The five yamas (restraints) and the five niyamas (observances) constitute the yogi’s moral guidelines. They are presented in the Yoga Sutras, a text written about 200BC and attributed to the sage Patanjali. The Yoga Sutras present a broad yet very detailed overview of the workings of the mind, as well as methods of harnessing the mind in order to discover Truth. (Yoga was originally a practice for the mind, not the body.) In the second chapter of the Sutras, we find a description of the eight limbs of yoga; the first two limbs are the yamas and niyamas respectively.
Initially, I didn’t understand what moral conduct had to do with yoga. And then, some time later, I came across the explanation that in order to control the mind, we first need to avoid agitating the mind. And one sure way to do this is to have in place a code that guides our behaviour, that reduces dilemmas, regrets and worries, and that encourages simple, peaceful living. Yes, this made sense to me. It’s much easier to meditate when the mind is not rocking with what-ifs and gossip and replays of arguments, and other such activity.
I am generally level-headed in my dealings with the public at large, but when it comes to my children, I sometimes find myself barely (or not) clinging onto my composure… especially when my dear children have themselves lost their composure! This situation has given rise to the question: How can I apply the yamas and niyamas to my daily life with two feisty, fiery kids? How can I use these guidelines to guide my own thoughts, words and actions? How can I teach my kids to use these guidelines as they navigate life’s ups and downs?
So tonight, the three of us sat down, and we started to put into kids’ words what Patanjali was getting at in Sanskrit. Here are is a list of the yamas and niyamas, with their usual translations. In next few days, I will add a “part 2” post, with our kid-friendly translation of these ideas! Stay tuned!
Yamas (Restraints/How to treat others)
1. Ahimsa – non-violence
2. Satya – truthfulness
3. Asteya – non-stealing
4. Brahmacharya – moderation, right use of energy, celibacy
5. Aparigraha – non-greed, non-grasping
Niyamas (Observances/How to treat yourself)
1. Saucha – purity, cleanliness
2. Santosha – contentment
3. Tapas – discipline
4. Svadhyaya – self-study
5. Ishvara pranidhana – surrender to the Divine
A Buddhist analogy came to my mind recently. It goes something like this: The finger pointing to the moon is not the moon itself.
Yoga practices and teachings are like fingers pointing to the moon. The moon here represents the Truth – or our True Self. But sometimes we become so fixated on the finger, that we forget about the moon.
It is actually quite easy to forget about the moon. It’s easy to forget that our yoga practice is not the end goal, but a means to an end. But the practice is tangible, concrete, something easy for us to hold on to, to work with – so we focus on refining our yoga postures, or learning breathing exercises, or completing x repetitions of a mantra with perfect concentration, or whatever. But let’s remember that these are tools, these are pointers – they are not the moon. So yes, look at the finger (engage in the practices), but also look past the finger and see what it’s pointing to.
How? At the moment, the best advice I can offer is this: Do your practice (postures, breathing, meditation, etc.), and as you do, or after you do, make a point of noticing what you feel in your body and mind. What effect does the practice have on your body/mind? What does your practice teach you about yourself? Do insights arise in the course of your practice, or perhaps after your practice? Simply asking these kinds of questions will invite insights to arise! I also recommend talking about this kind of thing with a yoga teacher or fellow yoga practitioners. There is much to learn from sharing ideas with open hearts and open minds.
Today I’ve been thinking about “being” – as opposed to “doing”. Many great spiritual traditions teach the importance of being: just being, existing, feeling that one has no where to go and nothing to do. The Christian tradition of rest on Sunday is one example of this. The Buddhist tradition also teaches us to be love, to be peace (e.g. Thich Nhat Hanh’s books, “Being Love” and “Being Peace”.) In yoga, this teaching is expressed in the phrase “sat-chit-ananda”. This phrase conveys the essence of our true nature, as well as the nature of the Divine.
“Sat” = truth, existence
“Chit” = consciousness, awareness, knowledge, wisdom
“Ananda” = bliss
Making time and space for just “being” is very important. It balances and grounds the “doing” that constitutes do much of our lives. When we can just be, we can begin to discover that Divine part of ourselves that is sat-chit-ananda. And then we can allow this being, this non-doing, to be the basis of our doing. We can allow the doing to come from the being, rather than the being (who we think we are) to come from the doing. So instead of “I am doing X, Y, and Z, therefore I am happy”, we can understand “I am happy, therefore I am doing X, Y, and Z.” This slight change in thinking can free us immensely – we are no longer depending on doing something to be/feel a certain way. Instead, we are able to be ourselves at all times, regardless of what we are doing, and to infuse all our acts with the essence of true selves.