Yoga teachers trained in the West may receive an introduction to the yamas and the niyamas of yoga as part of Patanjalis eight limbs of yoga. If you are a yoga teacher, you may know of their existence and importance. If you are a student of yoga, you may find yourself wanting to become a more ethical person, simply through being present in yoga classes over a period of time. If you are starting out, you may have no idea what is being referred to here, but like all energetic interactions, one must experience it through ones actual practice, philosophical discussions aside. Many western teacher training schools, while they introduce this philosophy will braise over the philosophy of yoga and delve right into asana (postures), as this is what we are mainly teaching to students, though this too, is changing. Though an appropriate approach for most people wanting to learn how to be a yoga teacher, the yamas and niyamas are not first and second in the list of limbs randomly.
Yama, the first limb of yoga or ethical discipline, is similar to that of the great commandments, transcending creed, country, age and time. These rules of conduct, or yamas are: ahimsa (non-violence), satya (truth), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacharya (continence), and aparigraha (non-coveting). It is the lack of attention paid to the yamas that lead to mental and emotional suffering, and it is this suffering that turns many onto a yogic path, first via asana, and then through the practice of meditation, or control of the mind.
The Niyamas, to outline the difference, are rules that govern individual conduct, while the yamas are universal. There are five niyamas called: saucha (purity), santosha (contentment), tapas (austerity), svadhyaya (study of self) and isvara (dedication to the lord). For the sake of exemplification, let us use satya to make the connection from the mat to the yamas, and how we conduct ourselves in daily existence.
Satya, or truth, is the highest rule of conduct or morality. If the mind thinks truth, if the tongue speaks truth and if one's life is based on truth, the person becomes fit for the union with the infinite, which really, is yoga's ultimate path (as opposed to increased flexibility!) Truth is not limited to speech alone. There are four sins of speech: abuse and obscenity, dealing in falsehoods, telling tales and ridiculing others. The ancient Chinese proverb, "he who controls his tongue has attained self control in a great measure" comes to mind when speaking of satya and how we live it. When attempting to live a life without falsehoods satya seems to be almost non-existent due to the many masks we wear when doing business, in our personal affairs, or even when existing among our own family members. The truth can be only found within an individual.
To live a life with truth is to live to its ultimate peak. It may be easy for a person to believe or justify that they are living with integrity by coming to yoga classes, but it goes much further than the physical practice. A life lived with truth, when no one is watching, creates ripples of positive actions, which in return leads to positive karma, which in turn reduces mental and emotional stress. Many times, a lie, even one not meant with malice causes anxiety to us, as we wonder why we said we would do something when we really had no intention of doing it. Perhaps we have exaggerated a skill on a resume and then fear that the interviewer will check on this fact by asking us, causing us to extend the truth or the lie, or that a reference will be called and we worry about what that person will say about the exaggeration on the resume. With even greater subtlety someone may withhold information or feelings on what they really want from their partner for fear of rejection, ridicule, or guilt due to societal conditioning. Think of a time where you wanted to be held, to make love, or have your partner know a secret you would not want to share.
Withholding can also be considered an untruth. Once the body has become so open through yoga practice, the chakras in the body also open wider, allowing us to speak with more confidence, clarity and our true intentions. Speaking and acting with satya can then open a couple to true intimacy through communication, and we all know that communication is key for success in relating not only to our partners, but to all beings. The truth is that we are here as a spirit, in human form, trying to release ourselves from the wheel of samsara or suffering. The ancient yogic scriptures speak of truth and give us practical methods to release the hold of human desires. All we have to do is to experiment with their methods and observe the results. Try a day of saying exactly what you mean, politeness aside, and asking also for what you want, exactly for what you want. Also practice the art of being who you really are, which is not someone who does things they do not really want to do. Observe the results. Repeat.