hmmm, where else have we seen ten “suggestions” for living a good moral life? I personally find it fascinating how many similarities exist – throughout time, across vast geographical distances, and within widely divergent cultural realms – in the various paths of the human pursuit of spiritual fulfillment. To me, that says that although we might be speaking different languages and in virtually every other sense articulating our beliefs differently, we’re nonetheless in many ways saying the same thing. Which, to me, means we must be onto something. Neat.
But, like I said earlier, the yama and niyama, as well as yoga’s myriad other lifestyle prescriptions, are not religious – or, more accurately, don’t have to be religious. Like an infinitely malleable ball of clay, yoga conforms to and fits within virtually any belief system, truly strengthening the practitioner from top to bottom, inside to out.
So what if you could care less about all of this stuff, what if you just want to do the physical practice because it’s good exercise and you enjoy doing it? Some people may never pursue a practice beyond asana, which is where most western yogis take their first steps down the yogic path. And that’s fine too.
With or without observation of all of this “rule” business, asana is still good for us. It makes us healthier in all sorts of ways, including internally. I personally believe the quiet transformation created in the internal landscape of asana practitioners often functions as a turnkey to the spiritual world. The physical postures unblock subtle energy pathways, or nadis, balance chakras (whether or not you even believe they exist!), and in general make us more receptive and open to all the gifts the practice has to offer. Like a clean, blank canvas being stretched – wrinkles gone, pure and open, ready to receive a masterpiece.
This has been my own experience, and I’ve spoken to so many people who say the same thing: the physical practice has opened spiritual doors. Pattabhi Jois, father of Ashtanga yoga, is famous for saying that the lessons of yoga can best be absorbed through “…99% practice, 1% theory.” In other words, just do the practice and the rest will follow.
This is why yoga is referred to as experiential learning, and a testament, I believe, to the unified nature of our existence. Our body, mind, and spirit truly are connected. The physical, mental, and spiritual aspects of our beings all benefit immensely from patient tending and courteous attention. We feel the whisper of these truths during the practice of posture, and this alone is enough to make the practice worthwhile.