Once we have been practising yoga for a while, we start to wonder if there is more to it than just the shapes we make on our mats… In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the eight limbs of yoga are outlined:
1.yamas (moral ‘restraints’ or discipline)
2. niyamas (observances)
3. asana (physical postures)
4. pranayama (breath control)
5. pratyahara (sense withdrawal)
6. dharana (concentration)
7. dhyana (meditation or absorption)
8. samadhi (enlightenment)
The yamas and niyamas form the first two ‘jewels’ of this eight-limbed path to awareness in yoga. The yamas can be thought of as ethical precepts or guidelines that we can follow. The niyamas are more subtle guidelines for observing the self.
The first of the yamas is ahimsa or non-harming. This could be taken quite literally, in the form of non-violence, or could be turned around into a more positive form of compassion for ourselves and others.
Next is satya or truthfulness. This can mean not lying, being truthful in our communication with others, but also being our authentic selves.
Next is asteya or non-stealing. Again, this can be taken literally to mean not stealing the possessions of others, but also not taking up the time of others, etc. It could be framed in the positive sense of generosity
The next of the yamas is brahmacarya – traditionally ‘celibacy’ or ‘right use of energy’. This could be interpreted as moderation, whether it be in sexual relationships or in a more broader context, finding stillness, simplicity and contentment – non-excess.
The final one is aparigraha or non-greed. Clinging to people, views, material possessions does not lead to true and lasting happiness
Once we are trying to direct our lives towards these yamas or ethical principles of behavour, we can turn the focus more inwards to the five niyamas, the first of which is saucha – cleanliness or purity. As well as keeping our bodies clean, this principle is asking us to purify our attitudes and our actions.
Next is santosha or contentment – accepting things as they are in the here and now, rather than grasping the notion that things might be different (I’ll be happy when…).
‘Tapas‘ or self-discipline can also be translated as ‘heat’, and can be thought of as the fire of transformation, a fiery cleansing. Everything in life can be viewed as an opportunity for growth, even if it is painful.
The penultimate of the niyamas is svadhyaya, or self-study. Knowing ourselves, being really curious as to why we have this thought or are triggered by that situation. Having this awareness allows us to move beyond those thoughts and triggers, feeling the liberation of letting go.
Finally is ishvara pranidhana or surrender – trusting in the process of yoga, surrendering to its greater power.