Yoga philosophy complete guide: What are Yama and Niyama in yoga?

The word ‘Yoga’ has different understandings for different people. For some, it is a path to become stronger and more flexible physically, whilst for others, it can be meditating for two hours a day. It may also mean mantra chanting or pranayama for the rest. In conclusion, yoga means a lot of things to a lot of people and they are all correct. The meaning of ‘Yoga’ may mean various things to different people but in the end ‘Yoga’ stands for unity. Unification of our mind and body. All the practices of Yoga work towards achieving that goal. It may not be achieved in one hour of an asana class but with consistency, this unification is accomplished.

What is Philosophy?

Philosophy as a word gets thrown around a lot in conversations. When you advise a friend on a serious topic then it becomes philosophy. If you are having a serious conversation about life with somebody then that becomes a philosophical conversation. In its true meaning, the word Philosophy has a greek origin which can be divided into two words, ‘Philo’ and ‘Sophia’, which translates to ‘love for knowledge.

When we attempt to understand Yogic philosophy, we are preparing ourselves to answer questions such as ‘who are we?’ and ‘what is our purpose in this existence.’ The majority of Yogic philosophy emphasises the teachings of Sage Patanjali, he introduced us to the world of (eight limbs) ashtanga yoga. There are seven stages to the ultimate goal of life which is known as ‘Samadhi’, the final stage of Ashtanga yoga.

With changing times, the daily routine of people has changed. We do not have to wake up early in the morning and walk 2 kilometres to get water. Our workplaces require us to use vehicles to get from one place to the other. The level at which our bodies used to function physically helped us keep the balance within our bodies. There were no temptations of fast foods, oily and processed food. We devoured home-cooked meals as the tiresome physical activity would excite us to go home for food. In the modern age, the use of our physical body in activities has reduced significantly and there has been a rise in oily and fermented food, which has introduced more issues like obesity, mental depression, laziness, dullness, and more.

Without proper food in our system and less physical activity, our mind tends to play with us. The mind loves to play tricks on us when it is sitting empty and this brings about questions of existence on this planet, the purpose of your life and more. These questions are important despite all the laziness as it is only natural to have the desire of wanting to know who you are and where do we come from. This curiosity gave the advent of the concept of Philosophy.

What is Yama and Niyama?

The foundation of Ashtanga yoga is known as Yama and Niyama. They talk about discipline either in-built into a person or one learned due to external forces.

Yama is the ethics of an individual and Niyama is the morals of an individual. Broadly Yama is considered a social discipline of a person. The discipline that we follow to put on ourselves concerning social interactions and communication is known as Yama.

There are 5 practices of Yama :

1. Ahimsa

Ahimsa is known as the practice of fearlessness and non-violence. Under the concept of non-violence, there are three subcategories as to the types of violence.

  1. Physical violence
  2. Verbal violence
  3. Mental violence

Physical violence needs no explanation as it is violence physically attempted against another human being. Verbal violence is where we use our sharpest weapon, our tongue, to hurt somebody. And the final is mental violence, the most crucial aspect of violence which is the originator of both physical and verbal violence as any type of violence begins from the mind. The thought of violence in itself is the seed of violence. In this first practice of Yama, we are asked to eliminate this path of our mind.

Negative thoughts which we build for ourselves are the root cause of Ahimsa. For example, looking at yourself in the mirror, a thought comes to your mind that your waist is looking a little chubby than usual and your chain of negative thoughts starts from there for your self also known as Ahimsa. Any sort of ahimsa starts with oneself and that is what we need to be cautious about.

2. Satya

Truth fullness is subjective to all human beings. This varies from person to person as the definition of truth is different for different individuals. Whereas there is something known as universal truth. A fact which is existing on this planet. Acceptance of that truth and application of that truth is the goal of Satya.

The truth may vary from person to person but the consideration of somebody else’s truth and then accepting that truth without any preconceived notion is the purest application of the truth which means Satya.

3. Asteya

This mean, non-stealing. We are taught not to steal from our elders. It is considered a sinful act to steal. Beyond the concept of physical stealing, in yogic understanding, asteya means to fulfil your desires through duties and responsibility.

Whenever we wish to fulfil our desire, it can be done in two ways.

  1. Ethical
  2. Non-ethical

The path of asteya simply talks about how one should not desire something grungy for another to receive something fruitful for oneself. The hard work and effort that an individual puts into achieving something special can only bear its fruits when the intention behind the task is pure.

4. Brahmacharya

In its literal sense, Brahmacharya means following the path of the divine. Which constitutes all of the above practices plus non-temptation. Under the banner of temptation, there are three categories to it.

  1. Temptation of the tongue
  2. The temptation for material things
  3. The temptation for sexual desire

After following a yogic lifestyle to a degree, one realises the importance of energy. What type of energy should be invested in whom and where. This is one of the most crucial decisions to make daily but a significant one. This helps us to eliminate unwanted energies from around us and stay focused on what we truly desire. In the practice of brahmacharya, it is not an only relinquishment of sexual desires but any sort of temptation, be it for material items, for food, or to speak incessantly, and more.

5. Aparigraha

The last practice under Yama is non-collection, meaning Aparigraha. It is the second step after brahmacharya as the base of any desire to collect something begins with a temptation of any kind. A thought that occurs in the mind first is the beginning of any temptation.

The idea of minimalism applies to this practice. We have all been asked by our parents to spend our money wisely at all times. Have you ever wondered why? Was it just for you to not spend the money or it also meant that a constant desire to have more, makes a person greedy?

There are two steps to achieving aparigraha :

  1. Enjoy what you have in your present
  2. Be ready to give and share at all times.

The more we attach ourselves to desiring things, the further we go from realising who we are. The practice of Yama guides us on how we can discipline ourselves under the banner of social interaction and reach one step ahead into the foundation of Ashtanga Yoga.

Niyama on the other hand is morals. The personal discipline that we impose upon ourselves is known as Niyama. There are 5 practices under Niyama as well.

1. Saucha

Saucha means cleanliness. Figuratively, cleaning the physical space around us is important to help us keep our mental state also clean. Here in the practice of Niyama, it is essential to detoxify the mind as well as your physical body. From time to time our mind needs a cleansing where the unwanted thoughts and desires are hogging up space and that space creates unnecessary weight onto us.

2. Santosha

The feeling of satisfaction whilst you have it is called Santosh. Another word for Santosh is contentment. The feeling of being at peace with what one has is contentment. The practice of appreciation towards what you have is one way to achieve Santosh in life. The moment we realise the power of the present, that is when we stop rushing after what is irrelevant.

It is also important to learn how to distinguish between what we truly need and what we truly want. This distinction helps us to satisfy ourselves in the most fulfilling way.

3. Tap

Tap means heat. The heat of one’s own efforts towards something which one desire truly. The intensity with which we perform our tasks determines how badly we wish for them to come true. That is what tap is, our intensity and constant effort in one direction.

The effort that we put in helps us to maintain the constant mental and physical patterns that get built within our minds. Be it a task at work or a confrontation with a friend, maintaining consistency is the only way to achieve greatness in every field that you practice in.

4. Swadhyaya

After the mental and physical cleansing with constant efforts at what you truly wish to achieve in your life and finding satisfaction in all the efforts that you put in, it is time for swadhyay which is self-observation. Taking 10 minutes out of your busy schedule to understand how exactly have you been investing your energy and the direction of that energy is very important.

The importance of staying grounded comes about on the surface at this stage of practice. It does not matter how old you are, or how much work experience you possess, in the end, acceptance of new learning keeps us moving onward and upward. Never put a full stop in your learning as the day you stop accepting new things is the day you stop growing as a person.

5. Ishwara pranidhana

In its literal meaning, Ishwar pranidhana means surrendering to the divine. It means holding one supreme figure above yourself and devoting yourself to that being without any backlinks or expectations. Keeping that union desireless and expectation less brings us closer to samadhi.

The importance of Yama and Niyama in a yogic lifestyle

Iyengar has described both Yama and Niyamas as the golden keys to unlock the spiritual gates. As it turns every action into one that originates from a deeper connection within us. Ten practices of Yama and Niyama have proven to be the foundational stones in the practices of yoga and a yogic lifestyle.

A yogic lifestyle demands discipline in both social structures and for oneself. Yama and Niyama are the ideal practices to perform before any other exercise of yoga. According to sage Patanjali, these practices come before the asana, pranayama and meditation practices of yoga. It is vital to purify oneself mentally and physically before stepping into the physical practices of yoga. The third stage of Ashtanga yoga is Asana, which also represents the cleansing of the body but with realignment and better physical health.

People wonder what should they do once they have learned many advanced asanas, pranayama practices and Meditation; the only practice which is the most important among all the other physical practices is Yama and Niyama. This determines your level of awareness within yourself. How practising discipline can improve not just our lifestyle and our wellness but increases longevity with good health. With increased awareness, an individual becomes capable to achieve the goals that seemed impossible to them before these practices.

Practicing Yama and Niyama is not with bringing out your mats and taking that one hour out for yourself. These disciplines are day to day affair which requires a lifestyle change.

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