In the last six years, the life and lifestyle of Rishikesh youth Sagar Bisht have undergone a sea change. The self-confessed junk food-eating footballer now practises austere yoga full-time and his diet has gone simply sattvic.
Bisht, now 28, says his preferences and outlook on life changed after he encountered ashtanga yoga out of curiosity. “I already had good stamina as I was into sports. But the self-discipline and quality of life that I now have taken shape after I took up ashtanga yoga,” says Bisht. He finds his body more agile and energetic than before. And the cravings for processed foods have disappeared.
Undoubtedly it took him a lot of practice and persistence to reach a phase where he can refrain from unhealthy practices. This, he says, is where `yama’ and `niyama’ have influenced his life.
As per yoga practitioners, ashtanga yoga is designed in a way that disciplined lifestyle gets ingrained into its students even before they start practising postures and breathing exercises.
In this second part of the series on ashtanga yoga, we throw light on the first two of its eight limbs or precepts, namely yama and niyama.
Understanding yama and niyama
Krishna Pattabhi Jois, founder of Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute (AYRI), Mysuru, Karnataka, is credited with proposing the theory of ashtanga yoga.
Yama is a Sanskrit word that means ethical codes designed for the benefit of self and society. Prasad Bhadundi, a yoga instructor at Prasad’s Ashtanga Yoga, Bengaluru, explains its five principles.
They are non-violence (ahimsa), truthfulness (satya), non-stealing (astheya), celibacy (brahmacharya) and non-avarice (aparigraha).
While the yamas are the social ethics, niyamas are the norms or duties that one needs to follow. In yoga, an individual should follow a set of rules for creating inner positivity – i.e., psychologically and spiritually.
These duties or observances include hygiene (shaucha) of the body, mind and speech; contentment (santosha), meditation (tapas), the study of self (swadhyaya) and spirituality (ishwara pranidhana).
As principles, these are not just for those who practise yoga. They are the fundamental tenets for anyone who wants to follow a disciplined lifestyle, says Bhadundi.
Benefits of yama, niyama
- Practising the two prepares the body for higher yogic practices.
- They bring about discipline in a person’s life.
- They cleanse the body, mind and thoughts.
- They bring consciousness about self.
- They help to achieve personal and social hygiene.
- One gains peace and positivity.
Preparing body and mind
When starting with ashtanga yoga, one needs to follow a stepwise approach to get its maximum benefits.
“People think yoga is only postures and breathing exercises, but these preparatory measures are equally important, “ says Bhadundi.
Dr. Vigneshwar Bhat, an assistant professor at the Department of Spiritual Studies, Amrita School of Arts and Sciences, Mysuru, stresses the importance of practising yama-niyama even before learning postural and breathing exercises.
Citing a scholar’s analogy of cultivation, Dr Bhat says, “When farmers plan to grow something in their land, they first prepare the land by cleaning it and preparing the soil with compost before sowing.”
Likewise, when we prepare our body with the internal cleansing practices of yama-niyama, we make sure that the body gets the maximum benefits of ashtanga yoga, he says.
Two or three decades ago, people hardly spoke about issues such as anxiety, stress or depression. But in recent times the young are already experiencing these conditions. The symptoms manifest because some people may lack clear life goals or have erratic lifestyles.
Dr Bhat stresses that practising yama and niyama may help us to get clarity and the ability to work for our goals.
Siddappa Naragatti, yoga therapist, Central Council of Research in Yoga and Naturopathy, New Delhi, in his review paper terms the step-wise approach to ashtanga yoga `a royal road to personality development’.
He says these practices help one to develop a social code of conduct, improve willpower, intellect, and impart emotional stability. He adds social harmony and self-acceptance to its benefits.
Many beneficiaries have shared their positive experiences on social media, but the area of yama-niyama has not been much researched.
Study of subtle energy
A 2021 study conducted at Swamy Vivekananda Yoga Anusandhana Samsthana, Bengaluru, says it has evidence that the practice of yama and niyama improves the subtle energy in the body.
Using the technique of electro photonic imaging the researchers captured and measured the energy fields of 50 participants who had followed yama and niyama for 12 weeks. The subjects were also exposed to lectures, writings, introspection, and counselling on the two practices for 45 minutes a day for six days a week.
In addition to the subtle energy level, the researcher also noted improvement in the regulation of emotions, awareness, and cognitive ability.
According to them, this is the first randomised control trial on yama and niyama intervention where subtle energy in the human body was measured.
Read more about the beginner guide to ashtanga yoga here