On Tuesday afternoon I spent an hour in a coffee shop near the studio with a teacher trainee, talking about the first two of yoga’s eight limbs, the restrictions (yamas) and the observances (niyamas).
The yamas are the great vow of yoga, non-violence, truth, non-stealing, Brahmacarya, which is often translated as celibacy, and non-grasping, or non-hoarding.
The niyamas are personal disciplines: purity or cleanliness, contentment, discipline, self-study and devotion. (I’ve written a longer and more detailed explanation of each posted here.)
Her assignment was to interview a teacher about how they had worked with the yamas and niyamas in practice and in life. I wanted to help, although I didn’t think I had much to say.
But fuelled by a cup of excellent ginger hot chocolate, I ended up talking non-stop, and left the conversation feeling slightly fatuous, and also wary, in the “pride-goeth-before-a-fall” way.
Walking back to the studio, I realized, belatedly, that perhaps I was supposed to have offered technical insights about working with the yamas and niyamas.
Maybe I should have suggested an Excel spreadsheet with the yamas and niyamas down the side and the dates across the top.
Although he didn’t have Excel, this approach was good enough for Benjamin Franklin who had a list of 13 virtues that he evaluated himself on at the end of every day.
Gretchen Rubin modified Franklin’s chart and used it for her year-long Happiness Project: monthly resolutions down the side, checking them off every night.
I could also have suggested writing them on a set of flashcards to review every morning before work.
Except, of course, I do neither of those things.
Once I was back on the mat, I relaxed. After all, every time I practice, the yamas and niyamas are all there, waiting for me.
Am I clean, content, disciplined, paying attention to myself and my Self in the poses? Do I remember to dedicate my practice? That pretty much takes care of the niyamas.
Am I non-violent towards myself, even in thought? Am I truthful about what I’m really doing, how far I can push, and when I’m slacking?
As far as non-stealing goes, my biggest theft is to steal time from my practice. I let other, more urgent, but less important tasks eat away at my practice time, or, worse, I fritter it away on pure time-wasters. If I’m on my mat with no obligations for two hours, then I haven’t stolen my practice time.
Do I “walk with God” as Vimila Thakar and Judith Hansen Lasater would translate Brahmacarya? Do I remember that practice, as achingly physical as it can be, is also holy?
And, finally, did I let go of the grasping, of the idea that the practice is “for” something, and instead, just practice, open-handed?
Coincidentally, the sutra reading in class for this week has been the effects of becoming grounded in the yamas and niyamas.
When non-violence is mastered, Mr. Iyengar writes in his translation and commentary, Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, “others abandon hostility in one’s presence.” With truth, the practitioner’s words “become so potent that whatever he says comes to realization,” and with non-stealing “precious jewels come.” Brahmacarya brings “knowledge, vigour, valour and energy.” And with non-grasping, “knowledge of past and future lives unfolds.”
The effects of practicing the niyamas are equally potent, including control of the senses, “joyful awareness needed to realize the inner self,” supreme happiness, the spark of divinity, “communion with one’s desired deity” and samadhi, or integration, the goal of yoga.
Judging by that list, I have a long way to go. But when I’m overcome with delight, which happens fairly often these days, I think I’ll attribute it to practicing contentment.
Is there a way that you consciously practice the yamas and niyamas on and off the mat? Have you ever felt some of the promised rewards?
Photo courtesy of djkalyx, Flicker Creative Commons.