Yama, Niyama and Why Bother?

October 29, 2017

If you’ve spent some time in a yoga studio you’ve likely been exposed to concepts within the Ashtanga Yoga* system. Script on the wall, a shirt, a book for sale called Yoga Sutras of Patanjali or even out of the mouth of your teacher? You may have even skimmed a copy of the Yoga Sutras to locate Astanga Yoga and set it down quickly due to its challenging nature on what you thought you knew yoga to be.

Let’s face it, the physical practice looks nothing like the aims outlined within this “essential” text. The philosophy codified by the 4th/6th BCE century sage Patanjali is a rabbit hole many serious students slip down only to find themselves confused with what it means to actually practice yoga. Fear not! The code has been cracked and you are not the first to teeter on the fence of understanding.

Just like the steps you follow to perform a yoga pose, Ashtanga Yoga of the Yoga Sutra is a step-by-step model to follow towards an end goal. Systematically the practice is turning you towards an authentic experience of a state of original bliss. Historians agree the Samkhya era of philosophy clearly impressed upon Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra the need for enumerating practice.

Samkhya yoga was built on a binary system of spirit and matter. Purusha, or spirit, which is the unchanging intelligence of energy and Prakriti, matter or the utterance of Purusha are the foundation for all yogas. Purusha is separate from any interference and just “is”. Prakriti however does nothing but represent change. From the most subtle to the most gross levels of existence Prakriti develops according to Samkhya in a very orderly, sequential way that can be traced forwards and back. Ashtanga Yoga is also mapped out in an orderly fashion. Literally Ashtanga Yoga translates as the eight limbs of yoga. Simply put, eight ways in which to unpack the way you engage with life.

Ashta- eight
Anga- limb
Yoga- a loaded term that in brief means the way in which life is engaged

The angas, or limbs, sometimes have their own branches with equal importance. Simply put, here is the complete Ashtanga model:

Yama- ethical disciplines
-Ahimsa (non-violence)
-Satya (truth)
-Asteya (non-stealing)
-Brahmacharya (continence)
-Aparigraha (non-coveting)

Niyama- individual disciplines
-Saucha (purtity)
-Santosha (contentment)
-Tapas (austerity)
-Svadhyaya (Self inquiry)
-Isvara pranidhana (dedication to God)

Asana- the seat
Pranayama – breathing practices
Pratyahara – withdrawal from the senses
Dharana – concentration
Dhyana – meditation
Samadhi – complete absorption

What we see here are steps on a pathway towards higher and higher knowledge of the Self (true nature/original bliss). The sage Patanjali was able to see patterns within the Samkhya system and craft a prescription to follow in order to train our minds for the levels of experience. The model moves from gross to subtle and appears to be more digestible than Samkhya itself. Here’s a classic example of what Joel Kramer calls “standing on the shoulders of the past”.

I’m scratching at the notion that we’ve always been trying to take a big idea and craft it to one that is applicable to our current mood.

In the past, the ways in which the yoga discipline were interpreted and practiced depended on the time period, caste and region of India one found themselves in. We find ourselves practicing yoga in the 21st century. What’s wild is that much of what takes place in classes today dates back to the first drop-in model set forth by Shri Yogendra*, just with the addition of spotify, luon and nag champa. In 1918 Yogendra opened The Yoga Institute in Bombay for the Indian middle class who had the time and finances to improve their health. Yogendra, a former student of Madhavadasaji and Swami Vivekananda, crafted an experience for people who wanted to practice yoga as a social experience rather a private, meditative experience and blended it with his knowledge of gymnastics, calisthenics and physical education. That’s just prior to known masters Krishnamacharya of Chennai, Patabhi Jois of Mysore, and BKS Iyengar of Pune.

So why bother bring up any of the limbs of classical yoga in a physical, drop-in class? Why not keep stepping over the past or leveling up by stepping on the shoulders of those who have challenged what’s applicable? My answer is simple – because it’s being called Yoga Class. If it was called Pose Class then I wouldn’t feel a level of responsibility to present this discipline with a broad stroke. If it was called Pose Class I wouldn’t be concerned students who haven’t been around as long learn there is more than just postures. I don’t expect students to invest in a 200-500 hour teacher training who have no interest in teaching just so they can learn more about yoga.

To help bring your practice to life in a dynamic way that touches upon the wisdom of Ashtanga Yoga, I’ve been instructing lately with the niyamas particularly in the forefront.
Here’s some thoughts for going out on a mental limb while bending your own angas:

Saucha is a personal observance meaning cleanliness or purity. Cleanliness and purity seem on radical different ends of the spectrum but they go hand in hand. If you’re willing to cleanse your mind of toxic thoughts, cleanse your body and cleanse your home from dirt and over-consumption regularly you can elevate your experience to one with more self-reflection. The observance of saucha is a way of holding yourself more responsible for the way you interact with the world through your physical and psychic nature. Furthermore, when you are practicing pose work and manipulating your breath cycle in a way that puts your needs of alignment and clarity of form first your practice syncs up with a higher aim in yoga.

According to BKS Iyengar in his book Light On Yoga, “the impurities of the mind are washed off in the waters of Bhakti (adoration)”. Bathe yourself in a heightened level of devotion towards your own betterment and work to clear out any denial of the magic in the mundane.

Set your foundation clearly by looking at how you place the part of your body that is making contact with the floor.
Move lymph more effectively by practicing stabilizing joints with muscle engagement instead of stacking bones to prop you up. Incorporate big movements at the four corners of your body (hips and shoulders).
Make time for pranayama (concentrated breathing practices) and dhyana (meditation). This will help you rid your buddhi (intellect), even if momentarily, from the toxicity of pride, greed, and hatred.
Clean your residence seasonally. What’s shoved in drawers or the bottoms of closets that could be donated or recycled? Think of your home as an extension of your body and mind.
Trash the self-hatred. You are not alone in experiencing life as a path full of obstacles. Having unrealistic expectations for yourself muddies the flow setting up for anything else than success.

Tapas is the discipline of channeling your desire towards union with God. Tapas means austerity which in itself connotes rigor and an elevated effort. When you direct your effort towards one thing in particular it is heating and stimulating. Tapas will stoke your willpower.

To make this digestible for the student uncomfortable with the word “God”, it would be an innovation to consider just what exactly is the motivating factor for your current choices. Tapas points to effort and if you aren’t engaged in the dialogue of what is motivating your decisions and actions, the heat dissipates and the fire dies out.

In terms of the physical practice, why are you going deeper? Why are you modifying? Why are you taking a break?
Are your actions egocentric? Are they to benefit the group? Are you giving up on yourself when you feel challenged?
In general, what truly fuels your actions?

The niyama tapas is the observance of elevating your effort towards the one goal that matters above all else.

Need more? See a past musing on Santosha, the niyama of contentment here .

*Ashtanga Yoga is not to be confused with Astanga Vinyasa Yoga of Mysore, India.
*Shri Yogendra as “The First Yoga Teacher” in The Path of Modern Yoga by Elliott Goldberg.

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