Regardless of the school of yoga that you are exposed to, all of these will teach you about the eight-limbed path that Patanjali outlined in the Yoga Sutra. The Sutra is composed of writings of Patanjali which describes the path that one takes in attaining the form of true yoga. The eight limbs of yoga are the yamas, niyamas, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi. These are presented in progressions with the goal of achieving the union between the individual and the divine.
Usually, yoga is practiced in its physical form through the asanas (poses), pranayama (breathing techniques) and dharana (meditation). However, to truly work towards the path of yoga, you need to understand the core principles which serve as the foundation of yoga practice- the yamas and the niyamas.
The yamas and niyamas are the first two limbs of yoga. These two are the core foundation of one’s attitude towards other people and towards one’s self. In this material world, most of the principles in life are guided by limited vantage points that only measure one’s success in comparison to others. Thus, yoga is oftentimes approached only through physical means. There is a misconception that a person who is most flexible or has progressed faster and better in performing the poses or the one who can bend better, are the ones who are successful in their practice.
However, in the truest form of yoga teachings, the poses, breathing techniques, meditation and other practices in yoga are not the main goals. Instead, these are the agents of achieving the absolute goal of creating union between individual and Divine. Through the yamas and niyamas, you are re-introduced to the ideas of what are the most important principles of who you are.
Of course, measuring progress on values that are not seen by the naked eye can be difficult at first. Is there an improvement in your attitude towards others and towards yourself? Are you capable of disengaging yourself from disturbing thoughts? The ability to move towards greater kindness is assessed subjectively. However, if you remain to commit to these values and practice the teachings of yoga, soon, you will learn to identify which is illusory and which is true.
The yamas refer to universal morality and is defined by five values namely ahimsa, satya, asteya, brachmacharya and aparigraha. Ahimsa is translated as compassion and non-violence towards all that exists in the world and is not only limited to the act of cruelty and killing. One must learn to show compassion towards all that lives. When you begin to realize that your plight works in the same way with all living creatures, then you begin to see the world in a different perspective and your instinct wants you to become protective of others.
Satya is one’s dedication towards truthfulness. In yoga, you will be taught that honesty and communication are the foundations of any relationship. It is not about being brutally honest to the point of unintentionally hurting someone. Rather, satya is about avoiding any exaggerations and misrepresentations when talking to people. It is conversing and presenting information based on facts rather than imaginations or unwarranted conclusions. By practicing this, you can be true to your word because you know that you are stating the truth. Although it can be hard at first, remind yourself that this is better than dealing with complications later on. Satya also helps you avoid making people feel deceived and betrayed.
Asteya in Sanskrit means “not stealing”. It works within the philosophy that people do inappropriate things because they feel that they are lacking. This need to have more stems out from the misconception that external sources make a person satisfied. When he or she feels that his or her life is incomplete because of the lack of worldly things, there is a huge tendency to steal. Asteya teaches that one should avoid taking anything that has not been given freely. It does not only pertain to literally taking away material possessions. It can also mean demanding or wasting someone else’s time and effort.
Brahmacharya is often translated as controlling one’s senses and it is most often associated with celibacy. In this yama, you will be taught the proper way to utilize sexual energy towards your spiritual self. When a person uses sexuality to manipulate others, it creates negative attitudes and reactions. However, in the practice of brahmacharya, it is perceived as an energy rather than designation, with the ultimate goal of merging with the
The last yama is aparigraha, which teaches people not to be greedy and to be content. Most people attach themselves to material things or compare themselves with others as their way to raise themselves up. Aparigraha also follows the concept that change is inevitable and that one should adapt instead of resisting it. This idea of accepting impermanence helps you grow stronger and resilient towards different successes and struggles.
The niyamas talk about personal observances for spiritual living. Its teachings include saucha, santosha, tapas, swadhyaya and ishvara pranidhana. Sauchas deal with purity in the body, mind and everything that surrounds you. It means being clean physically through personal hygiene and eating healthy food. It is also translated as feeding the mind with good thoughts and surrounding one’s self with kind people. Saucha teaches that when you associate yourself with positivity, your life will become more pure and peaceful.
Santosha teaches contentment in one’s life no matter what stage or situation you are in. It is not the same as happiness or complacency, as those two have different facets. It also does not mean that you should tolerate unhealthy situations but rather, being patient and giving out your best whatever the circumstance is, so you can improve it in the future.
Tapas refers to the use of energy in a disciplined way. This aspect of the niyamas teaches you that you should direct your energy on what is important than losing track because of trivial or superficial matters. When you are well-disciplined, you make choices that benefit your well-being and make you grow.
Swadhyaya deals with self-study or the ability to become self-reflective. This can be achieved through different means, although the most efficient one is through meditation. Swadhyaya can uncover one’s strength and weaknesses. Instead of succumbing to negative behavior of arrogance or lowered self-esteem, it is important to be more self-accepting in your limitations.
The last niyama is called ishvara pranidhana or the celebration of the spiritual aspect in your life. It reminds you that the Divine is a part of you and that you are a part of the Divine. For this reason, it is important to dedicate a time of your day, every day, to commune with the higher entity. Ishvara pranidhana is an essential practice in recognizing that an omnipresent force exists and that it is the one that guides and directs your life.