The Pillars of Yama-Niyama

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Around 5,000 years ago, the ancient yogis began to lose their capacity to memorize the scriptures by word of mouth, and there became a need to write things down for future generations. The sage, Sri Patanjali, began the process of articulating the basic ideas about yoga in what has become known as the Yoga Sutras. Sutra has a similar meaning as suture, stitch. Patanjali threaded together the merest inkling of the profound concepts on self-realization. A short work of four books with 196 sutras​ or aphorisms, the Sutras are the guidebook on how to control the mind and attain moksha, or liberation.

In previous blogs I spoke about Asana and Pranayama as being “pillars”, or building blocks of a Big Yoga practice. I started with these more common concepts to begin this discussion of what makes up Big Yoga. But essential to any yoga practice are the ethical rules–yamas, and the good habits or observances–niyamas. The very first of the yamas Ahimsa, ​or non-violence. It’s at the top of the list, showing its importance above all others. I take ahimsa to mean that not only do we not harm other living beings, but also we take care not to harm ourselves, especially in Yoga class!

The other yamas include Satya, or truthfulness; Asteya, meaning non-stealing; Brahmacarya, traditionally meant to indicate chastity, but also moderation in all things; and Aparigraha, non-possessiveness, non-hoarding. When we observe these gentle guidelines, it leaves the mind free of clutter. We don’t have to worry about being found out in a lie, or in bed with someone’s husband! We lose that tendency to cling to things (or people) that keeps the mind in constant motion of fear and manipulation. We then can rest in the calming of the thought waves, the essence of Yoga.

The Niyamas include your good habits–Saucha, or purity,; Santosha, or contentment, accepting life on life’s terms; Tapas or perseverance, even austerity for purification; Swadhyaya, self-reflection or study of spiritual books; and Iswarapranidhana, surrender or constant contemplation of the True Self/the Divine.

Without these “10 commandments of Yoga”, we are rudderless. They aren’t less important than Asana and Pranayama–all the pillars that support your yoga practice build upon each other in no particular order. If you’ve never read the Yoga Sutras, there are many versions available. My favorite is the one by my Guru, Sri Swami Satchidananda who wrote beautiful commentaries on each sutra that are especially helpful to the Western mind. Anyone studying yoga today will enjoy the depth and simplicity of this sacred text.

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