5.3
February 19, 2010

Basic Yoga Philosophy: The Yamas and Niyamas. ~Peg Mulqueen


We are all programmed to search for meaning. We look to make sense of our world and sense of ourselves, and ultimately how they fit together.

Prior to my life as a yogi, I looked toward institutions for guidance: my church, my education and my profession in psychology.  Individually, each held an essential nugget of truth, but (for me) a connection was missing.

It was yoga that ultimately brought the three seamlessly together.

While yoga is not a religion, it is a spiritual quest complete with beliefs universally shared by Jews and Christians, Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus alike.

Yoga is also not therapy, yet every day millions of people find self-fulfillment and enlightenment not on a counselor’s couch, but on a yoga mat.

Yoga is not a school, but I can think of no singular place where I’ve gained more wisdom.  In fact, to adapt a phrase: everything I ever needed to know, I learned from yoga.

You see, yoga is literally a unification. And while separately it is neither a religion, a psychology, nor a learning institution, it is an integration of the above.

Literally, it all begins with just a few golden rules.

We call them the yamas (how we treat others) and niyamas (how we treat ourselves). Admittedly, none of these concepts are rocket science, but in practice they are profound. In fact, our very evolution as individuals and as a society depends on our willingness to not just practice yoga, but to live our yoga, as well.

Outlined succinctly in the second chapter of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (the yogic textbook, you could say) are 10 simple practices.  These are a yogi’s “ten commandments”—that don’t involve twisting legs into a pretzel.

The Yamas or do unto others:

1.    Ahimsa:  Be kind to others.  A comprehensive do no harm: not in words, thoughts, nor actions.  This one rule trumps all others, including the next . . .

2.     Satya:  Tell the truth.   “. . . and the truth shall set you free (john 8:32)”

3.    Asteya:  Only take what is yours.  Remember playing in the sandbox? The same rule applies!

4.    Brahmacharya:  Be respectful and reverent.  Though this can sometimes be interpreted as celibacy—and since there is no way for me to clarify with Pantanjali now—I will take some liberty to explain. Brahmacharya is a higher awareness in our relationships—one that transcends the physical one.  Abstinence may result, but this is not the intention.

5.    Aparigraha:  Share.  Anne Frank once said, “no one has ever become poor by giving.”  In fact, it is in giving that we may also receive.

The Niyamas or self observances:

1.    Sauca:  Be pure.  A shower is nice.  Brush your teeth too, please.  But don’t forget, purity also means being cleansed of bad habits and negative emotions.

2.    Santosa:  Practice acceptance.  Contentment—not to be confused with complacency—means we learn to love ourselves with unconditional positive regard.  It means allowing ourselves to seek happiness not from outside of ourselves, but from within.

3.    Tapas:  Do your work.  Sri Pattabhi Jois reminded his students, “practice and all is coming.”  He was referring to a yoga practice, and a meditation practice too.  This doesn’t happen through osmosis: we must do our work and let the benefits unfold in time.

4.    Svadhyaya:  Take time to reflect.  No matter what your field of work, I bet it involved study and years of schooling to become the person of knowledge and expertise you are now.  Become an expert of you. Learn you.

5.    Isvara pranidhana:  Stay humble.  No matter how big you are, how wise or right you are, how powerful you become—recognize you are not the absolute.  With a sincere meekness, know and honor divinity.

The meaning in our lives is discovered not by the practice of yoga—but by its embodiment. In becoming a person free of jealousy, dishonesty, discontent and destruction … and in taking the time to put our beliefs into action with others and ourselves … we discover who we were meant to be all along.  Our true state of being is revealed—one of love and utter joy.

Peg Mulqueen is a yoga instructor and writer.  When not on her mat, Peg can be found on a surf board in Maui—learning to fall off gracefully and get back up . . . . or suspended 500 feet in the air on a zip line over a Costa Rican jungle —conquering her fear of heights…or searching for the perfect cast, fly fishing in the wilder places of Montana. Visit MySpace.OM.

Click here for more inspiration from a yoga mat.

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