The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali is a guide to the practice of Yoga. Compiled prior to 400 CE, it is still studied in depth today. In the text, Patañjali lists the Yamas and the Niyamas as the first two steps on the path of cultivating Yoga. Asana, or the postures we usually associate with Yoga classes, is the third step.
If we were to place a seed on a plate, water it and place it in the sun for warmth and energy, even with careful tending, the seed still will not develop far. Without soil to take root in, and draw nutrients from, how is a plant to grow?
The Yamas and Niyamas are the soil for the seed of our Yoga practice. If we do not “plant” our daily Asana practice in the rich and fertile soil of the Yamas and the Niyamas, then true health will not grow out of our efforts.
What are the Yamas and the Niyamas?
The Yamas are commonly referred to as “restraints.” As humans, we have natural emotional and reactionary tendencies that do not help us live peacefully in society. Practicing the Yamas helps us to curb those tendencies. We could consider them ethics common to many cultures. The 5 Yamas are 1) non-violence (Ahimsa), 2) truthfulness, or restraint from dishonesty (Satya), 3) non-stealing (Asteya), 4) restraint from gluttony (Brahmacharya), and 5) non-hoarding (Aparigraha).
The Niyamas are attitudes to practice which help develop a positive attitude. Rather than hold back from our natural tendencies, which is the practice of the Yamas, the Niyamas help us develop helpful habits that may be unfamiliar to our psyches. You could consider them emotional training. The 5 Niyamas are: 1) cleanliness (Shaucha), 2) satisfaction with what already is (Santosha), 3) diligence and persistence (Tapas), 4) education and learning (Svadhyaya), and 5) belief in the interconnectedness of all beings and energy (Ishvara Pranidhana).
I have always found it fascinating and oddly comforting that within the Yamas and Niyamas, there is an underlying assumption that the attitudes we must practice are not natural to us. We must actually work at being content. We must make an effort to study ourselves in order to “learn from our mistakes,” no matter how intelligent we may be. We must choose to interrupt the aggressive impulse that arises when we feel wronged.
The Yamas and the Niyamas beautifully support one another: developing the attitudes of the Niyamas helps us to restrain from the harmful actions warned against in the Yamas; and, practicing the restraints on our actions through the Yamas helps us cultivate the attitudes of the Niyamas. For example, first in the list of the five Niyamas is Shaucha, or cleanliness. And, fifth in the list of the five Yamas is Aparigraha, or non-hoarding. If I take on the practice of Shaucha, it will inspire me to keep a tidy apartment free of clutter, which will make me think twice before acquiring unnecessary knick-knacks, which will help me practice Aparigraha. Likewise, if I take a vow of Aparigraha, I will practice giving away things I no longer need, giving me an emptier apartment, which will in turn be easier to maintain and clean, which will help me practice Shaucha.
It sounds simple, but frequently when we’re told DON’T do [insert anything here], our minds immediately want to DO [that very thing]. Sometimes our brains can be quite stubborn. Therefore, Patañjali brilliantly counterbalanced the list of DON’Ts embedded in the Yamas by the list of DOs in the Niyamas, to help us succeed at our endeavors. DO practice cleanliness and self-care, DO practice contentment and joy, DO practice persistence, DO practice curiosity and inquisitiveness, DO practice identifying with the part of you that is permanent and beyond the transient body and emotions. And, look for that same permanence in others. All of the DO’s can help us find the strength NOT to harm others, speak lies, steal, indulge the senses, or hoard.
In her book The Secret Power of Yoga: A Woman’s Guide to the Heart and Spirit of the Yoga Sutras, Nischala Joy Devi writes that the Yamas and Niyamas are forces of dynamic energy: Aparigraha is the start of a movement toward the pinnacle of Ahimsa in the Yamas, and Shaucha is the start of a movement toward the pinnacle of Ishvara Pranidhana in the Niyamas (Devi, 2007, pp. 167).
Shaucha could mean keeping a clean house and maintaining good grooming habits for the body. But it could also mean keeping a clean diet, eliminating junk food and other things that have no nutritional value. Cleanliness can be a practice for our more subtle aspects as well, such as our thoughts. For example, does surfing through Facebook cloud our thoughts with anger or despair? How much of the news we take in is used just for gossip? It’s not a coincidence that in the English language, we use the word “dirt” to mean “gossip.” Therefore, can we clean our news feed of certain images? Can we “unfollow” certain friends who only indulge in “dirt?” If we follow our practice of Shaucha diligently, according to Nischala Joy Devi, our practice should lead us toward Ishvara Pranidhana, an embracing of God. “Cleanliness is next to Godliness” is a concept common to many cultures and societies, including many in America.
Aparigraha could mean not taking in unnecessary items, but it could also mean being willing to let go of items we no longer need, or letting go of old belief patterns, old fears and old prejudices, so that we can allow for a “fresh, clean start” even with people we’ve had abrasive relations for years. In some ways, starting with Shauca helps us restrain from holding onto unnecessary items or friendships, which is Aparigraha. The Facebook “unfollow” example could easily be categorized as Aparigraha or Shauca. Non-indulgence in unnecessary talk (gossip) could be the same as being willing to “let go” of friendships that encourage anger or disdain. Is letting go of unhealthy discourse mentally and emotionally cleaning house (Saucha)? Or, is it refraining from the amount of entertainment we take in to stimulate our senses (Aparigraha)?
According to Nischala Joy Devi, following a diligent practice of Aparigraha leads us to Ahimsa, or non-violence. Thus, the key to finding external and internal peace is through letting go of excess. The more we give away items we don’t need to those who do need, and the more we refrain from acquiring unnecessary items that others could possibly use, the more we help our entire community prosper. When all feel prosperous, there is less discord both for individual members of a community, as well as between community members. More harmony equates to less violence.
In the end, does it really matter how we label the actions (and inactions) that result from practicing the Yamas and the Niyamas? The practice itself is more important than it’s name. Indeed, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” (Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet). No matter which Yama or Niyama you choose to start, the important thing is to practice! It is through the ten practices of Yama and Niyama that we create a fertile soil for the seeds of our Asana to grow.