Not without my Yamas and Nyamas

Practicing Asanas without knowing the ethical and philosophical background of Yoga is good for us – but only on a physical plane.

by Sascha and Romana Delberg

Those of us who have a regular Asana practice will know that it feels incredibly good (mostly after the practice). We stretch our body, we work it out, pump it up with oxygen, and move it in all directions and into postures which we normally don’t take. This keeps us fit and going.

A regular Asana practice gives us a pretty unique feeling of well-being and joy, an intense sense of being pulsated with energy, of being alive. That’s a real reward. A reward is a good thing but it can become addictive. On the day we practice, we get the good feeling we crave for (which in turn stirs up our ambition). On the day we don’t, we are frustrated. This is why David Swenson once jokingly said, “Don’t let Yoga ruin your life!“ It’s hardly necessary to mention that the duet of performance and reward (or frustration) keeps our whole culture going. The funny thing about it is that Yoga was supposed to liberate us from that.

So that’s one possible issue with Yoga. There’s another one. Practicing a lot makes us feel so well, makes us look so good and radiant, makes us so present, so confident – that we may end up feeding and inflating our ego. We may get a sharper look on reality, become more aware of the weaknesses of the others – but not of ours. We may overlook the shadows of our personality instead of confronting them. It’s fine to feel good. But Yoga isn’t just about feeling good, and it certainly isn’t about getting a big ego – quite the contrary. Feeding our ego moves us away from ourselves.

The techniques of Yoga, on the contrary, are highly efficient instruments of self-exploration. We learn to control our constantly wandering mind (Citta Vrtti), we become aware of our Samskaras (habits, patterns) and are able to dissolve them, and we find out that Ahamkara (the „I-maker“, our Ego) is merely an endless succession of concepts and projections. So Yoga rather helps us to question our constructed self than to make it even bigger.

What is our understanding of Yoga: Do we just want to feel better? Or do we want to be more connected with the world? Yoga isn‘t simply about practicing Asanas and feeling good. It is about awareness of ourselves and of reality, which includes observing our behaviour and ethics.

The Ashtanga Yoga system has taken care of that by starting with two “ethical“ limbs – towards ourselves and towards the others – before we even get to what we usually refer to as Yoga, namely the practice of Asanas. These limbs are Yamas (abstinences, moderation, rules of conduct) and Niyamas (observances).

This is not to say that we should first master Yamas/Niyamas before starting with Asanas. But it’s good to know of them and to keep them in mind. If we practice Asanas and are aware of the Yamas/Niyamas dimension of Yoga, we are on a good track. Let’s see what they are.

The Yamas consists of:

  1. Ahimsa: the abstention from violence (physical as well as psychical, in words and in deeds) towards others. As Sri O.P. Tiwari said: “Kill the least, save the most“. Ahimsa should equally be observed towards ourselves. When we are unsatisfied or struggle with Asanas, this is a good reminder to be a little bit more forgiving with ourselves.
  2. Satya: truthfulness, not lying.
  3. Asteya: not stealing.
  4. Brahmacharya: moderation. The life-giving energy should not become an addiction masked as desire or the source of consuming greed. Sri Swami Satchidananda says: “Brahmacharya means control, not suppression of (…) desire. (…) So the mind should be purified first, then it is easy to control the senses.“
  5. Aparigraha: Non-grasping, non-greediness, the renouncement of material things beyond their reasonable use.

The Nyamas, for their part, comprise:

  1. Saucha: purity (of the heart and mind).
  2. Samtosha: modesty.
  3. Tapas: the “frictions“ arising from dealing with the Yoga practice. Tapas means literally “to burn something“, aiming at purification in a physical sense (generating heat in the body through the practice of Asanas in order to clean and strengthen it) as well as in an intellectual one.
  4. Svadhyaya: the study of the Self and of spiritual literature.
  5. Ishvara Pranidhana: literally “moving towards the One“. The veneration of and the devotion to God (non-believers might replace the word by Creation, the Absolute, and the like).

Most of us will not have a problem with this list but will not take it too seriously. To modern minds, it sounds a bit odd and old-fashioned, just like the Ten Commandments. At second glance, though, the Yamas and Niyamas turn out to be pretty useful disciplines in our interaction with society (Yamas) as well as with ourselves (Niyamas): Were they better observed, both would appear way more balanced.

Anyhow, the Yamas/Niyamas are an integral part of Yoga. If we choose to ignore them, then our Asana practice isn‘t much more than a physical exercice (albeit a particularly good and effective one). Let’s hear Shri K. Pattabhi Jois who, although he taught mainly Asanas, made it clear that they were definitely not the main goal: “Yoga is all one method. You start with asanas. They give you strength, your energy is increasing, and your mind stands very correctly. But Yoga is not for physical purposes. Its purpose is not external, but internal cleaning and self-knowledge.“