According to the classical hierarchy of the eight limbs of yoga, yama and niyama encompass the initial two stages of the yogic path. Yoga asana is the third step and students of the past wouldn’t have even begun an asana practice until they’d fully considered the yama and niyama.
Many who find their way to a modern yoga studio have already asked the questions and investigated these habits, though in different guises and alternative vocabulary. They’re also often subjects undertaken by yoga students who are moving from casual practitioners into more serious study. Your own introduction to these tenets of yoga might just be this very blog post.
The yogic path begins with a consideration and practice of the yamas, which give guidance on relating to others while in the world:
Ahimsa // non violence
Satya // truthfulness
Asteya // non stealing, integrity
Brahmacharya // right relationship to your vitality
Aparigraha // non grasping
Then, the niyamas focus solely on the individual in relationship with themselves:
Saucha // the body is a temple
Santosa // contentment
Tapas // self discipline
Svadhyaya // self study
Ishvarapranidhana // letting go of the ego
We are interdependent creatures, and the study and practice of the yamas is helpful as we navigate this busy world with its myriad of interpersonal dynamics. Consider the first yama of nonviolence. At first glance it’s fairly straightforward: Don’t be violent. Seems easy enough, right? But this directive could take an entire lifetime to integrate if more subtle variations are considered. Our words to or about others can cause harm, we can expose ourselves to violent situations or media, or we can be punishing towards ourselves. Backing off a posture when you feel your body isn’t ready for it that day could be considered practicing non violence.
The niyamas are guides for balancing what will be the longest and most complicated relationship of your life: the one you develop with yourself. Since it seems like things between you two are going to be serious, it’s best to really nurture this particular romance. The first niyama asks us to treat the body as a temple, which aligns pretty well with the caricature of the Yogi of a Million Dietary Restrictions. Which is fine, that’s a great way to understand this ethical code. But if that interpretation doesn’t speak to you, you might regard it as being considerate of what you put into your body and mind. It’s a way of showing care and reverence for your body and your Self.
The yamas and niyamas as moral and ethical codes assist us in our search for authenticity and well being. Consider them an invitation to bring Yoga fully into your life off the mat and outside of the studio.