Awareness of Yamas and Niyamas in Asana

June 5, 2014    BY Sandra Anderson
Yamas and Niyamas

You practice regularly. Diligently. You made progress at first, but now it seems that nothing is changing. You’re bored; you don’t look forward to your practice; you’re skipping classes—you have asana burn-out. Everyone hits a plateau now and then, a place where their practice seems dry and stale, where they are struggling and on the verge of quitting. So how can you renew your enthusiasm and resurrect your practice so you don’t wind up as a casualty of good intentions gone bad?

The short answer is to dig a little deeper into the other branches of yoga. If your asana practice is no longer interesting or productive, you’re probably locked into your physical and mental habits and aren’t actively exploring them. Change can be upsetting or even frightening, and one way to avoid it is to avoid the unfamiliar. We tend to return to a familiar state of consciousness, even if that state is painful. And, because our consciousness dictates how we inhabit our body, asana can be a direct challenge to these habits. So it’s no surprise that we encounter such strong resistance to practice. Resistance takes many forms—boredom, a perceived lack of progress (or worse, feeling less competent than before), impatience, irritation, finding far too many other more important things that absolutely have to be done first, laziness, doubt about whether practice is even necessary, feeling “off” or even ill—in short, a general absence of pleasure.

When the mind is no longer with you in an asana, then practice becomes drudgery and a host of problems arise. An attitude adjustment is required.

Note that with the possible exception of illness, these are mental obstacles. The problem is not recalcitrant hamstrings, it’s your attitude. When the mind is no longer with you in an asana, then practice becompes drudgery and a host of problems arise. An attitude adjustment is required.

In the classical yoga system of Patanjali, the eight limbs of yoga start with the yamas and niyamas, the restraints and observances. Although they are often overlooked by practitioners, the yamas and niyamas can help us with the way in which we practice asana. They are the dharma of yoga—the underlying principles that sustain spiritual growth and development, and the fundamental principles on which we should base our actions, including our asana practice if that practice is to be fruitful.​

Pashchimottanasana

As an example of how we might apply these principles, let’s explore pashchimottanasana, the posterior stretch. To assume the posture, sit on the floor with the legs hip-width apart and extended straight out in front of you. The spine should be straight; in other words, maintain the natural curve of the spine. Roll the thighbones in slightly to keep the kneecaps and the toes pointed straight up. Press the back of the legs evenly and gently into the floor.

Yamas and Niyamas

The forward bend begins at the hips. Flex the hip joints and draw the pelvis and abdomen toward the thighs. The spine lengthens to come forward and give the pelvis room to tilt toward the thighs.

Keep the shoulders down and back, the chest open, and the sternum lifted. Press the pubic bone down and back between the thighs as the pelvic girdle tilts forward. Activate the inner thigh and calf muscles by pressing the inner arch of the feet away from the pelvis, while lifting the outside arches. Work on moving from the base of the spine and flexing the hips, lengthening the spine and the neck.

Rest the hands or forearms on the floor alongside the legs or hold the legs with the hands to help keep the thighs from rolling out. If your flexibility allows, grasp the feet or big toes with your hands and use your grip to broaden the upper back and widen the collarbones, drawing the chest out of the pelvis.

Yamas and Niyamas

Moving Inward with the Restraints (Yamas)

The benefits of the posterior stretch emerge as you stay with it. Give yourself time to bring the mind and breath into synchronization with the body. Being fully present in the posture requires remaining aware of the whole body.

As you hold the pose and deepen your awareness, you may need to take a less extreme position, because you have become sensitive enough to realize you are past the point of challenge and into pain. If you are inflicting pain on yourself, the breath becomes irregular, the mind moves away, and the body automatically defends itself from this violence by tensing. Furthermore, the fear of pain will inhibit releasing the tension, as anyone with an injury can testify.

Viewing the world without animosity toward anyone or anything starts with our body, and there is no better place to practice loving-kindness-in-action than in our asana practice.

Treating yourself with kindness and consideration is to observe ahimsa, non-violence, the first of the yamas. Viewing the world without animosity toward anyone or anything starts with our body, and there is no better place to practice loving-kindness-in-action than in our asana practice. Cultivate unconditional positive regard for yourself in your asana, and practice becomes a joy.

On the other hand, avoiding either the physical or mental discomfort that comes up in the posture does nothing to transform us or further the goals of yoga. No progress can be made if we are unwilling to engage or otherwise address the obstacles. Refusing to engage your restrictions is a way of not telling yourself the truth, as is gritting your teeth, grabbing your toes and shoving past your boundaries. Satya, truthfulness, is another cornerstone in the foundation of your practice. Perhaps you need to bend the knees, or prop the hips to soften the back of the legs and work more deeply in the pelvis and lower back. If the lower back, hips, and hamstrings are tight, the lower back may collapse and round, so sit on the edge of a prop to straighten the spine.

Yamas and Niyamas

Being honest with yourself also means that you don’t try to imitate someone else’s posture from the outside. The experience is yours. You may not look like the person next to you, who has her head between her shins, and your attempts to take on her posture may bring you pain and discouragement. By being fully present and honest about your limitations, you decide what you need, and use the posture appropriately in accordance with the third yama, asteya, avoiding misappropriation.

In the posterior stretch, be especially aware of the upper back; don’t collapse in order to grab the toes and pull your head toward your knees, thinking you are coming further into the pose. To engage with the alignment in the upper back, place a strap around the feet to keep the legs aligned and gently draw the spine toward the legs, keeping your upper back and collarbones broad.

Yamas and Niyamas

As you gradually release in the posture, relaxing and following the breath through the body, the mind becomes more and more sensitive to the subtle levels of energy. Your focused and full attention on the subtle level can focus that energy and direct it inward. In Sanskrit, one meaning of the fourth yama, brahmacharya, is moving toward Brahman, from the verb root “char,” to go or move, and “brahman,” the ultimate reality. Quieting the restlessness of the mind and senses directs energy away from the snare of the phenomenological world toward the subtle inner realm. The outward-going mind fed by the senses is the restless, bored mind, always needing another fix to stimulate a momentary sense of pleasure. True pleasure in practice arises with increasing inner awareness.

The last yama, aparigraha, literally means “not everywhere grasping.” In asana this might mean practicing with containment, focus, and direction, but not with the greedy ambition of the over- or under-inflated ego. As Vanda Scaravelli eloquently put it, “Do not kill the instinct of the body for the glory of the pose.” Let the essence of the pose direct you by moving deeply into the feeling and breath in the posture. Stay present with the moment and the flow of the pose, curbing the tendency to reach for excuses, lists of things to do, or other poses with which you can avoid what might be uncomfortable business right here in this moment.

Practicing the Observances (Niyamas)

Sthira-sukham asanam.” Asana is steadiness and ease, says the Yoga Sutra. Steadiness and comfort in a posture result from observing santosha, contentment. That doesn’t mean complacency or laziness, but rather a fullness of experience and gratitude for that experience. Contentment may be most difficult to practice in those moments when you realize that today’s posture is not yesterday’s—that today you feel stiffer or more distracted than you did yesterday. Dropping judgment and your attachment to the results will help develop santosha and let you be fully present without the crippling effect of constantly passing judgment on yourself.

The second observance is saucha, cleanliness. Cleanliness applies to both the inner and outer environment, and is both physical and mental. As your practice progresses and you become more self-aware, you’ll notice the profound effect diet can have on your asana practice. Overeating or eating the wrong foods, especially those with too much sugar and fat, will often show up in the body as stiffness in the joints, or weakness. An unhealthy diet or poor digestion impedes progress in asana over the long term because the body is unable to get or stay purified. Likewise, disturbing, negative thoughts and emotions destroy practice by creating a dirty internal environment. Internal cleanliness is the outcome of not only diet and lifestyle, but also of the thinking process.

Tapas, the third niyama, literally means “heat.” It is often translated as “discipline” or “austerities.” Obviously, self-discipline is a primary requirement for maintaining and deepening asana practice. To regularly and willingly put yourself into a position of slight discomfort and to confront old habit patterns takes a great deal of self-discipline. The trick is to keep your intentions in mind, practice the other yamas and niyamas such as contentment, honesty, and non-violence, and then embrace the fire, so that the practice becomes a pleasure, and difficulties become interesting challenges. The practice of tapas allows us to move in a direction other than the path of least resistance, and thus reconfigure the mental and physical templates that govern our behavior.

Every posture is an opportunity for svadhyaya, self-study—an opportunity to become more aware of the body and its feelings, to study your restrictions, to explore, to experiment. Use variations of pashchimottanasana to expand your understanding of the alignment in the pelvis and unconscious tendencies to avoid tightness.

Try pressing the soles of the feet against the wall to see how evenly the legs are extended from the pelvis and to explore the tightness in the back of the legs. Does this affect the pelvis and the back of the legs? Beyond the obvious exploration of the pose, perhaps a reminder of the larger context or goals of practice, or a bit of inspiration from scriptural sources to remind yourself of the nature of the true higher self will put your practice in proper perspective. Many of the obstacles to enjoying and deepening practice disappear or become manageable by a simple shift of intention with svadhyaya.

Yamas and Niyamas

And finally, in asana, we bring the body, breath, and awareness into harmony, surrendering our limited sense of being, our ideas about what the posture should look like, how we should feel, and what will happen. Pashchimottanasana is a particularly good posture for exploring the notion of surrender, one aspect of Ishvara-pranidhana. Even if you are able to move deeply into the pose, you may enjoy a supported version. Place a bolster between your legs and release your belly and chest onto the support. Turn your head to one side, rest your arms comfortably and draw the breath effortlessly deep into the body. The supported nature of the posture allows you to quietly open and release, surrendering with single-minded concentration to the new edge which may appear.

A Deeply Satisfying Practice

Release paschimottanasana slowly with full awareness of the movement. A long hold in an extreme position calls for a gentle counterpose. Place your hands on the floor behind you under the shoulders and lift the chest, pressing the spine toward the front of the body. Avoid collapsing the back of the neck by keeping the head forward or the face parallel to the ceiling. Then rest, giving yourself a chance to incorporate the changes you have made.

Yamas and Niyamas

Finally, be patient. New habits in the body and mind don’t manifest in a single session. Self-transformation requires persistence and consistency in practice, as well as working gently but strictly and thoroughly with the mind as much as with the body. Let the yamas and niyamas guide your attitude in practice and move your whole being toward the ultimate goal of yoga.

Sandra Anderson
For over 20 years Sandra Anderson has shared her extensive experience in yoga theory and practice with students from all over the world. A senior faculty member and resident at the Himalayan Institute, her teaching reflects access to the living oral tradition, and the embodied experience of 30 years of dedicated practice. With a background in the natural sciences and interest in classical Sanskrit, along with frequent pilgrimages to India, Sandy has a rare capacity to eloquently convey the... Read more>>

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