The yamas and niyamas, you’ll recall, are the first two limbs of yoga. If are a regular reader of the Track Yoga blog or a student of classical yoga, you’ve heard these terms. The yamas and niyamas are principles for living the yoga lifestyle. But what are the benefits of the yamas and niyamas? Some of them are a challenge, so it would be nice to know why we should follow these guidelines!
Patanjali begins to describe the eight limbs toward the end of the second section of the Yoga Sutras. He then shows us the benefits of the yamas and niyamas in sutras 2.35 through 2.45.
Benefits of The Yamas and Niyamas
First, Patanjali tells us what happens when we practice the five yamas.
The yamas are
- Non-violence (ahimsa)
- Truthfulness (satya)
- Non-stealing (asteya)
- Temperance (bramacharya)
- Non-possessiveness (aparigraha)
When we are not violent, he says, others will not be hostile or violent with us. When we are truthful and honest, our actions align with divine will in a way that works in our favor.
Tempering our desire for excess gives us more energy for the yogic journey, and we have a better understanding of life’s purpose when we practice non-possessiveness.
Next, Patanjali explains the benefits of the five niyamas, which are
- Saucha (purity)
- Santosha (contentment)
- Tapas (austerity)
- Svadhyaya (study)
- Ishvara pranidhana (devotion to a higher power)
We learn in sutra 2.40: From purity follows a withdrawal from enchantment over one’s own body as well as a cessation of desire for physical contact with others.
Contentment, the sage tells us next, will enable us to control our senses. This will make us happy. In fact, we’re told, we’ll be given great powers when we our minds and bodies are pure. Austerity—the fire within that leads us to a more spiritual life—removes both physical and mental impurities that can be obstacles to enlightenment.
We learn about our true nature through study, which connects us with the higher power that is our source.
Once we’re connected with the divine, we see that our true power comes from faith in something greater than ourselves. We recognize that we are part of all that is and learn to live in union with the great power of the universe. Through surrender to this higher power, we attain enlightenment.
Working with the Physical Body
We live in a human body that can be an obstacle to enlightenment or a tool for our spiritual journey during this lifetime. The next limb of yoga is all about working with the physical body.
In sutra 2.46, we learn the original meaning of asana:
Asana is a steady, comfortable posture.
Asana is the posture we need to move comfortably through the eight limbs. Of course, we’ve added dozens of additional poses to that comfortable, steady posture that Patanjali first offered as a seat for meditation. Perhaps the ancient yogis were more flexible and comfortable in their bodies, so they had less physical work to do.
Whatever the case, we now see how our physical yoga practice fits into the big picture and how the yamas and niyamas help prepare us for that practice.