This is the fourth part of my Yoga off the Mat series. Read part one, Yoga off the Mat: Contemplation, here, part two, Yoga off the Mat: Concentration, here and part three Yoga off the Mat: Method, here.
In today’s post, I’ll be sharing some ideas and practices written about in 2.30 to 2.55 of Patanjali’s yoga sutras.
As promised, I’m going to dig a little deeper into some of the principles I’ve already touched on in this series and also in previous blog posts. These teachings are something I continually come back to, and I always get some new insight or understanding each time I do.
The Yamas and Niyamas
The yamas and the niyamas are the first and second limbs of Patanjali’s eightfold path to self-realisation.
The yamas are all about our external environment, how we treat the world around us, including our actions, speech and thoughts. There are five yamas:
- Ahimsa, non-violence. Do no harm in thought, speech or action.
- Satya, truthfulness. Being honest.
- Asteya, non-stealing. No stealing possessions, time or intellectual property form others.
- Brahmacharya, sexual integrity. Remembering the divine and honouring it.
- Aparigraha, non-hoarding. No possessiveness, attachment or greed.
The second rung is the niyamas, how we treat our internal environment, our relationship with ourselves. There are five niyamas:
- Shaucha, cleanliness. The purity of body and mind.
- Santosha, contentment. At peace in the present moment.
- Tapaas, discipline. Training the senses and devotion.
- Svadhyaya, self-study. Study and reflection through sacred texts.
- Ishvara pranidhana, surrender. Faith and letting go, trusting in a higher power (God, Goddess, the Universe etc.).
It can be a little overwhelming when you first step on to the eightfold path but take some time to assess and see how you are already living with these principles at heart. You’re probably already lovingly practising some or parts these vows, and this is your call to delve deeper.
As humans, we cannot always follow the path, and we stumble from time to time. This might mean negative thoughts, speech or actions which don’t follow the yamas and niyamas.
There are three mental states which move you off the path and away from the yamas and niyamas:
The three states can be felt in different intensities, mild, moderate or intense.
Choose to see these missteps as gentle reminders or signposts signalling that you need to return to the path.
Why do we practice the eight limbs of yoga? To develop and finetune our discriminative knowledge so we can walk in the right direction, letting go of what does not serve us. The yamas and niyamas are the foundation for the other limbs, so our focus starts here.
The third limb of the eightfold path is asana. This might be the limb you are most familiar with as most yoga classes are actually ‘asana classes’.
The word asana comes from the root ~as, which means ‘to sit’. And true to form, this was the first yoga pose—a seated meditation posture.
It is essential for this posture to be both steady and comfortable, which means we let go or loosen tension from the body and allow our attention to merge with the infinite.
Go deeper with another post I wrote about asana.
The fourth limb of the eightfold path is pranayama. Pranayama might also be familiar to you as it is practised in many asana-based yoga classes.
Prana translates to ‘lifeforce’ and yama to ‘restraint’ or ‘control’, meaning pranayama translates to something like ‘lifeforce control’. Our prana travels on the breath within the body, so pranayama practice is often called breathwork.
Posture is essential to a successful practice, see the instruction above on a steady and comfortable seat. Pranayama is part of the prep-work for successful dharana or concentration (the sixth limb).
Learn more about pranayama in this post.
Pratyahara or sense withdrawal is the fifth limb of the eightfold path. Mastery of the senses is a difficult task which takes much practice and discipline (tapas). It also means a letting go of attachments we have to the senses (I like warm, I hate cold, I love spicy, I hate sweet etc.). Start your practice by beginning to soften these attachments.
“The willingness or unwillingness to withdraw attention from sensory experience is a significant dividing line between those who experience true meditation and those who experience only physical relaxation.” – Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras
I wrote further on this limb in this post.
Proficiency in the yamas, niyamas, asana, pranayama and pratyahara set the foundation for moving on to the final three limbs of the eightfold path. Collectively, the last three rungs are known as samyama. We’ll be covering samyama in next month’s post.