In the Western world we often think of yoga as just a physical practice.
But long before there were any yoga studios there were The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. The Sutras are an ancient manual containing 196 Indian sutras (aphorisms) written in approximately 400 AD. Most likely it was not written solely by Patanjali but also by his many disciples. The Sutras outline an eight limbed, step-by-step path for purifying the body and mind. Each of these steps can be envisaged as a step on a ladder with each step bringing the practitioner closer to the ultimate goal, which is to cultivate a steady mind and body which in turn leads to calm and bliss.
The first two steps in the practice of yoga, according to The Sutras (which come before the Asana , physical yoga which we usually practice here in the West) are The Yamas and The Niyamas
What are these?
There are five “wise characteristics” / Yamas
Ahiṃsā (अहिंसा): Nonviolence, non-harming to one’s self and to other living beings
Satya (सत्य): Truthfulness
Asteya (अस्तेय): non-stealing
Brahmacharya (ब्रह्मचर्य): chastity, celibacy or ‘right use of energy’
Aparigraha (अपरिग्रहः): Non grasping, non-greed, non-possessiveness.
The word “Niyama” means “Observances” There are 5 of them listed in the Sutras
Sauca (शौच): Cleanliness
Santosa (सन्तोष): Contentment
Tapas (तपस): Austerity
Svadhyaya (स्वाध्याय): Study of the self and of the texts
Isvarapraṇidhāna (ईश्वरप्रणिधान): Surrender to a higher being, or contemplation of a higher power
The Yamas and Niyamas are the ‘moral codes’ that yogis are encouraged to honour and thus progress along ‘the path’ of yoga. Yoga is not just a physical practice. I think by being aware of that can help us to feel the benefits of our practice not just while we are on our yoga mat. It can help us to take the state of being present which we try to cultivate in class with us when we leave. In this way, our practice can have a more far reaching affect into our everyday lives. Yes, most of us start coming to a yoga class focusing on the physical benefits but what keeps us coming back again and again is the feeling that there’s something much deeper going on!
And isn’t it interesting that the five Yamas and five Niyamas are quite similar to the ten commandments and the ten virtues of Buddhism?