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, specificallly 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 within ourselves.
Ahimsa simply means to do no harm in thought, work, or deed to others, to yourself, and to the Mother Earth. As we develop our yoga practice we begin to 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 environment, culture, and even language. A yoga practice shows us truth is to be found in honest self-reflection and in the study of the writings and acts of wise men and women. When we act from truth, how can we have misunderstandings? How can we act from ignorance and fear?
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Asteya means to not steal. Do not take that which does not belong to you, whether it is a concrete item, an idea, an emotion, another’s energy. As we practice ahimsa and satya we natually become more aware of how to practice asteya in our daily lives. If we are all connected in this divine universe, and if armed with truth, how can we even comtemplate taking something from one another? We would only be causing harm to ourselves.
Aparigraha means to not covet. Do not use your energy and actions trying to accumulate external things, ideas, emotions, and, yes, outside energy. All your happiness resides within you. There is no reason to look outside of yourself. When each one of us can look inward and find our own peace within, why would we waste our time and energy wanting or trying to possess things?
Bramacharya means to observe self-restraint in all things. Practicing bramacharya 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 commiting ahimsa. By observing satya in our thoughts and actions we have no reason to gratify excessive behavior. The practice of asteya encompasses all excesses: overeating is seen as stealing, 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 bramacharya of the senses.
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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 individual behavior.
Tapas is 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, and 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 positve effects of ahimsa and of aparigraha we find a peace of mind and a calmness. This is contentment.
Saucha is practicing purity. We practice purity in body by observing kryias. We practice purity 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 to guide, nurture, and encourage us as we continue on our yoga journey. The more we learn and comtemplate others’ wisdom and journeys, the more we come to trust our own judgement 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 acknoweldgment that our understanding and perceptions are limited by our physical bodies and egos. It is only when we look beyond these limitations that we can experience the true union or one-ness within ourselves and with the divine universe.
The Niyamas illuminate the Path to self-awarenes individually and within a greater society. When we observe the niyamas and put our learning into action within the greater society, our world as a whole evolves and becomes better for everyone.
Here is a concrete example to illustrate the power of the practice of the yamas and niymas in modern society: Within a business negotiation, if both parties look to benefit mutually instead of one dominating over the other, they are practicing ahimsa. Throughout the negotiation, if both parties are honest in their dialogue, they are observing satya. When both parties can see the benefit of each one gaining something of value in the negotiation then they are putting into practice asteya and aparigraha. By observing self-restraint in their dealings they are practicing bramacharya.
In this same negotiation we can show how the niyamas are also in play. Through honest negotiation, tapas are being observed, which leads to practicing saucha in the implementation of 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.
One may conclude that 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 are contributing to a better world and society.