अहिंसा सत्य अस्तेय ब्रह्मचर्य अपरिग्रह यम शौच संतोष तपस् स्वाध्याय ईश्वरप्रणिधान नियम

Last month, I set the scene. I explained the context in which Patanjali (the ancient sage credited with writing the Yoga Sutras) offered us the 8-limb path. You can read the full post here, but the crucial thing to remember is that it was offered as a tool to help end our suffering. This month I want to begin unpacking the actual path of practice. I begin with the Yamas and Niyamas.

These first two limbs have to do with who we are–who we truly are when we’re living from our center. The first limb has to do with our relationship to the world around us. They are the Yamas, or the restraints, and there are five of them:

Ahimsa – Non-Harming
Satya – Speaking of Truth
Asteya – Non-Stealing
Brahmacarya – Moderation of Energy
Aparigraha – Non-Accumulating

Please know that there is more depth to each of these restraints. Maybe I will take write future posts to explore them individually. One thing I do want to share is the emphasis Patanjali placed on them:

“These yamas are considered the great vow. They are not exempted by one’s class, place, time or circumstance. They are universal.”

This statement is uncharacteristic of Patanjali. I know of no other place in the sutras that he is so emphatic. The Yoga Sutras are unbelievably open. They are not dogmatic. But in this statement, Patanjali is saying that for an aspiring yogi, the yamas are a universal and great vow. And that there are no exemptions. This is an important thing to notice and a reason to study the Yamas more deeply.

The second limb has to do with our internal life. They are the Niyamas, or the observances. Again, there are five:

Sauca – Cleanliness
Santosa – Contentment

Tapas – Discipline
Svadhyaya – Self-Study
Isvara-pranidhana – Humility, Surrender or Devotion

Patanjali wrote two important sutras that have to do with how we can practice the Yamas and Niyamas:

When you are disturbed by unwholesome negative thoughts or emotions, cultivation of their opposites promotes self-control and firmness in the precepts.”

Negative thoughts and emotions are violent, in that they cause injury to yourself and others, regardless of whether they are performed by you, done by others, or you permit them to be done. They arise from greed, anger, or delusion regardless of whether they arise from mild, moderate, or excessive emotional intensity. They result in endless misery and ignorance. Therefore, when you consistently cultivate the opposite thoughts and emotions, the unwholesome tendencies are gradually destroyed.

These sutras speak to the fact that we can’t force ourselves to be perfect. We can’t set ahimsa or non-harming as a goal to be mastered. What we can do is take an attitude of non-harming as an intention to live by. We can consistently cultivate thoughts of peacefulness. We can consistently reflect on our actions, speech and attitudes that go against our intention of non-harming and work to cultivate their opposite.

The last three niyamas make up Kriya Yoga, one of the most useful tools of personal transformation offered to us through yoga. Kriya Yoga, or the Yoga of Action is the practice of discipline, self-study and surrender (tapas, svadhyaya and isvara-pranidhana). My teacher talks about these Niyamas as a three-legged stool. The stool cannot stand without all three legs. After the work of honest self-reflection you are able to determine appropriate practices of self-discipline and the places where you need to let go and surrender to something greater than yourself.

The Yamas and Niyamas are a beautiful way of understanding who we are and who we can be. I offer this introduction to you in the hopes that you will study them more deeply and allow them to affect your life as they have affected mine.