Yoga is a complete system that helps develop a healthy body, increase and maintain vitality, manage the mind, connect with our true Self and live a meaningful life. It is based on a set of guidelines and practices that were developed thousands of years ago, assisting on our way to deeper understanding and experience of connection, unity and freedom.
Yama – the “code of ethics” of yogic life - consists of five principles: Ahimsa (non-harming on all levels), Satya (truthfulness, alignment of thoughts, identity, actions), Asteya (honesty, non-stealing), Brahmacharya (safeguarding and conscious use of energy), and Aparigraha (non-attachment).
Niyama – “personal code” - again has 5 parts: Soucha (purity/ cleanliness), Santosha (simplicity/ contentment), Tapas (self-discipline), Swadhyaya (self-knowledge), and Ishwara Pranidhana (surrendering to the higher power).
Ideally, all of these principles should be followed on all levels – thoughts, words and actions. Following Yama helps prevent the waste of energy and non-alignment, weaken our animal instincts, avoid creating karma, while Niyama encourage alignment, energy flow, burn karma and support spiritual development.
While there are challenges in implementing each of the principles, it may seem even more tricky when we realise that different principles of Yama should not be seen separately from each other, and following one may seem to contradict the others, even though it is said that “by obtaining proficiency in one virtue or the other, one automatically becomes adept in others” (Yoga Life magazine, Oct 2020).
Let’s take AHIMSA as an example. It seems correct to choose Ahimsa over Satya. Be kind instead of truthful (if not possible to combine both) because who knows what the real truth is... In some cases, speaking and living our truth or what we consider to be the truth, may hurt others and/ or ourselves, make us cross the boundaries, waste energy and strengthen attachments. On the other hand, trying not to hurt may not be in line with what we think is truthful, and again it may waste our energy. When we face the challenge of choice, the less harmful action should be preferred, but whatever we choose will have consequences and we need to be ready to accept the responsibility.
Even if we do not consider the other parts of Yama, it may be challenging to follow Ahimsa alone. The principle teaches us “Do not hurt, do not let others hurt you, do not hurt yourself”. It’s kind of obvious that not harming is the correct way. But each of the three aspects of non-harming is equally important. What if something you do hurts one or more people, while not doing it would only hurt you? How to measure when and if something that you do or not do trying to avoid hurting others, hurts you too much, and vice versa? What would be the most ethical choice? Is it always best to choose not to hurt others?
If we cannot control the circumstances or events, and cannot change how the others behave and feel, one thing we can do is try to change the way we feel, or the way we respond to the trigger. If something hurts us, and we cannot avoid it, we can try to change our perspective and, even if there is pain, choose not to suffer. Everybody experiences pain but suffering is optional. How? 1. Accepting what is happening as a lesson. What if it’s not so clear what lesson it is? Remembering that it’s temporary and will pass. 2. Remembering that “I am not my emotions, not my thoughts and not my body” – not identifying with the pain. 3. Looking at it from a position of neutrality, focus on the “now”, the real present moment, which is always OK. Using breathing techniques to relax the body and quiet the mind, to get into the neutral state. 4. Looking at everything from the position of love, compassion, gratitude. 5. Surrendering to the Higher power.
Still, we don’t always find in ourselves the ability to pause, to respond with awareness instead of reacting, and in a way that removes or reduces suffering. When is the time for Aparigraha? In a difficult situation or relationship, when is the lesson accomplished, or karma burnt, and when is there more to come? When is the time to let go, how can we be sure that we don’t need it anymore? Will we create more karma in a long term by trying to avoid it in a short term? We get to trust our judgement and act to the best of our knowledge, but is difficult to find the truth just by using the mind. Although it’s a great tool, it doesn’t have all the answers. The way seems to be to quiet the mind and try connecting with the Soul, listen and hear what it really needs. Look at everything with the eyes of the Soul. Only when we approach everything and everybody with love, we can see the Truth. What if we don’t know (yet) how to do it?
We suffer as we perceive the separation, the duality of the world as our real existence. When we realise the illusion of it, when we start feeling the unity, suffering goes away. Or the pain is graciously accepted as a necessary part of the journey. If I really need a surgery to get better, I will do it so that I can continue! “The rough sense of duality eventually emerges into the sense of joyful unity – and realization that the underlying bedrock of human existence is Anandam, Anandam, Sat Anandam!” (Yoga Life journal, Oct 2020) The challenge then is to accept, experience, live the Unity. To achieve it, we have the way shown by yoga.
According to Patanjali, Yama is the first limb of yoga, immediately followed by Niyama. Why are the ethical principles so important? We may gain energy through physical practice or pranayama, but it will be easily wasted it if we do not think and act in an ethical way. On the other hand, if we follow Yama and Niyama, then asanas, pranayama and other yoga practices will only reinforce our energy and it can be invested correctly.
And why is Yama the first limb of Yoga?
It seems that we could start from ourselves (Niyama), and then try to achieve the harmony with the world (through Yama). Contentment, self-knowledge and self-discipline can help preserve energy, reduce attachment/ possessiveness and avoid crossing the boundaries/ stealing; cleanliness/ purity and self-knowledge will help remain truthful and non-harmful, etc.
On the other hand, Yama is about restraining our animal instincts and approaching the world in the right way. Our behaviour influences those around us, and the Earth. When we preserve and consciously use energy, we can increase self-discipline and use the energy for self-study; staying truthful and only keeping what we need leads to purity and contentment, etc.
If we look at Yama as a code of ethics that tells us how to behave in social situations, in relationship with others, in interaction with the world, and Niyama – as principles to develop harmony within, then it looks like Niyama could come first. But if we see Yama as a way to restrain the animal instincts, remove old programmings and habits, and Niyama – as higher virtues related to Godly instincts, then it’s clear why we have to work on Yama first. Although – if we activate the Godly instincts, if they come naturally, if we live in self-knowledge, self-discipline, forgiveness, gratitude, purity, contentment, love, surrender, would we still need to worry about the animal instincts?
Yama and Niyama reinforce each other, so in the end – although in practice we work on Yama first and then on Niyama - it may not matter so much where we start, as one will help achieve the other. Many people start their Yoga journey not from ethics but from Asana practice, and then go into search for more, learning about Yama and Niyama and trying to put them into practice. All limbs of yoga are connected and can develop simultaneously.
Yama and Niyama are not difficult to understand but not be easy to implement. Why so? Because spiritual development takes awareness, effort and energy. If we don’t have much energy, then most of it is invested in the lower bodies – physical, energy and mental, or even mostly in the physical body if energy is low. Also, while we try to focus on the Soul and its needs, Ego comes in with all its Klesha (survival instinct, likes and dislikes, egoism and ignorance). The survival instinct objects Aparigraha (“I won’t let go of it, I may need it”), the egoism does not let us see the real truth and makes us hurt and cross boundaries (“if you are not with me, you are against me!”), the likes and dislikes do not agree with self-discipline, conscious use of energy, etc. We need to apply Yama and Niyama to control Klesha, reduce their influence on Ego and thus turn it into healthy and functional tool to support us in the development process….and at the same time Klesha sabotage our efforts to follow Yama and Niyama. Who will win?
What can help us follow Yama (and Niyama)? The Spirituality Triangle – knowledge, practice and devotion. Understanding the codes and choosing to follow them as life principles represent knowledge and devotion. When it comes to the third part of the Triangle - practice, we have some tools that can help us implement Yama and Niyama:
1. 1. Mauna – silence, not speaking. If we speak, we should speak the truth, but sometimes truth hurts. If we don’t speak, we will not brake neither Satya nor Ahimsa, will avoid breaking boundaries, preserve energy. Choosing not to speak is a way to cultivate self-discipline. Also, not speaking helps us listen.
2. 2. Some asanas are believed to support Yama and Niyama. For example, Dharmika asana – we sit on our heels, bend and place the top of the head on the floor – helps detach Ego from its lower “allies” (animal instincts, desires, ambitions) and activate the power of the Soul.
3. 3. Breathing techniques that help to achieve alignment and increase energy. For example, Savitri pranayama – inhaling for specific amount of time, holding the breath for half the time, exhaling for the same duration as inhale, and holding half the time again - increases energy.
4. 4. Opposite action – pratipaksha bhavana – a conscious attempt to look from another point of view, or/ and to act in an opposite way, helps to change programmings, habits, the distortions of ego and move towards Yama/ Niyama.
5. 5. The method of pause – if we pause before or while speaking, acting and/ or thinking, it helps avoid saying things that hurt or that are untrue, allows us to notice another point of view and thus approach the a more complete truth, respond instead of merely reacting. A pause is the way to neutrality, nothingness, change of consciousness that we attempt to achieve with Yama and Niyama and other yoga practices.
We may not be able to perfect Yama and Niyama, but intention and effort is sufficient. As Rumi said, “As you start to walk the way, the way appears.” With devotion, study and practice, step by step we move towards Unity.