Embodying the yamas and niyamas

Here’s my article from the Summer 2019 edition of Spectrum, the magazine of the British Wheel of Yoga, about applying the yamas and niyamas in our everyday practice, connecting what we do on and off the mat in the 21st century with our ancient tradition, as codified by the sage Patanajli……

Embodying the yamas and niyamas
A few years back, when reading Mark Singleton’s insightful “Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice”, I’ll admit to experiencing a range of feelings: on the one hand, I was both fascinated by and grateful for his thoroughly-researched historical perspective of the growth of our great tradition; on the other, there were more mixed emotions – perhaps some embarrassment at my naivety, perhaps a little disappointment – when it became clear that people probably weren’t breaking out into spontaneous sun salutations on the banks of the Ganges 3,000 years ago, and in fact a great deal of contemporary asana practice as we would recognise it has as much to do with nineteenth-century Scandinavian gymnastics and British Army calisthenics as it does with the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
We all know that there is much more to yoga than asana practice, but it’s easy to feel a sense of disconnection between what we practice (and see being practiced) on a day-to-day basis with the ancient wisdom which we have inherited.
Lucky for us, then, that Patanjali had the foresight to think about all of this when compiling the Yoga Sutras and included a ready-made code of conduct in the form of the first two limbs of his Raja Yoga framework: the yamas and niyamas. It is my belief that we can re-establish that connection of practice with tradition by practically applying the yamas and niyamas on the mat. Not only that: by adhering to the yamas and niyamas we can help both ourselves and our students perform asana more effectively and more safely.
The yamas are often described as restraints, but I like to think of them as a guide to how we relate to the rest of the world. The first of these, Ahimsa, often translated as ‘non-violence’, occupies a special place: as the very first element of the very first limb, ahmisa is the fundamental foundation for yoga. It requires us to refrain from injuring any living creature in word, thought or deed. From a practice point of view, it’s important to apply ahimsa towards ourselves. There is nothing to be gained from adopting a confrontational stance against one’s own body, and nothing to be gained (except possibly injury) by forcing the body into a position it doesn’t want to be in.
Satya, or truth, requires us to be honest with others but also with ourselves. In the context of a class, I have an obligation to teach from a place of truthfulness, with clear and meaningful instruction, but as a practitioner, I need to assess myself honestly and work to my own level.
Asteya is non-stealing. The lesson in terms of personal conduct towards other is clear, but how can we relate this to our asana practice? Stealing is taking what is not ours. But if we accept that we have enough, that we already are enough in our practice, we understand that we do not need to ‘take’ more from ourselves by contorting the body. There is no need to envy the person next to us with their (in our eyes) more accomplished practice.
You’ll often see brahmacharya translated as ‘celibacy’ but an alternative perspective, offered by Desikachar, is one of moderation: “Too much of anything brings problems. Too little may be inadequate”. The advice here is clear: Be moderate in your  practice – avoid strain, but make effort. There are echoes here of Sutra 2:46: ‘Sthira Sukham asanam’ – “Asana must have the dual qualities of alertness and relaxation.” (Desikachar)
Aparigraha is all about non-attachment: to people, things or the end result of any endeavour we get involved with, including any given asana. Instead of focusing on achieving the ‘perfect pose’, let’s pay attention to the quality of our action instead
The niyamas offer guidance on how we relate to ourselves: Patanajali’s top tips on character-building, if you like.
The first of these, sauca refers to cleanliness, both of body and mind. We cleanse ourselves internally through all of our asana practices (with twists proving especially effective), and clean our minds through our focus and concentration on balance, alignment and breath.
Santosha asks us to develop contentment. Who of us hasn’t at some point been frustrated with our practice, perhaps our inability to keep our balance, or to maintain our focus. But rather than becoming frustrated or allowing ourselves to be discouraged by a perceived lack of progress, we can remind ourselves to be content with where we are in our practice. After all, effort is never wasted, and there is no such thing as failure.
Tapas literally means heat, but is often translated as ‘self-discipline’. This niyama gives us two pieces of advice for the price of one. On the one hand, creating heat in the body, developing our inner Agni, can support the detoxifying effects of our practice and stimulate Manipura chakra, strengthening our inner resolve. On the other, exercising a little self-discipline by paying attention to our posture or vinyasa helps us to avoid performing it automatically.
Svadhyaya means self-study. Allowing our senses to quieten and our attention to turn inwards while working with any particular asana will help us to fine tune our alignment, and to develop our self-awareness through careful self-observation.
Isvarapranidhana tends to provoke lively debate, with its literal translation of ‘surrender to the Lord/God”. But for me this is all about shifting our perspective away from the self, and the ego, the obsession with ‘I’, dedicating our practice, or surrendering, to something higher than ourselves – this can be god, or mother nature, or whatever, but something that is greater than, but includes, ourselves.
If we can keep the various elements of Patanjali’s code of conduct in mind as we practice, we can really embody their principles, helping us to take them off the mat and out into the world, in turn helping us to live more purposeful, more fulfilling lives.
l Singleton
l Desikachar

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