I am, by no means, an expert in yogic philosophy. But I am curious. And this curiosity has driven my wandering for many years to read, study, and explore the full spectrum of the path we step on when we define ourselves as yogi.
I have emerged from my years of exploration still a student, with a small and humble conclusion—no part of the yogic path stands on its own or in isolation. You cannot separate a limb from the tree, stick it in the ground, and then call it the tree. This is what happens, for example, when we define the entire path of yoga as asana (the physical practice of postures).
Asana is only a limb, not the tree. The limbs together make the tree.
Traditionally, the path of yoga is divided into eight limbs, as described by Patanjali in the sacred text of the Yoga Sutras. These are:
(1) The Laws of Life (yama). There are 5, which we will explore one at a time.
(2) The Rules for Living (niyama). There are 5, which we will explore one at a time.
(3) Posture (asana)
(4) Breathing Exercises (pranayama)
(5) Retirement of the Senses (pratyahara)
(6) Focusing of attention (dharana)
(7) Cultivating awareness (dhyana)
(8) The settled mind (samadhi)
Many teachers caution students against seeing this as a linear, progression of stages leading to the final “goal” of samadhi. In his introduction to the Yoga Sutras, author and yogi Alistair Shearer wrote,
“It is also true that total samadhi is the result of the other seven limbs being fully developed. But the world samadhi is a general one, meaning “the settled (sama) mind or intellect (dhi).”As we have seen, there are different levels of samadhi, and the experience of complete unboundedness is only the most refined of a number of levels of tranquility. It is the settling down of the mind, to whatever degree, that right from the beginning of the path is responsible for perfecting and coordinating all the other limbs. . .The eight limbs of yoga constitute one body and, as in any body, each limb grows simultaneously, in proportion to all the others, until full development is reached. It is an organic process.”
Therefore, it is useful to think of each limb as part of an interrelated whole. When one limb is cultivated, the others are affected.
However, what I have noticed in my study and training over the years is the greatest amount of emphasis in Western practice falls upon asana, with some occasional deeper explorations into pranayama and meditation (dharana and dhyana).
But Patanjali’s first two limbs of yama and niyama are often greatly under-emphasised. In questioning why this is so, the answer became quite clear. Most modern yogis are allergic to prescribed rules and ethical dogma. This is, of course, a generalisation, but we like to think of ourselves as free-spirits, who follow the impulses of our inner calling and nature. So, perhaps, we don’t feel as comfortable talking about universal ‘guidelines’ on how we should live or which virtues we should cultivate. But this is not a prescribed list of should and should nots. We are doing ourselves (and the world) a great disservice when we skip over the practice of character-building (this is the phrase I will choose to summarise yama and niyama because essentially these are practices of building a yogic character and lifestyle).
In fact, my teacher always said, “If you have to choose between meditation and character building, choose character building. Your evolution and spiritual growth will be very fast.”
In every spiritual, tribal, native, and religious tradition there are suggested guidelines for living that are in line with the values of the community. I have come to see the practice of yama and niyama, as a sacred way to cultivate what is (and always has been) valued in our yogic community. And here’s the point. They are hardly any different than the teachings you find in all traditions. They are universal. They are the qualities displayed by the sages and saints throughout time.
About yama, Shearer writes, “It also describes the inherent characteristics of life as seen by the wisdom eye of Enlightenment. . .they uphold the very nature of life.”
About niyama, he suggests, “Niyama applies these general principles to the individual’s life, discussing the qualities that grow with the practice of yoga.”
When we become a conscious participant and student of these first two limbs, a strong foundation is laid to return to again and again throughout the development and cultivation of our practice.
And so, over the next few weeks, we will explore the 5 yamas and the 5 niyamas, individually—providing a ground for curiosity, and creating an open space for study, understanding and honest reflection.
I hope you will join me? Namaste.