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Yoga is more than just a physical discipline. It is a way of life—a rich philosophical path. And the yamas (restraints) and niyamas (observances) are ten good common-sense guidelines for leading a healthier, happier life for bringing spiritual awareness into a social context. They are for you to think about and ponder over with a rational mind, because yoga is not about mindlessly accepting externally imposed rules—it is about finding the truth for yourself—and ‘connecting’ with it.
There are many interpretations of and opinions about the yamas and niyamas. While the ancient Indian text, the Bhagavata Purana assigns 12 yogic restraints the Parashar Smriti, another text, puts forward ten. But the yamas as described in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra are only five, which are also known as the great universal vows or the sarvabhauma maha vratas, because they are not limited by either class, creed, time or circumstances. They are the guidelines for how we interact with the outer world, the social disciplines to guide us in our relationships with others. These five are:
• Ahimsa (non-violence),
• Satya (truthfulness),
• Asteya (non-stealing),
• Brahmacharya (celibacy) and
• Aparigraha (non-covetousness)
According to the Yajnavalkya Samhita, ahimsa or non-violence is the awareness and practice of non-violence in thought, speech and action. It advocates the practices of compassion, love, understanding, patience, self-love, and worthiness.
Patanjali describes truthfulness as: “To be in harmony with mind, word and action, to conduct speech and mind according to truth, to express through speech and to retain it in the intellect what has been seen, understood or heard.” A perfectly truthful person is he who expresses in his speech exactly what he thinks in his mind and in the end acts according to it.
Non-stealing or asteya is the third constituent of the yamas of Ashtanga Yoga. It upholds forgoing the unauthorized possession of thought, speech and action. Asteya stands against covetousness and envy. It advocates the cultivation of a sense of completeness and self-sufficiency in order to progress beyond base cravings.
The Vedas, Smritis and Puranas all glorify the fourth constituent of celibacy. It is believed to be a behavior, which brings man nearer to the Divine. This yama believes in avoiding all sensual pleasures, whether mental, vocal or physical.
The literal meaning of apigraha, the fifth yama, is the non-accumulation of worldly objects, caused by covetousness and attachment. The commentator Vyasa says that this last state of yama is attained when one remains totally detached from sensual pleasures of all kinds and so effectively refrains from committing himsa or violence of any sort.
The niyamas are the second constituents of Ashtanga Yoga. How we interact with ourselves, our internal world. The niyamas are about self-regulation—helping us maintain a positive environment in which to grow. Their practice harnesses the energy generated from the cultivation of the earlier yamas. According to sage Yajnavalkya, there are ten niyamas and the Bhagavad Gita lists 11 constituents. But Patanjali names only five:
• Shaucha or purity,
• Santosha or contentment,
• Tapa or austerity,
• Swadhyaya or self-education and
• Ishwar-Pranidhan or meditation on the Divine
Shaucha implies both external as well as internal purity. In the words of sage Manu, water purifies the body; truthfulness the mind; true knowledge the intellect and the soul is purified by knowledge and austerity. It advocates the practices of intellectual purity, purity of speech and of the body.
The second niyama is that of contentment, which is described as not desiring more than what one has earned by his honest labor. This state of mind is about maintaining equanimity through all that life offers. Santosha involves the practice of gratitude and joyfulness—maintaining calm at all costs. This state of mind does not depend on any external causes.
Austerity, the third niyama, is described in Yoga philosophy as power to stand thirst and hunger, cold and heat, discomforts of place and postures, silent meditation and ritual fasts. It also maintains that the perfect man is he who practices both mental as well as physical austerity.
According to the commentator Vyas, self-education or swadhyaya consists of scriptural studies. The scripture being, the Vedas and Upanishads together with the recitation of the Gayatri Mantra and the Om mantra.
Commentators describe Ishwar-Pranidhan, the last of the niyamas, as the dedication of all our actions, performed either by intellect, speech or body, to the Divine. The results of all such actions are by definition, therefore, dependent upon Divine decision. The mortal mind can simply aspire to realize the Divine through dedication, purification, tranquilization and concentration of the mind. This Divine contemplation spills over to all aspects of the yogi’s life.
The Benefits of Practicing Yamas and Niyamas
The yamas and niyamas help in managing our energy in an integrative manner, complementing our outer life to our inner development. They help us view ourselves with compassion and awareness. They help in respecting the values of this life, in balancing our inner growth with outer restraint. In short they help us to lead a conscious life.
Yamas and niyamas are not about right and wrong. They are about being honest with the true Self. Living according to these principles are about living our lives in a better way, about moving towards an understanding, about making it possible to ‘connect’ with the Divine.
A yogasana is a posture in harmony with one’s inner consciousness. It aims at the attainment of a sustained and comfortable sitting posture to facilitate meditation. Asanas also help in balancing and harmonizing the basic structure of the human body, which is why they have a range of therapeutic uses too.
Functions of Yogasanas
Asanas basically perform five functions:
• Intellectual and
Cognitive action is the voluntary exercise of the organs of action. The asanas being the main yogic instrument of balancing the body, they consist of various physical postures, which are designed to release tension, improve flexibility and maximize the flow of vital energy. The purpose of the asanas is to create a flow of positive energy so that our concentration is directed within ourselves and the mind is able to perceive (parokshya jnana) the effects of our purposive action. That is cognitive action.
When the earlier two actions are fused, our mind’s discriminative faculty guides these organs to perform the asanas more correctly. The resultant rhythmic energy flow and awareness leads to a mental state of pure joy (ananda). Physical postures, therefore, end up affecting the various interrelated channels (nadis) of the mind-body complex. And ultimately the performance of a perfect yogasana leads to the absolute intellectual absorption of the mind on a single task (dharana), which in turn leads to the fusion of the individual spirit with the Divine Self (dhyana).
Benefits of Yogasanas
The regular practice of yogasanas has an immense amount of therapeutic value. Besides various physiological benefits, they positively affect our minds, our life force energies as well as our creative intelligence.
Regular practice helps to keep our body fit, controls cholesterol level, reduces weight, normalizes blood pressure and improves heart performance. Physical fitness thus achieved leads to reduction of physical stress and greater vitality. Asanas harmonize our pranic ability and mental energy flow by clearing any blockages in the subtle body leading to mental equilibrium and calmness. They make the mind strong thus enabling our human body to suffer pain and unhappiness stoically and with fortitude.
Various Categories of Yogasanas
Consummate mastery over the entire gamut of asanas is no doubt time-consuming, but what is of vital importance is the will to remain in the present moment and to let both the mind and body relax completely.
The various categories of asanas are:
• Standing Asanas,
• Forward Bending Asanas,
• Supine Asanas,
• Inverted Asanas,
• Abdominal and Lumbar Asanas,
• Back Bending Asanas and
Beginners should start with these as they bring elasticity in joints and muscles and build up stamina and physical stability. This constitutes the most basic training in the early stages of yoga practice. Some basic standing poses are, Tadasana, Utthita Trikonasana, Virabhadrasana, Ardha Chandrasana and Utthita Parsvakonasana.
Forward Bending Asanas
In these postures the posterior half of the body is stretched. These prepare you to proceed further in yoga and bring consistency in the development of physical and mental pliability. Examples of such asanas are, Upavisthakonasana and Paschimotanasana.
Sitting and Supine Asanas
Sitting upright and supine extending positions help a sadhaka prepare physically and mentally for pranayama. Some of them are, Baddhakonasana, Supta Baddhakonasana, Supta Padangusthanasana, Padmasana, Vajrasana, Simhasana, Virasana and so on.
These help recover from everyday stress. They give vitality, mental balance and emotional stability. These are Adho Mukha Svanasa and Urdhva Mukha Svanasa.
Abdominal and Lumbar Asanas
These tone and massage the abdominal organs and strengthen the pelvic and lumbar areas. Bharadvajasana and Marichyasana are some examples of such asanas.
It consists of lateral stretching and twisting of the spine, toning the internal organs and reaching new horizons while tranquilizing the mind. These are, Ardha Matsyendrasana and Jathara Parivartanasana.
Back Bending Asanas
These bring physical and mental sharpness and alertness. The postures are the opposite of forward bends as are the effects. In forward bends the posterior spine is extended, bringing consistency and mental peace, whereas in back bends the anterior spine is extended and stretched. The effect is invigorating and enlivening. Such asanas are, Ustrasana, Bhujangasana and Matsyasana.
These strengthen the arms and wrists and exercise the abdominal organs. They also make the body feel light and help attain a good bearing. Salamba Sirsasana, Niralamba Sarvangasana and Salamba Sarvangasana are some of the balancing asanas.
‘Pranayama’ is a compound term (‘prana’ and ‘yama’) meaning the maintenance of prana in a healthy throughout one’s life. More than a breath-control exercise, pranayama is all about controlling the life force or prana. Ancient yogis, who understood the essence of prana, studied it and devised methods and practices to master it. These practices are better known as pranayama. Since breath or prana is basic to life, the practice of pranayama helps in harnessing the prana in and around us, and by deepening and extending it, pranayama leads to a state of inner peace.
According to Hatha Yoga, pranayamas can be classified under:
• Sahita Kumbhaka,
• Surya Bhedi,
• Murchha and
The first is a breath retention technique, which gives agility, strength and flexibility to the body. They also quieten the mind and the sense organs besides enabling the meditator to control his hunger and thirst.
The Surya Bhedi pranayama consists of inhaling through the right nostril and exhaling through the left. This practice promotes good digestion and through perspiration, it purges the body of all its impurities.
Ujjayi pranayama involves the travel of breath between the nose and the heart only. It acts like an expectorant and increases digestion together with removing all impurities of nerves as well as thoughts.
Bhramari pranayama involves a very concentrated and fixed breathing exercise. It helps in strengthening one’s breath besides quietening the mind and increasing the powers of concentration. This breathing technique is very helpful in the last meditative stage of samadhi.
Murchha pranayama is an extreme form of breath retention, which only experienced yogis can achieve. This practice quietens the mind and helps it to reach the near-unconscious state.
The last technique of Kewali pranayama, is a breath retention technique in which, the yogi stops both inhalation as well as exhalation. This form balances inhalation and exhalation besides helping the mind to concentrate better.
Benefits of Pranayama
The practices of pranayama—the correct breathing technique helps to manipulate our energies. Most of us breathe incorrectly, using only half of our lung capacity. Pranayama is a technique, which re-educates our breathing process, helps us to release tensions and develop a relaxed state of mind. It also balances our nervous system and encourages creative thinking. In addition, by increasing the amount of oxygen to our brain it improves mental clarity, alertness and physical well being.
When practiced along with yogasanas the benefits of pranayama are more pronounced. According to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, pranayama enables the mind to acquire the capacity to concentrate on any given object of attention. It also says that scientific breathing helps in unveiling true knowledge from the darkness of ignorance. But it is eminently advisable to be aware of all the do’s and don’ts of pranayama before practicing them.
Various Stages of Pranayama
The following are the stages of pranayama:
• Inhalation or puraka,
• Exhalation or rechaka,
• Stambhavritti pranayama and
• Bahyabhyantarakshepi pranayama.
Puraka or inhalation techniques are about regular and controlled inhalation. It also teaches regulating the entire breathing process and reducing the number of inhalations per minute. Rechaka or exhalation exercises teach slow and ordered breathing besides reducing the number of inhalations and exhalations per minute. The third stage consists of retaining the breath after stopping natural inhalation and exhalation. The last stage of pranayama is about converting both exhalation and inhalation into retention and storing the retained breathe in various internal organs for various lengths of time.
Pratyahara involves rightly managing the senses and going beyond them instead of simply closing and suppressing them. It involves reining in the senses for increased attention rather than distraction. Pratyahara may be practiced with mantra meditation and visualization techniques.
Benefits of Pratyahara
It is essential to practice pratyahara for achieving the three meditative stages of dharana, dhyana and samadhi. Perfecting this technique of yoga is also essential in order to break out from the eternal cycle of rebirths.
The last three limbs of Ashtanga Yoga are the three essential stages of meditation. Dharana involves developing and extending our powers of concentration. This consists of various ways of directing and controlling our attention and mind-fixing skills, such as concentrating on the chakras or turning inwards.
Dhyana is the state of meditation, when the mind attains the ability to sustain its attention without getting distracted. Strictly speaking, unlike the other six limbs of yoga, this is not a technique but rather a state of mind, a delicate state of awareness. This state rightfully precedes the final state of samadhi.
Samadhi, or total absorption, is the ability to become one with the True Self and merge into the object of concentration. In this state of mind, the perceiver and the object of perception unite through the very act of perception—a true unity of all thought and action. This is the acme of all yogic endeavors—the ultimate ‘yoga’ or connection between the individual and the universal Soul!
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra categorizes and grades the levels of samadhi in the first chapter or Samadhi Pada:
• Samprajnata Samadhi or distinguished contemplation and
• Asamprajnata Samadhi or non-distinguished contemplation,
• Savitarka Samadhi or deliberated absorption and
• Nirvitarka Samadhi or non-deliberated absorption,
• Savichara Samadhi or reflective meditation and
• Nirvichara Samadhi or non-reflective meditation,
• Sabija Samadhi, where the mind continues to carry seeds of earthly impressions and
• Nirbija Samadhi, where each seed of earthly impressions have been erased.