BY HILLARI DOWDLE
Originally posted here in Yoga Journal
Chances are, you ponder who you are and where you are in life, accept the current realities as best you can, and yet still plan a path toward your ideal. Your yoga practice undoubtedly helps you on this journey. And the yoga tradition suggests more than just postures to aid your transformation. Centuries ago, the great sage Patanjali laid out a kind of map—one that suggests not just asana and meditation but also attitudes and behaviors—to help you chart your own course to contentment.
At first glance, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, written in Sanskrit and interpreted in many ways, may seem esoteric and impenetrable. But the ancient manual is worth a closer look, because it contains essential advice for daily living. “Patanjali has offered us guidelines that will allow us to have enhanced emotional and mental well-being and a more fulfilling and meaningful life,” says Joan Shivarpita Harrigan, a practicing psychologist and the director of Patanjali Kundalini Yoga Care. “The Yoga Sutra is specifically designed to lead to greater happiness and spiritual fulfillment for you and everyone around you.”
Much is contained within this ultimate guide to virtuous transformation, including the eightfold path of classical yoga (or ashtanga yoga), which suggests a program of ethical restraints or abstentions (yamas), lifestyle observances (niyamas), postures (asanas), breath control (pranayama), withdrawal of the senses (pratyahara), concentration (dharana), meditation (dhyana), and absorption into the Divine (samadhi). They are designed to lead you, step-by-step, toward everlasting contentment.
If you’ve been practicing yoga for a while, you’re familiar with asana, pranayama, and meditation. But you might not know much about the first two steps of the path: the five yamas and five niyamas. These are the ethical precepts, or core values, of yoga as well as its starting place—meant to be practiced before you do your very first Sun Salutation. They provide a recipe for living in the world with ease.
“The yamas are really about restraining behaviors that are motivated by grasping, aversion, hatred, and delusion; the niyamas are designed to create well-being for ourselves and others,” says Stephen Cope, a senior Kripalu teacher and the author of The Wisdom of Yoga. People sometimes think of them as yoga’s Ten Commandments, but they aren’t concerned with right or wrong in an absolute sense. “There’s no thought of heaven or hell. It’s about avoiding behaviors that produce suffering and difficulty, and embracing those that lead to states of happiness.”
You Can Transform Your Life
Rather than thinking of the yamas and niyamas as a mandatory “to-do list,” view them as invitations to act in ways that promote inner and outer peace and bliss. “They create harmony within you, and in relationship to your environment and to others. Where there is harmony, consciousness can expand,” says John Friend, the founder of Anusara Yoga. “They lead us to a natural revelation of insight into the nature of being, and joy naturally arises.”
They also provide a mirror in which to study your practice and your Self. Viniyoga teacher and Yoga Sutra scholar Gary Kraftsow says they represent the qualities of an integrated human being. You get there through practice, contemplation, meditation, and working to transform yourself. “The path of practice begins with understanding and refining the different dimensions of who you are, and it unfolds progressively, not all at once,” says Kraftsow. “The whole goal of yoga is Self-realization, which can also be called freedom.” The yamas and niyamas give you infinite opportunities to truly transform your life.
Patanjali doesn’t tell you how specifically to “do” the yamas and niyamas—that’s up to you. But if you align your life with them, they’ll lead you to your highest aspirations: peace, truth, abundance, harmonious relationships, contentment, purity, self-acceptance, love, and meaningful connection to the Divine—the essence of happiness. Here, we’ve asked prominent yoga teachers and philosophers to share their interpretations of the yamas and niyamas to help you make them a part of your path.
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