I once heard a story about a group of monks going down to a river at night, getting in a boat, and rowing as hard as they could. At dawn they discovered that they had made no progress. They had forgotten to untie the boat. To me, this anecdote beautifully illustrates the importance of the yamas and niyamas, the moral restraints and observances of yoga. Most Americans have their first introduction to yoga in a class. These classes are, in fact, asana [posture-driven] classes… The asana, or postures, are the third limb of the eight-limb path. The yamas and niyamas are the first and second limbs of the path and form the foundation of all the work that follows.
So, for those of us who did not come to yoga with a mature spiritual practice already in place, there is a missing piece, even from the very beginning. Oftentimes this sense that something is missing manifests in a desire for more: more yoga postures, harder yoga postures, more classes per week, more workshops, more teachers, more styles, more technique. There is a restlessness… But our new awareness only serves to deepen our sense that something is not right. Our restlessness and our desire for more are actually useful indicators of our need for change. What we need is not to dig a new well, but to dig even more deeply the well we are already in.
The means for digging deeper are the yamas and niyamas. These are the tools that support our transformation. [They] provide us with the energy, the balance, the necessary insight, and the motivation to work the rest of the limbs of the path… Without the yamas and niyamas, the rest of the path is empty technique. Practicing without the full engagement of our hearts and souls, we are like the monks tied to the dock.
I love this piece of writing. It reminds us that effort physically is only one part of the practice. When we feel unsettled, needing to achieve more, that is really the calling of spirit. Rolf Gates speaks of the yamas and niyamas. These are ethical principles laid out in the eight-fold path of yoga as taught by Patanjali. One does not have to follow the yamas and niyamas, but should follow a set of ethical guidelines that help you connect with something larger than yourself.
For many years of practicing yoga, I lived by the yamas and niyamas because I knew of no other ethical code that spoke to me in this way. After years of study, I still honor the yamas and niyamas, but have worked through them to create my own code of behavior toward myself and others.
You may be wondering, “What are these things? Yamas? Niyamas?” This is not something we hear much about unless we are in teacher training or really entrenched in yoga studies. Due to this, every Wednesday I will unpack each of these to help you on your path. Maybe this will help you find the missing piece of the puzzle so yoga no longer becomes about attaining more, but about settling into the truth of who you are.