The Yamas and Niyamas: A Brief Overview Following a Long Digression

In modern culture, Yoga has largely become a by-word for a certain routine of stretching, exercise and relaxation, and little else.  Those who do Yoga casually may also know of the breathing exercises (pranayam), mudras, and possibly even kriyas (purification rites) and bandhas (energetic locks).  As in most aspects of life, what we know about our world, or the niches within that we’ve explored, has a tremendous amount to do with who our teachers have been.

In the context of a hatha yoga class, these above mentioned topics may or may not come up, depending on the depth to which the student pursues the topic, and the experience of the teacher.  I, for instance, have some limited understanding of bandhas but would not integrate them into my class, because my training didn’t include it, and because the potential for complications increases with the complexity of the tasks being given to the students.

Given that most people who come to a yoga class in the west pursue yoga asanas specifically, and experience it predominantly through the lens of teacher-led asana classes, it is not surprising that there is much that doesn’t fully enter the vocabulary of the new yoga student.  It is here that I will draw the fine line between the yoga student, and the sadhaka (spiritual seeker).  While the yoga student seeks out the more physical aspects of yoga for often quite materialistic reasons (to feel healthier, to lose weight, to cope with pain), the sadhaka approaches yoga from an internal compulsion to reach the heights of spiritual attainment.

Now, let me clear that this is not a value judgment.  One may no more make themselves a sadhaka than they can make themselves a musical virtuoso.  One may learn anything through great effort, but it is impossible to attain to the kind of internal and consistent drives that results from being born to something.  Moreover, whatever reason one comes to seek yoga, the practice has the potential to facilitate transformation regardless.  As in all things, the shape that the transformation will take will be the result of the motivation, intention, and application of disciplined will.

Regardless, only those who’ve inquired into yoga outside of the classroom, or who have particularly chatty and philosophically prone teachers, will have heard of the yamas and niyamas (with exceptions of course).  To sum it up briefly, the yamas and niyamas are the ‘dos’ and ‘do nots’ of classical Raja Yoga.  They represent the ground floor of Patanjali’s ashtanga yoga (not be confused with the trademarked and codified techniques as created by K. Pattabhi Jois).

In following posts, I plan to delve into each of the five yamas and the five niyamas, examining them and how they fit into our modern lives, and to what extent we can attain to doctrinal adherence in our current society.  In each case, I intend to provide the background on the doctrinally pure attainment of each, and how one can find ways to integrate that into a world and a life which rarely makes room for absolutes.

It is almost certain that I will, through the course of my next ten works, say something that someone disagrees with.  It is impossible to please everyone, especially when discussing ancient doctrines and individual lifestyle choices.  As such, I beg that you understand these works as belonging wholly to me, and not being indicative of any truth beyond that of my personal experience and understanding, and to have compassion and remember that we’re all on the path exactly where we are.