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Maitri musings: the yamas and niyamas

  • Jan 27, 2016

Like all yoga teachers I’m sure, I like to find ways to teach the same poses with different awareness. Some students respond to exactly the same poses, teaching and words each week, but many of us lose concentration and switch off. I remember a ripple of laughter around a room full of Iyengar teachers when senior teacher Manouso Manos put his hand up to admit he just gets bored with those styles!

This term I’m looking at the approach to asanas through the lens of the yamas and niyamas, the first two limbs of Patanjali’s eightfold yoga path. These are variously described as ethical or moral precepts, constraints or restraints, disciplines or principles of living.  

We rarely like to hear suggestions that we might constrain ourselves in any way. It feels patronising or subjugating, and against our ideals of freedom. Yet freedom for what purpose? We already know through direct experience that when we act negatively, our own lives are brought into discord. As always, I return to an eloquent description of the yamas and niyamas by Donna Fahri, who writes: 

“Rather than a list of dos and don'ts, they tell us that our fundamental nature is [already] compassionate, generous, honest, and, peaceful."

I find these principles provide me both with structure (scaffolding to support my life) and with a perspective from which I can view my life and find that everything really is OK already. This is often reassuring. You know the ‘rabbit in the headlights’ feeling – the sense when you are overwhelmed with too many options and don’t know which way to turn. In those circumstances, the structure provided by the yamas and niyamas can help remove the extraneous options, those options which aren’t suitable because they will result in discomfort for you or others. At other times, we seem to be funnelled into only one option, and not always pleasant.  Those are the days when we’re thinking, why me? Then I also look to the yamas and niyamas to accept the situation. When I stop fighting it, I can see more clearly the next steps. Rather like the serenity prayer, BKS Iyengar wrote:

"Yoga teaches us to cure what need not be endured and endure what cannot be cured.”

We can apply these principles to our yoga practice for new insights. I’ll be writing about these and posting each week, so if you find it interesting or helpful, come back soon for thoughts on ahimsa, non-violence. 

Thanks for reading, Claire

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