Yes, No, YesNo: The Yamas & Niyamas

The Yamas & the Niyamas represent the first two limbs/branches of the eight-limbed body/tree of Ashtanga (ashta=eight, anga=limb) Yoga. Considered as foundations for the remaining six limbs, these “outer” branches of the Ashtanga system are attitudes & actions that have the power to align us with Inner Peace. Totaling ten in number ~ five Yamas or “don’ts, and five Niyamas or “do’s” ~ they strike a resonant cord, for many who first come upon them, with the Christian Ten Commandments. There is, however, an important difference: the emphasis of the Yamas & Niyamas is not so much on what we will suffer if we fail to abide by them, but rather on what we will gain if we choose to practice them. In other words, they are not so much “commandments” as they are recommendations, invitations or just plain sensible advice from our friends in this Yoga lineage.

The Yamas & Niyamas are ~ at least initially ~ engaged with as a path, a practice, a direction of development. Once we’ve practiced for a while, and realize spiritual perfection (i.e. have traversed the remaining six limbs of Ashtanga Yoga), the Yamas & Niyamas manifest as specific siddhis/fruitions âÂ?¦ which take us beyond the “yes” and “no” of the path, and into the nondual territory of YesNo, a.k.a. Nirvana, Brahma, Unity Consciousness. They become what in Buddhism are called paramitas (nondual perfections). So while initially the Yamas & Niyamas are much like the proverbial finger pointing to the moon (a tool for guiding our vision), in their essence and final manifestation they are finger/moon indistinguishable.

The first of the Yamas is Ahimsa, or non-violence. It is the practice of doing no harm, and reveals benevolence as a natural quality of the heart. When we perfect the quality of non-violence, hostility ceases in our presence: even the fiercest of beasts ~ in meeting this perfected vibration of doing-no-harm ~ themselves become harmless. Complementing the Yama of Ahimsa is the Niyama of Saucha, or cleanliness, which ~ though it includes bodily cleanliness ~ refers principally to a purity of heart. In renouncing the desire to do harm in any way to others (the practice of Ahimsa), we develop a sweetness & innocence that is the sign of a heart inwardly pure and at peace. The consciousness of being separate from others (the root of all acts of violence) has at this point been transformed into the realization of the inherent Unity of Being � giving rise to that absolute inner purity which is recommended by the Niyama of cleanliness.

The second of the Yamas is Satya, or truthfulness. This is the practice of harmlessness with respect to our speech: of speaking in a way that is both truthful and kind. This requires us, for one, to make a distinction between truth and fact: the truth (the Masters tell us) is always beneficial (given the particular context); a statement of fact can (within a particular context) be either beneficial or harmful. What is recommended, when faced with a situation in which speaking sincerely would likely inflict harm, is simply to remain silent. Perfection of Satya develops mental power to such an extent that one’s mere word becomes binding on objective events: One has merely to declare a thing so for it actually to become so. Complementing the Yama of Satya is the Niyama of Ishvara Pranidhana, or Devotion to the Supreme Lord, for the ultimate act of truth-telling is to admit to there being only one reality in existence: God. And this is a God discovered not by scattering our devotion outwardly in religious ceremonies and rituals, but rather by turning it inward (becoming yogis!) ~ by realizing Brahma flowing through and as “ourselves.” This fundamental self-honesty (Satya) unfolds quite naturally then as the Niyama of Devotion to the Supreme Lord (our own radiant Core). When we realize who we are, how can we not be in love and endlessly devoted to that?!

The third of the Yamas is Asteya, or non-avarice. What is to be renounced, here, is the desire for anything that is not acquired by merit. This involves a fundamental trust in the “law of attraction” by which what a person does indeed merit, will be (quite infallibly) attracted. (This is in alignment, also, with the tenets of Karma Yoga: of remaining relaxed with respect to outcome/resluts, even in the midst of fervent activity.) Developed to perfection, the quality of non-avarice generates a subtle magnetism that enables the yogi to attract things effortlessly: his or her needs, whatever they are, are always met âÂ?¦ giving rise then to a sense of ease and relaxation. Complementing the Yama of Asteya is the Niyama of Santosha, or contentment. Because we know that what we merit will always be forthcoming, we’re able ~ in our work and in our play ~ to rest within an attitude of acceptance, regardless of the particular circumstances that are currently manifesting in/as our life.

The fourth of the Yamas is Aparigraha, or non-acceptance, and is a corollary to Asteya/non-avarice: Asteya signifies non-attachment to what is not our own; Aparigraha signifies non-attachment to what we would normally consider to be our own. The point is that nothing, truly, belongs to us (as small-self/ego). Everything ~ our bodies, our actions, our thoughts ~ belongs to the Lord (our Higher Self). The perfection of Aparigraha manifests as the capacity to remember our past incarnations (something that is possible only when we let go of our identification with our present body). Complementing the Yama of Aparigrapha is the Niyama of Swadhyaya, or introspection, which invites a movement from an understanding of what we are not (via the practice of non-acceptance) to an ever-deepening intuition of who we are.

The fifth of the Yamas is Brahmacharya, self-control or ~ more literally ~ “flowing with Brahma/the Supreme Spirit.” This teaching is applied most specifically to the practice of celibacy/sexual abstinence. More generally, it refers to working skillfully with all of our natural human appetites. In its deepest sense, Brahmacharya signifies the practice of allowing our awareness always to be flowing in the Core of our Being, i.e. of being identified with Spirit, instead of with an ego centered in body-consciousness. As we train in this way, we begin to be master of our natural human “appetites” (their fulfillment becomes a clear expression of the energy of awakened mind), instead of being mastered by them (i.e. drawn into loops of distraction from the truth of who-we-are). The perfection of this Yama dawns as an arising of boundless energy, which causes us to shine like the sun itself, shedding radiance continuously. Complementing the Yama of Brahmacharya is the Niyama of Tapas, or austerity, which refers to the practice of taking energy that was formerly directed outwardly, and re-channeling it into the spiritual search, of offering (as food) to the fire of the Shushumna Nadi, all of those previously outwardly-directed desires/appetites.

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