First codified by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras (around 200 BC to 200 AD) the yamas and niyamas are a complete path of spiritual enquiry in themselves. When they form the ground of support for our meditation and yoga practice, our path can bear fruit.Indeed the yamas and niyamas are seen as an essential aspect of the path. Why might that be, because we can certainly meditate or practice yoga without even knowing about the ethical guidelines.
Very relevant to this is an interesting idea found in Tantra, Yoga and Buddhism – that the source of suffering is our own mind. Pain is an inevitable part of life if we happen to find ourselves in a body! For example, all embodied beings will be subject to illness, decay and eventually death. Suffering however, in other words the emotional conflicts we experience in response to life’s ups and downs, is not inevitable. Suffering is generated by our own mind, by our reactions to circumstances. It is caused by our tendency to cling to certain things and to be averse to others, which in turn generate negative emotions like anger, greed, jealousy and fear.
Meditation and inner yoga practice can give us the power to transform the mind so that we can flow with life with equanimity and skill - but only if built upon the foundation of the ethical guidelines. Following the guidelines helps us to see, understand and detach from our mind-generated suffering.
Let’s look at a couple of examples. You’ve been meditating for a while, your mind is becoming clearer and you’re feeling more at peace; however this state is easily disrupted when you’re out and about. You noticed this recently when you over-indulged in cake at the office party, which left you feeling bloated, lethargic and mad at yourself. Moreover you ate the last slice of cake at the expense of a colleague, so you feel guilty and agitated too. Here the yamas of non-excess and non-stealing could have been helpful guidelines, at the very least helping you observe your behaviour and perhaps make a different choice next time round.
Another time you observe how much you feel undermined or angry when you harshly criticise yourself or others. You explore what it might mean to start being kinder and more gentle with yourself. Over time you notice that your mind remains at peace for longer, and that others tend to be calmer around you too. Here you are following the yama of non-harm and creating a safer and more loving environment for yourself and others.
It can seem obvious that following the yamas and niyamas is a good thing to do if we want more harmony in our mind, life and relationships and if we want to contribute to a safer, more peaceful world. In practice though it is not always so easy to adhere to them and to know how they might look in action. The old mind tendencies get in the way and stop us from seeing the bigger picture. Thankfully it is very normal to break our commitment to the guidelines, and nothing to beat ourselves up for. Going back to our example, the odd over-indulgence may even, on balance, be good for us. The path is about cultivating these values, understanding what blocks us and finding ways to embody them authentically, it is not about ‘always getting it right’ and blaming ourselves if we ‘fail’.
Change comes through an ongoing process of realisation, through a deep embodied understanding of the connections between our reactions and our behaviour. When we start making these connections, we often spontaneously begin acting differently. The process of aligning with the yamas and niyamas, using them as a support, help us to engage in this process more openly.
During this evening class we will look in-depth at each of the yamas and niyamas, and discuss how we can relate to them as contemporary practitioners. What does ‘purity’ mean for a 21st century yogi or yogini? What is self-discipline? How do we practice non-harm, non-excess and non-possessiveness while holding down jobs and relationships in our status-driven and acquisitional modern world?
We will approach the topic very practically through meditation and inner enquiry and through group discussion. There will be teachings from yoga philosophy to guide us and readings from core texts, such as the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.