The first rungs on the ladder of the eightfold path are the yamas or niyamas. These are basically the ten commitments of yoga. We are not called to be "perfect"", rather to try to practice these commitments as conscientiously and as faithfully as we can. With practice of the yamas and the niyamas, our mind can become steady and tranquil.
Many believe that disease is a physical manifestation of a mental or emotional disturbance. So or mental well-being is of critical importance. This is why the practice of the yamas and niyamas is acknowledged first. If our mind is unstable and has created physical impairments how can we practice asana (the postures of yoga)?
Arguably the most important yama to learn, Ahimsa means nonviolence in thought, word, and action.
This is a practice in seeing the unity in all creation. Perfection in nonviolence brings an aura of peace that protects self and other. With this quote in mind, reflect on how to guard your balance, and ultimately your sense of peacefulness, like it is the most precious possession you have. What would that mean for you?
Satya means truthfulness to oneself and others in thought, word, and action. One lie leads to another and eventually one has a scheming, manipulative mind. In yoga philosophy it is believed that if one makes truth the focus of his/her life, then all of his words will become true because such an individual is incapable of a lie. Perfection in truth brings spoken words that will always come true.
"Man is least himself when he talks i his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth." ~Oscar Wilde
Think about this quote and reflect on the difference between "nice" and "real". Think about from whom you need approval. Visualize everyone that you know in the same room at the same time. Who would you be?
Non-stealing means refraining from taking anything that does not belong to you, accepting bribes, etc. The root of the impulse to steal is a feeling of jealousy and inadequacy, basically not feeling fulfilled. However, stealing from the other does not take away these negative feelings. Cultivating an attitude of non-stealing creates an attitude of fulfillment and completeness in one's self. Perfection in non-stealing brings abundance. Reflect how you steal from others: time, attention, privacy, material things. Do you steal from the future by taking from the Earth? Think of ways to live in constant gratitude with an attitude of giving...pretending you are a visitor to this space rather than an owner.
In Sanskirt this word means "to walk in Brahman". This is a practice in controlling all sensual desires, of which the sexual desire is the most powerful. This is not an act of repression that leads to feelings of frustration, rather this is a control of cravings so that one is free from them. Once we realize the blissfulness of ultimate realization, the pleasure of temporary sense gratification pales in comparison. Perfection in non-excess brings great vitality. Reflect on your habits and determine what is enough for you...practice living in non-excess. Then think about your own divinity. Are you willing to be sacred? What connects you to this sacred passion?
Non-possessiveness or literally "non-grasping" is what is meant by Aparigraha. This yama is not about throwing away all of one's material possessions, rather it is about reducing your attachment to material things. We can become addicted to the material. Perfection is non-posessiveness brings knowledge of experience. Reflect on the following quote:
Love is what is left when
You've let go of
All the things you love.
Think about your relationship to the physical things you have to wear, or surround yourself with. Do they make you feel heavier or lighter? Think about the difference between enjoying the physical things in your life versus being attached to them.
Saucha is purity of both body and mind, which is achieved by practicing mindfulness and healthy discrimination. This is a process of constantly evaluating one's thoughts to weed out the thoughts that are not healthy. Perfection of purity brings great clarity.
Contentment is a frame of mind that is not dependent on anything in the material world. This does not mean that we do not effort for things but it concerns our motivation. If we perform our actions from a sense of duty and service rather than unhealthy motivations we are practicing santosha. Perfection in contentment brings great joy.
Tapas literally means "that which generates heat". This is our determination and will power to achieve our spiritual goals. Living simply, eating healthy foods, maintaining a regular yoga practice all fall under tapas. Perfection in self-discipline brings great refinement.
Svadhyaya is study and learning of the Self. This practice begins as an intellectual pursuit, reading books and taking courses. Through self-study, we being to awaken to the Divine Self within. This knowledge of our self expands with meditation and spiritual insights and flashes of intuition. Perfection in self-study brings great freedom.
Ishvara pranidhana is the surrender to the Divine. This is a practice of faith and dedication. Overcoming the habits and fears of the ego is very difficult but the reminder of this niyama in practice is a great way to replace the fear with faith. Perfection in surrender brings great harmony.