During this Summer, I have been spending my mornings revising the notes we got for an online course I took in 2021 with my Yoga teacher, Prasad Rangnekar, about The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. I wasn’t completely unfamiliar with the Yoga Sutras since they were part of the syllabus during my YTT in 2015, but this time, we spent eight weeks going a bit deeper.
Ever since 2015, it has resonated with me that one of the best ways to reduce suffering is to get to know my mind better and thus work with the modalities Patanjali offers to gradually change the aspects of it that create stress and distress. The goal of Raja Yoga, as it is called, is “to bring the seeker from a restless state of mind to a completely regulated state of mind.” (Prasad Rangnekar, 2021) However, the Yoga Sutras seemed a bit dry to me back then, and shortly after, in 2016, I started studying the Bhagavad Gita through Prasad’s guidance. Back then, the teachings in the Gita felt more accessible and easier to grasp, and I focused all my attention on them. This said, out of the little I know about the Gita, the chapter that is closest to my heart and that oftentimes has taken me out of moments of distress is chapter 6 called Dhyana Yoga, which Jack Hawley translates as Taming the Mind and the Senses.
Now, going back to the Sutras after several years of focusing mainly on the teachings of the Gita, I feel that I am getting more out of my studies, and I feel the motivation to approach the teachings in a more systematic way.
In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali with commentary from Bhashya, it is explained where human suffering comes from, and a model called Ashtanga Yoga is given to calm the mind and thus stop the suffering. This model has eight components, and the two first ones are Yamas and Niyamas which can be seen as values and observances that the practitioner should follow at every moment in thought and in action. In the mentioned course, Prasad explained that by living an ethical life following the Yamas and Niyamas we refrain from doing actions that cause harm to others and simultaneously create mental disturbances in us that can generate suffering and keep us in the ignorance of Self. It is important to clarify here that the end goal of all Yoga traditions is to unite us with this Self with a capital ‘s’. This Self is pure, and independent from anything that happens in the mind and physical world. It is said, that once we get in contact with this Self, we will realize that we don’t need anything else. It is called Self-realization. This end goal seems a bit too high for me, so at this stage in my life, I am content with creating clarity, harmony, and peace of mind. Anyhow, back to the Yamas and Niyamas.
The Yamas are called ‘the great vows’ and they are Ahimsa or Non-harming, which is considered the most important value, Satya or Truthfulness, Asteya or Abstinence from Stealing, Brahmacarya or Continence/Moderation, and Aparigraha or Abstinence from Covetousness (for a more in-depth explanation of each of the Yamas and Niyamas, please consult one of the many translations and commentaries on The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali in book 2. I like especially, Swami Satchidananda’s, but there are also some resources online).
The Niyamas are often described as observances, and they are Sauca or Purity, Santosa or Contentment, Tapas or Zeal/Penance/Austerity, Svadhyaya or Study of the Sacred Scriptures for Self understanding, and Isvarapranidhanani or worship/faith in something bigger than us, often translated as God.
They seem simple, but, I believe they are difficult to follow at all times, so I have decided to be more systematic about how I try to apply them to my life. I started by writing in my journal how I will apply each Yama and Niyama in my life as I am right now, and I will revise them regularly to remind myself and also to decide if I need to be more precise or if I have to change them.
I wanted also to find a way to be reminded as I go about in my everyday life. First, I thought about getting a tattoo, but that seemed a bit too drastic and expensive, I then checked online if there are bracelets that have some sort of image that symbolises the Yamas and Niyamas, but I landed on making my own bracelets. One with the word ahimsa, one with ASABA (Yamas) and one with SSTSI (Niyamas).
The first day wearing the bracelets, we went for a hike in the forest. We have three teenagers in the house, and our oldest and youngest aren’t very keen anymore to join us on our hikes. However, 1) they spend way too much time sitting in front of screens during the Summer break 2) we like spending time with them. So, my husband and I decided to gently force them to join every other day we go for a hike this Summer. A way to motivate them this time was by planning a stop at a cabin to get a sweet treat during our hike. Halfway through it, however, we realized that we weren’t going to make it to the cabin before closing time. This didn’t help for motivation, and especially our youngest started showing very clearly her discontent. I noticed how this was affecting me. I was getting stressed by her discontent, and somehow it started creating a feeling of annoyance in me.
I decided to quietly stay in the back as we walked to observe my emotions and thoughts for a while. I started to feel guilty for pushing them on this hike, for not bringing an extra snack, I asked myself -should we make it shorter than planned? I then realised that I am often stressed when our three kids join us for a hike, or when they don’t because ‘maybe we should have pushed them to come instead of allowing them to stay in the whole day with their phones’. Either way, my mind creates stress for me. So, what am I going to do? While lost in my rumination, I got a glimpse of my left wrist, and I read ASABA, where the S stands for Satya, truthfulness. What do I believe in? I believe in my kids benefiting from being physically active, I believe in my kids being in contact with nature, and I believe in my kids spending time with us. They might not always like it, but this is being true to my beliefs as a mother, and thus, I should stick to it and get through their discontent without making a big fuss. It felt like removing a heavy weight from my shoulders. Unsurprisingly enough, after a few minutes, the frustration from our youngest was gone, and she and I had a very nice chat on our way back. I didn’t react to her discontent and even better, I noticed my unnecessary stress. I used one of the Yamas to help me accept my choice and the consequences it brought.
I am very curious what the next days of using my bracelets will bring. I am sure there will be plenty of opportunities daily. 😀
4 thoughts on “Yamas and Niyamas”
I appreciate, what to me was a twist on my understanding of truthfulness, your ability to stay with an inner investigation about truthfulness rather than share it with those who triggered the investigation. I recently read The Way of Integrity by Martha Beck and have been practicing truth telling with those around me (often very uncomfortable). Perhaps I don’t always need to speak the truth aloud, and can find relief from suffering by simply clarifying my truth with myself? I wonder, did you share your truth with your kids, or was it enough to clarify it within yourself?
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In the Yoga Sutras, we are encouraged to speak our truth as long as it doesn’t cause suffering to others. I think that the most important is that you know what you stand for and you stand steady – even though I think it is good to sometimes question our truths. There is a difference between discomfort and pain though. Maybe when is the right moment to speak is a good question too. I didn’t say anything in the forest. I know it would have come out as nagging because I was annoyed and it would have definitely been perceived as nagging because my daughter was annoyed. But she and the other two know what I think because I say it often enough otherwise 😀
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“First, I thought about getting a tattoo…”
Five years in the U.S. Navy and never once was I tempted.
Seriously though, I very much enjoyed your post.
I worked with a lot of Indians while in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Made some life-long friendships.
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