Yoga Philosophy on and off the mat

Yamas & Niyamas

Patanjali writes about Ashtanga, the eight limbs of Yoga, in the Yoga Sutras. The eight limbs are a path to purify body, mind, and ultimately lead a life of enlightenment. The first two steps on the path, even before the physical postures (asana), are ethical guidelines to how we relate to other people and how we take care of ourselves.

The first of these is Ahimsa, non-violence, kindness, compassion to ourselves and others, including kind and loving thoughts to ourselves. In the west we focus on the physical side of Yoga, but I love that the first part of Yoga philosophy is actually compassion. This is where we should start, and compassion should inspire the actions we take and the lives we lead.

The 5 Yamas

These are oriented toward our public behaviour and allow us to coexist harmoniously with others. Yamas are the moral, ethical and spiritual guidelines of a person aspiring to reach balance, health, and well-being leading to spiritual development. There are five different characteristics, and these can be observed in our actions, words and thoughts. They help us to purify our nature and form a healthier and happier society.

Ahimsa: Non-violence and kindness. Be kind and compassionate to the people around you, and to yourself. Be kind to your body.  Do not push yourself into postures that you are not ready for as you may cause injury. Practice asana with self-love and acceptance of where you are right now.

Satya: Truthfulness and honesty. Be honest and truthful to yourself and those around you. Be honest about how you earn a living. Be honest in your thoughts, intentions, actions and words. Listen to where your body wants to go today. Do not over exert the body to please the ego, but also do not be lazy if you have the energy to use.

Asteya: Non-stealing , do not steal other people’s property, time or energy. Be aware of your words and actions towards others. Do not drain other’s energy with negativity.  Do not steal your own energy by over exerting yourself mentally and physically and making yourself run down. Do not exert too much energy or force on the mat. Practice asana with equal amount of effort and ease.

Bramacharya: Continence, not wasting our energy or sexual energy. Actively working to conserve our energy and strength in our bodies so that we are able to utilize our energy for our life purpose. Instead of wasting sexual energy from too much sexual desire we can harness all of our energy and direct it to living our higher truer selves. On the mat we must use the breath to conserve our energy through the asana practice. If our breathing becomes short and unsteady then we must back off from the pose and find a balance of strength and ease.

Aparigraha: Non-covetousness, not taking more than you need. Living in a home that is appropriate to your comfort needs but no more. Only having as many clothes and material items as you need in your life. Not buying into consumerism and buying things you do not really need. Only taking as much food as you need to sustain your energy, health and well-being. Only taking what we need from Earth to keep an abundant flow of food and resources. A healthy balance of asana practice to support your life and life purpose.

The 5 Niyamas

Theses ethical codes of conduct relate to the practising yogi’s internal environment of body, mind and spirit. They are guidelines on how we can relate to ourselves. Pantanjali believes they will enable you to live your highest quality life and reach your potential.

Saucha: Cleanliness, physically purifying the body. Daily practice of keeping the physical body clean. Keeping your living and working environment clean. Make sure you eat clean, non-toxic food. There are also yogic purifying exercise to rid the body and mind of toxins, such as Basti Kriya (enema), Jala Neti (cleaning your nasal passage with water) and Kapalbhati (breath of fire). Before and after your asana practice make sure your body is clean. Make sure you practice with an empty stomach, keeping the body clear for the physical practice. Make sure your mat is clean and the space you practice in is clean and comfortable.

Santosha: Contentment, being happy for what we have. Trying to maintain a positive outlook on life even through difficult times. Challenges can be seen as opportunities for self-work and growth to bring us closer to our truer selves. Accepting where we are each day. Being grateful for our bodies our asana practice. Being happy with our asana progress, not getting caught up on what we cannot do. Feeling gratitude to our practice and our teachers.

Tapas: Heat; spiritual disciplines to purify body and sense organs. Tapas means to burn or create heat, which we can do in the body to evoke a sense of fiery discipline or passion. Through yoga practices and sense control exercises we can harness control and discipline over our bodies and minds. Keeping up a regular asana practice will help keep our fire and passion ignited, harnessing our inner strength and potential. Asana, Pranayama, and meditation practices increase tapas in the body and therefore help purify our mind and body.

Swadhyaya: Study of the sacred scriptures and of one’s self. The study of the world around us and of ourselves. We are an inner reflection of the external world around us. By studying ourselves and the world we are working towards an understanding of what is. Yoga prescribes practices to go inside ourselves to study the Self. We can start to see and feel that we and the world around us are one thing. On the mat we take the time out of our busy lives and away from our monkey minds to just be with ourselves. We work through the postures mindfully with awareness. We are in the process of self-study. By observing and really listening to our inner wisdom and intuition we can start to learn more about who we are and about the universe we live in.

Ishwara Pranidhana: Surrender to God, or to what is. Surrendering daily to a higher source. To see the bigger picture of the universe we live in and not to get caught up worrying about the little things in life. When we begin to dissolve the agitations of the mind we can begin to move towards Samadhi, enlightenment. We begin to move away from the attachment of ‘I’ and the ego, and move towards the whole, love and compassion towards every being, the Earth, the Universe. When we surrender on the mat, we let go, let go of our constant mental chatter, let go of the tension we hold physically and mentally, and let go of the expectations we have of ourselves and this life. We surrender to the practice, we surrender to watch life unfold, as it is, perfectly.

“All problems are illusions of the mind” – Eckhart Tolle