The 2 most Important Steps in Yoga
Exploring the 2 most important steps in Yoga
We have talked about the yoga master, Patanjali, and his famous pathway for happiness and enlightenment. Yet we still often consider yoga as only the physical aspect, the asanas. Remembering this is the 3rd limb of yoga and there are 2 very critical, more important aspects before we even hit the mat.
1. Yamas; Self-regulating behaviours
The first limb of Yoga – the Yamas – is all about how we interact with others and with ourselves. Within this first Yama, we have a breakdown. There are a total of five Yamas:loving kindness and good intentions?
a) Ahimsa “non-violence”
Himsa means violent. Ahimsa is typically regarded as non-violence and non-harm and can also be understood as the practice of benevolence. Because our inner world creates our outer world, it’s important to note here that in order to truly practice this first Yama we must first direct our focus to ourselves. Are we cultivating self-compassion? Are we as understanding and nurturing with ourselves as we are with others? Do we wish ourselves
b) Satya “truthfulness”
This is the principle of practicing truthfulness and authenticity with our thoughts, words, and actions. Can we honor how we truly feel about something or someone? Do we often say ‘yes’ when we really mean ‘no’? As researcher and author Brene Brown says: “If you trade your authenticity for safety, you may experience the following: anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addiction, rage, blame, resentment, and inexplicable grief.” By practicing Satya we train ourse
lves to choose growth over safety, and we honor ourselves (and others) in the process.
c) Asteya “non-stealing”
Typically known as the yogic principle of “non-stealing,” Asteya also means honoring the balance of give-and-receive. We don’t take what isn’t ours, and we are mindful of not taking more than we give. Essentially this is the principle of even-exchange, which ensures we stay in harmony with ourselves and with others. This also relates to time and ensuring you are not running late to a meeting or class and making others wait for you, effectively ‘stealing’ their time. Imbalance of give-and-receive can lead to chaos, stress, resentment and separation. This goes both ways. It’s equally out of balance to constantly give without being open to receiving.
d) Aparigraha “non-accumulation of possessions”
This one means non-coveting, non-possessiveness, and detachment. Aparigraha helps us unravel whatever misperceptions, cravings, desires, jealousies, and envy we may harbor internally. These are all natural human states and emotions, however, the Yogi walking on the eightfold path stays vigilant and aware of how these states may be holding him/her back from progressing on the journey.
e) Brahmacharya “self-control”
Traditionally, this Yama meant celibacy…but we’re not in ancient times; sitting atop mountains meditating in the Himalayas all day long. Loyalty and fidelity in your relationships would be a more modern perspective.
Brahmacharya can also mean self-control and temperance. It’s the practice of becoming aware of what things add to your life force (vital energy) and what (or who) drains you of your vital energy. We might then choose to abstain from certain foods, people, environments, behaviours, thoughts, or choices. For example, if you’re struggling with emotional eating, you can practice Brahmacharya by embracing mindful eating and being aware of your eating patterns. Brahmacharya can mean eating only one slice of pizza instead of the whole thing or enjoying only 1-2 glasses of wine instead of 3-4.
2. Niyamas; Personal observances
The second limb of yoga, the Niyamas, help us begin to look at ourselves more deeply. There are also a total of five Niyamas (observances):
a) Saucha “cleanliness”
Saucha is the principle of cleanliness and purification. The entire theme of Patanjali’s eight limbs is purification; of mind, of emotions, of body and of energy. We can observe this principle by first ensuring that we keep our bodies and minds clean. Are we practicing good mental and physical health and hygiene?
As kids, we’re taught the importance of good dental hygiene, “Brush your teeth before you go to bed” and “Floss every day”.
But what about mental hygiene? Did you know that having a daily gratitude practice is a good mental hygiene habit according to researchers? Daily meditation or contemplative practices like mindfulness are also forms of ‘mental flossing.’ We also practice saucha by making sure we keep our guts clean and pure by choosing to eat the right life-giving foods most of the time.
b) Santosha “contentment”
Santosha means contentment, appreciation, and gratitude, which ties in beautifully to the last observance. Heartfelt contentment and appreciation for what is, as it is, can help us experience more things to be grateful for. This isn’t just some fuzzy-wuzzy observance; it’s backed by science. Research suggests that gratitude can actually help to re-wire the brain in ways that help to lower depression and anxiety.
c) Tapas “austerity”
The root of the Sanskrit word ‘tapas’ means: “To glow, to shine, to change and to transform.” Tapas is the practice of burning off impurities through the heat of challenge. By practicing Tapas, you courageously feel the burn and allow it to transform you from the inside out. Practicing tapas means you learn to override knee-jerk impulses to
avoid pain and seek pleasure. You learn to endure pain, discomfort, challenges, and frustration as a means of purification and transformation. To make a tapas is to make a commitment. A disciplined commitment. Not just to try, but to actively do and not let any excuses stand in the way. Honouring the practice of tapas reinforces our self-discipline muscle.
d) Svadhyaya “self-study”
Svadhyaya is the principle of self-study. It means to educate yourself and to study/observe yourself. Essentially Svadhyaya is the practice of self-awareness, self-enquiry and self-reflection. If we don’t become self-aware, how can we ever change or transform ourselves or our circumstances? Traditionally, svadhyaya also meant the study of scriptures and sacred texts. The modern spin on this can include any kind of study that helps you learn more about yourself so you can deepen your own self-understanding.
e) Ishvara Pranidhana “surrender to the great divine”
Ishvara Pranidhana is the practice of surrender, dedication, devotion, & faith. It’s about really embodying a deep trust in the infinite intelligence and creative wisdom of a higher power. According to Yoga Sutra 1.24, Ishvara is the Supreme Self, “unaffected by any afflictions, actions, fruits of actions, or by any inner impressions of desire or greed.” Isvara Pranidhana, then, is the devotion and dedication to the full expression of this Supreme Self… of your Supreme Self. This means that we not only trust the intelligence of a higher power but that we also trust our own innate intelligence and capacity to fully express our potential.
According to Yoga Sutras 1.27-1.28, the word expressive of this Supreme Self (Ishvara) is Om or Aum. So one way to observe this last Niyama is by meditating on the mantra Om/Aum or even silently repeating it in your mind as a meditative practice. These last three Yamas (Tapas, Svadhyaya, and Ishvara Pranidhana) constitute what Patanjali referred to as Kriya Yoga (‘Yoga in action’ or ‘Yoga in practice’).