Asana is placed at the third place in the hierarchy in Patanajali’s Ashtanga Yoga. This limb, however, is the most popular part, followed by meditation and pranayama, in that order, of the yoga system. It is likely that, a significant percentage of people who practice some or the other asanas are not even aware of the preceding two limbs – Yama and Niyama.
Why it is so? Are these limbs not important enough, to be left out from the lexicon of yoga in the popular perception of the system? Why did Patanjali place them on the top of the list if their contribution to human development is insignificant?
If you take a closer look at the precepts contained in Yama and Niyama, you realize that they are nothing but code of conducts one ideally needs to follow to lead a happy and peaceful life. The precepts in Yama prescribe one’s ideal social behavior by denouncing violence, falsehood, stealing, over indulgence, and unnecessarily accumulation of material things. (Five precepts are Ahimsa, Satya, Asteya, Brahmacharya and Aparigraha)
On the other hand, the second limb, Niyama, provides principles to deal with oneself. The practitioner is expected to strive to correct her fault lines through the five precepts of this limb — Shaucha or personal hygiene, Sanotsha or positive state of mind, Tapa or austerity, Swadyaya or study of oneself, and Ishwar Pranidana or Surrender to God.
Clearly, the precepts prescribed by these limbs cannot be classroom instructions that can be executed immediately by the students in the class. They are qualities one needs to have, adopt and develop, which can happen over a period of time. Also, the instructor cannot check the progress of the students on any of these precepts, though it is possible to somewhat sense perceptible changes in the practitioner’s behavior or temperament. This could be the reason for not making these limbs a part of many popular yoga teachings.
On the contrary, the third limb, Asana, is the most visible part of the yoga system and the instructions can be executed immediately by the students. The instructor can also accurately check the level of perfection in each posture achieved by the practitioner. Even results of asanas are seen within a short time with the better functioning of the endocrine system, like it happens with any other physical exercise.
Also, Asana is the most glamorous part in yoga. The bending, stretching and balancing moves of asanas create the optics of beauty with the elements of serenity, agility and dynamism combined. This must be the reason for conducting mass yogasana sessions all over the world on the International Yoga Day. Similarly, yoga centres everywhere confine their teaching to some set of postures as a consequence of the demand for learning just asanas. It will, however, only heighten the already existing over emphasis on the body consciousness, making the other dimensions of the personality stunted.
Yama and Niyama provide the foundation on which the practitioner has to establish herself to proceed further on the path of yoga. Then, how to include Yama and Niyama in everyday yoga teachings?
There is a need to set aside sometime in every yoga session for helping the practitioner work on the precepts contained in these two limbs. The teacher may develop innovative ways, such as quiz, question answer sessions, story writing session, etc., to drive home the points. For, a person with five sheaths of existence cannot progress by focusing only on her body.
By Susheela Hegde