The sutras of Patanjali are a blueprint not only for individual self-enlightenment but also for the betterment and evolution of global society. The sutras, specifically the Yamas and Niyamas, are magnificent in their simplicity.
Let us look at the Yamas first. The Yamas show us how to behave amongst each other in society, within our family, and ourselves.
Ahimsa means not harming others in thought, work, or deed, to yourself and Mother Earth. As we develop our yoga practice, we intuitively experience the one-ness or the union of all things.
When we realize that there is no us and them, that there is only we, how can we commit violence against one another?
Satya means to tell the truth or to act from a position of truth. How do we discern what is truth? Sometimes it seems that truth is colored by the environment, culture, and even language.
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Yoga practice shows us that truth is to be found in honest self-reflection and in studying the writings and acts of wise men and women. When we act from reality, how can we have misunderstandings? How can we act from ignorance and fear?
Asteya means not to steal. Please do not take what does not belong to you, whether it is a tangible item, an idea, an emotion, or another’s energy. As we practice ahimsa and satya, we naturally become more aware of how to practice asteya daily.
If we are all connected in this divine universe, and if armed with truth, how can we even contemplate taking something from one another? We would only be causing harm to ourselves.
Aparigraha means not to covet. Do not use your energy and actions to accumulate external things, ideas, emotions, and outside energy. All your happiness resides within you. There is no reason to look outside of yourself. When we can look inward and find our peace within, why would we waste our time and energy wanting or trying to possess things?
Brahmacharya means to observe self-restraint in all things. Practicing brahmacharya in all facets of one’s personal and public life is a natural consequence of observing the previous yamas.
There is no incentive to indulge in excesses when we realize we would only be committing ahimsa.
By observing Satya in our thoughts and actions, we have no reason to gratify excessive behavior.
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The practice of asteya encompasses all excesses: overeating is seen as stealing, and overconsumption of goods and services can be viewed as taking from someone else. And when we do not expend energy in coveting things that do not belong to us, we are practicing the brahmacharya of the senses.
The Importance of the Yamas in Society
The Yamas are general rules of societal behavior. Our society can function as a cohesive and peaceful organic system when everyone does their best to practice the yamas.
The Niyamas show us how to perfect our practice of the Yamas by offering ways to modify our behavior.
Tapas is a self-discipline that leads to a clearer sense of self and self-awareness. In the West, there is a saying: “Fake it ’til you make it.” Observe the Yamas earnestly; over time, greater sensitivity and awareness will be experienced.
Santosha is to find contentment within yourself. Santosha will be experienced, over time, as the yamas are practiced. As we experience the positive effects of ahimsa and aparigraha, we find peace of mind and calmness. This is contentment.
Saucha is practicing purity. We practice purity in the body by observing kriyas. We practice the righteousness of mind with dharana and dhyana practices. We practice purity of breath and spirit with pranayama practices. The practice of mantra chanting, mudras, and asana all contribute to purifying our body, mind, and spirit.
Swadyaya is often described as self-study, and it can be expanded to include the study of literature and scriptures of accepted and known wise men and women. These studies help guide, nurture, and encourage us as we continue our yoga journey.
The more we learn and contemplate others’ wisdom and journeys, the more we trust our judgment and intuition.
Ishwara Pranidhana is often described as surrendering to a higher power, but for those who have problems with this concept, it may be better phrased as an acknowledgment that our physical bodies and egos limit our understanding and perceptions.
Only when we look beyond these limitations can we experience the true union or one-ness within ourselves and the divine universe.
The Role of the Niyamas in Society
The Niyamas illuminate the Path to self-awareness individually and within a greater society. When we observe the niyamas and implement our learning within the greater society, our world evolves and becomes better for everyone.
The Yamas and Niyamas in Practice
Here is a concrete example to illustrate the power of the yamas and niymas in modern society: Within a business negotiation, if both parties look to benefit mutually instead of one dominating the other, they are practicing ahimsa.
Throughout the negotiation, if both parties are honest in their dialogue, they observe satya.
When both parties can see the benefit of each one gaining something of value in the negotiation, they are putting into practice asteya and aparigraha. By observing self-restraint in their dealings, they are practicing brahmacharya.
Niyamas in Negotiation
In this same negotiation we can show how the niyamas are also in play. Through honest negotiation, tapas are observed, which leads to practicing saucha in implementing the dealings.
With the “purity” of the deal intact, both parties experience santosha, or contentment, with the arrangements. By allowing their higher selves to dominate the negotiations and not their baser personalities, both parties have surrendered, or put their trust in, their intuitive selves.
If we individually, as world leaders or private citizens, corporate leaders or householders, do our best to practice the yamas and niyamas of yoga in our daily life, we contribute to a better world and society.