Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga act as a guidebook to living life to your highest potential. These eight limbs are a stepping stone to contentment and a life of fulfillment. Of these eight limbs, the first two are the Yamas and Niyamas, which outline attitudes, behaviors and possible rules of social norms and self-discipline for a student of yoga.
The benefits of the Yamas and Niyamas are many. Even today these norms can be adapted to suit our modern-day lives. The Yamas and Niyamas in daily life lead to a transformation over a period of time. These guidelines allow you to have a balanced emotional and mental outlook and a more meaningful approach to life. They help establish a steady and strong environment and sense of self. The guidelines are all about providing behaviors that allow one to let go of pain, suffering and hatred, and embrace love, happiness and compassion, for the self and others.
What are the Yamas and Niyamas?
The Yamas are social norms that outline how we can live a life of non-violence, truth, non-stealing, chastity and non-possessiveness. These are all norms that allow every individual to live a peaceful and happy life in society. The Niyamas are positive duties to ourselves. They are purity or cleanliness of the mind and body, contentment, perseverance, self-study, attunement to the supreme consciousness. These act as a guide for us to develop positive habits that will help us live a fulfilling life. Let’s look at how each of these can be adapted in a simple and actionable way.
Ahimsa or Non-Violence
This norm talks about leading a life of non-violence in thoughts, words and actions. It’s not just about physical violence or hurting a person in a physical way, but it is about being non-violent in our thoughts towards ourselves too. It’s about not being hostile or irritable, but making space for consciousness and peace. To adapt to Ahimsa, try to be more mindful of your thoughts and behavior. Think of those things that are keeping you from being peaceful. Take note of negative thoughts and or feelings toward a person or situation. Just being mindful of this can help steer you towards a space of peacefulness.
Satya or Truthfulness
Speaking the truth keeps us honest, integral and humble. Be truthful toward yourself and others. Don’t try to cover up what your real feelings or opinions are. Omitting or covering up could lead to misunderstandings and hurtfulness. The same goes for gossip and rumors. Avoid speaking about others, but instead speak only the highest truth.
Asteya or Non-stealing
Avoid taking that which is not yours. When you do this, all good things will come to you. This applies to both materialistic and immaterial things. It could be someone else’s time, energy, trust, happiness, ideas. This also ties back to Satya. Avoid stealing, and be truthful about what is yours or is not yours. Consider what you truly need. Don’t let your desires push you to take more. Build this quality in you when you are shopping or managing relationships. Give credit where it is due and respect other’s efforts and time.
Brahmacharya or Celibacy
Brahmacharya directly translates to celibacy. It essentially means to use energy in the right way. It teaches us to direct our energy away from external desires towards peace and happiness. It teaches us not to misuse the senses and not to allow the senses to rule your behavior. Avoid anything that stirs up emotions like overstimulating foods, loud music, violent movies, inappropriate sexual behavior, etc.
Aparigraha or non-possessiveness
Letting go of old grudges, non-hoarding and living a life of minimalism are Aparigraha. This concept is all about being light and free from possessions and the past. Be mindful of what you are buying or keeping in your home. Ask yourself if you truly need that item? Or, are you just accumulating things out of fear and greed? When you let go, you make way for new energy to come in. There is space created for positivity and newness. Adapt this concept by regularly cleaning out your space and being mindful of purchases.
Saucha or Purity
The first of the Niyamas, this refers to being clean, inside and out. It not only refers to hygiene, but also being clean in one’s thoughts and actions. This helps you be in a state of calm and cleanliness. Being clutter-free, in one’s mind and physical space, creates space to invite the new, fresh and positive. This can be observed by simply ensuring one does daily cleansing practices like brushing teeth, taking a bath, etc. and regularly cleaning one’s own environment. That itself is a good place to start.
Santosha or Contentment
Santosha refers to joy and happiness that cannot be shaken despite external events. It is about accepting life and life situations as they are, and knowing that no matter what you are safe and happy. This observance teaches you that life won’t be perfect, it will have ups and downs, but ultimately you have control over how you feel. Think of when you are doing a yoga posture. Sometimes, you may not get the perfect alignment. Your body may not be able to get into the perfect pose. But irrespective of that, relax in the posture, and be content in that moment.
Tapas or Perseverance
This refers to putting in efforts and persevering to achieve what you set your mind to, irrespective of the results. By doing this, you develop the discipline, enthusiasm and willpower to achieve your goals. It’s as good as taking a commitment to do a specific task and working towards it. You can apply this to anything - a weight loss goal, changing your diet, waking up early, meditating everyday, etc. Even holding a posture is tapas. You are using your strength to keep yourself from moving. Through this, one can build the strength needed to achieve anything.
Swadhyaya or Self-Study
Spending time in self-study is like dedicating time for your own happiness. It brings you closer to knowing your true self and true potential. It brings you closer to the Divine power. It is taking the time to study who you are, your functions, habits, desires and dreams. You can start with answering simple questions about yourself, like are you an organized person, are you punctual, etc. Simply study and become aware of yourself, and do not judge yourself. You will eventually understand the universality of life experiences and thereby increase your compassion for yourself and others. As you progress, Swadhyaya will evolve to a deeper study of the ultimate consciousness.
Ishvara Pranidhana or surrendering to the higher power
The last Niyama is all about letting go and surrendering to God. By doing this, you will understand what and who God is. You will come closer to understanding the higher power and supreme being. You will learn to be detached and unworldly. Start by observing and then slowly come to a point of letting go.
You can practice the Yamas and Niyamas together. Start by trying to incorporate one or two on a daily basis and by week four or five, you would have adapted all of them. Slowly they will become a part of your nature, and a habit. Practicing the Yamas and Niyamas can truly transform your life by introducing positive and ethical behaviors.