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What’s a niyama anyway?

June 4, 2010

In my previous post, I mentioned that svadhyaya is one of the niyamas of yoga. Like a bad writer blogger I didn’t even bother to explain the term. At the time, it really wasn’t the most pertinent piece of information that I was trying to convey. But now I have time and will properly explain what a yama and a niyama are. This will officially be my first attempt at explaining any sort of yoga philosophy in depth (or at all really) so please don’t regard my words as the end-all be-all perfect understanding of yoga philosophy. Ok, so with that caveat, here it is: yoga is considered to have eight limbs or paths*.
~The Yamas
~The Niyamas
~Asana (postures)
~Pranayama (mindful breathing)
~Pratyahara (turning inward)
~Dharana (concentration)
~Dhyana (meditation)
~Samadhi (union of the self with object of meditation)

Now, I do not pretend to have a complete understanding of any of these limbs and I probably won’t have that understanding for a very long time, so please don’t ask me to explain samadhi in any sort of comprehensive manner.
Anyhow, back to my promise of explanation: you’ll notice that one of the limbs is the niyamas. The niyamas are also known as the five observances:
~Sauca-purity
~Santosa-contentment
~Tapas-zeal, austerity
~Svadhyaya-self study (like Vivian Ward!)
~Isvara-pranidhana – devotion to a higher power

The other limb that has five aspects is the yamas, which contain the five moral restraints:
~Ahimsa-nonviolence
~Satya-truthfulness
~Asteya-nonstealing
~Brahmacarya-moderation
~Aparighraha-nonhoarding

So as you can see, the eight limbs of yoga are a sort of guidance for yoga practice. Although most people think of yoga as just the asana practice, yoga is really anything you do mindfully. One of the instructors at my studio loves to do a substantial amount of ab-work at the start of many of her classes. She is always nice enough to remind us that though we may complain that working on our abs isn’t “really” yoga, ANYthing you do mindfully is yoga. Even one of the eight limbs of yoga is breathing in a mindful manner. There is nothing more simple than breathing in and out is there? And yet when you do it with intention or mindfulness, you are practicing yoga. The idea that everything we do is yoga is one that did not occur to me until quite recently. That knowledge alone has transformed my life in ways that I never could have imagined. The way I talk to an angry person at work can be a practice of yoga if I do it mindfully instead of just letting my filters down and saying something that only escalates the situation to a new (more intense) level. The realization that I can practice yoga anytime anywhere has really been powerful for me. It really never occurred to me that I could practice yoga outside of class without ever doing a single asana posture. Good thing I have been practicing non-asana yoga this week, as I haven’t been to a single class in that same time frame. I’m also human!

*All yoga philosophy information came from “Meditations from the Mat: Daily Reflections on the Path of Yoga” by Rolf Gates and Katrina Kenison.

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