Life is good. As free, joyful, and creative expressions of the One, we are blessed to be embodied in this life. Life is a magnificent gift of the Divine, not some sort of karmic punishment, nor something we need to transcend. Indeed, it is through our limited physical form that we are able to experience our Unlimited Being.
Our Tantric philosophy declares that Goodness is the absolute nature of the world, and there is no absolute evil in the universe. No one, no thing has an intrinsically malevolent or evil essence. And yet, because we have free will, we are capable of errors, mistakes, even deliberate malevolence-at times, our embodied selves mis-align with the Divine in ways that create suffering, in ourselves and in others.
Through the practice of Tantric yoga, we learn to align with the intrinsic Goodness that we essentially are. This therapeutic, physiological and psychological process of shifting energy helps us to accelerate our growth, to increase our capacity to live fully and completely on every level of life. A seminal text of Tantric yoga is Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, which codified for the first time the "threads of knowledge" passed down from teachers to students. In the Sutras, Patanjali outlines an Eight-Limbed Path of Yoga, a code for behavior and life which, if practiced with discipline and non-attachment, leads us to that essence of us that is unchanging, eternal, and Good.
The Eight Limbs are: Yamas and Niyamas (ethical guidelines, considered the foundation for the other six limbs), Asana (posture), Pranayama (breathing), Pratyahara (sensory withdrawal), Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation), and Samadhi (spiritual absorption or Unity Consciousness).
Those foundational first two limbs, the Yamas and Niyamas, are practical guidelines and core values that help us to realize the essential freedom in our lives. They allow us to align ourselves to the world inside us as well as to the world around us, helping us to bring our spiritual realization into a social context. My personal favorites of the many translations of the Yamas and Niyamas are Vimala McClure's A Women's Guide to Tantra Yoga, and Donna Farhi's book, Yoga: Mind Body & Spirit, both of which I draw from below.
From a Tantric perspective, the Yamas are Healthy Behaviors or Acts of Integrity. Right conduct is the foundation of spiritual practice, and thus the Yamas are characteristics that are central to any life lived in freedom.
Ahimsa-non-harming or non-violence- means extending kindness and compassion to oneself and others, refraining from negativity and hostility, and living free from fear, in a dynamic peacefulness that is prepared to meet all situations with loving openness. In Ahimsa, we respect and take care of ourselves, we do not indulge in self-destructive behaviors. In our asana practice, this means being attentive and not pushing ourselves unskillfully.
Satya-honesty-means speaking the truth with a spirit of kindness and living an honest life. In Satya, we commit to the truth in thought, speech and action. The practice of Satya extends to becoming whole, to reclaiming the disowned parts of ourselves, recognizing that honesty is the only route to wholeness, which is the real perfection.
Asteya-non-stealing-means not taking things without permission, or taking credit for others' work, as well as giving back for that which we receive. John Friend says, "Because everything is interconnected, whatever you receive is taken from somewhere else. Most people don't stop to consider all the different levels of energy involved in all they are consuming. Energetically and karmically, you create a major imbalance if you take and don't pay back."
Brahmacharya-moderation, or respect of limits-has traditionally referred to sexual celibacy, but that is a very limited meaning. The word itself means "to follow God," to revere that spirit of Unity that pervades all things as Love. In Brahmacharya, we respect the limits of our bodily resources, and we attend to how we manage our energy, recognizing that all life force is One energy. We use moderation in all things, not only in sex, but also in food, exercise, work, and other activities. When we practice asana, we wisely regulate our energy so as not to feel depleted but radiant and alive.
Aparigraha-non-possessiveness or literally non-grasping-means being content with what we have with a grateful heart. Aparigraha is all about letting go, not only of material possessions, but also of old attitudes and concepts that no longer serve us. On the mat, it means being willing to learn a new way, to get past our idea of how a pose should look, and to be okay with how we express a pose now.
The Niyamas are Healthy Practices or Active Observances. They are the practical steps we take, the values we hold, to enrich our lives as individuals. In this way, they support the Yamas.
Saucha-cleanliness-includes both physical cleanliness and clarity of mind. One can have a clean house and a messy and cluttered mind, or a clear mind and a messy house- but not for long. Saucha means being clear, clean, simple and direct. To enhance our yoga, we might apply this to the space in which we practice asana or meditation, creating a strong positive energy, and keeping our space sacrosanct.
Santosha-contentment-means accepting people and things as they are, and having a sense of equanimity that is undistorted by expectation, need or fear. Mental ease and acceptance of ourselves are marks of santosha. In asana, santosha means not striving for the perfect pose but rather enjoying where we are now.
Tapas-fire, heat, brilliance or ardor- describes yoga as a process of transmutation that burns away the dross of ignorance and kindles the divine spark within. With tapas, we commit to the practices that lead n The Yamas are healthy behaviors or acts of integrity. The Niyamas are healthy practices or observances that will lead us toward our goals and have the will and dedication to keep that promise. On the mat, we can practice tapas by holding a pose and being with all the sensations and mind stuff that comes up.
Svadyaya-self-observation without judgment- is a Niyama we can practice anywhere, and one of the most effective methods of personal growth. It also refers to the study of scriptures such as the Sutras, the Bible, or the Bhagavad Gita to enhance self-knowledge, and nourish the mind and personality with a positive and elevating influence.
Ishwara Pranidhana-literally, taking shelter in the Supreme-means joyfully surrendering and devoting oneself to the Divine. This Niyama is a corner stone of Anusara® yoga, for it is the understanding that the Divine is the benevolent essence of the Universe. John Friend writes: "We emphasize devotion and service, making an artistic offering to the greater good, and bringing more beauty and love into the world. If you do that, you won't need to think about hurting anyone or lying or stealing. If you dedicate your life to loving and serving God, all other things fall into place."
As I apply each Yama and Niyama to my life, I find it helpful to ask myself a few questions to get more clarity around its practice. How does this ethic or practice apply in my relationship with myself in my current circumstances? How does it apply to my behavior in relationship with others? How does it apply to my social and political decisions? I especially enjoy choosing one of the Yamas or Niyamas to practice for an entire week and journaling about it each night.
Tantric philosophy, and therefore Anusara® yoga, extends beyond the mat to embrace every moment of our lives, and so our study & reflection upon these guiding principles is essential to our practice. To do the very best we can to apply the Yamas and Niyamas to our lives-and to forgive ourselves when we don't-is the devoted practice of the true yogi.