People are only aware of the fiveyamas and fiveniyamas mentioned by Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras but other scriptures speak of many more yamas and niyamas. These are not raja yoga yamas and niyamas. Every branch of yoga, including karma yoga, bhakti yoga, jnana yoga, hatha yoga, kriya yoga, has a set of yamas and niyamas, which many times are described as bhumikas meaning base line or the plateau where you reach.
There are different levels of yama and niyama. The first yama in the yogic tradition is manahprasad and the first niyama in the yogic tradition is japa. These two are important starting points. When people come to yoga, they are generally tense, uptight, stressed out, dejected, depressed, wanting some clarity, some direction. The mind is in a restrictive space, an unhappy and stressed space. Sri Swami Satyananda used to say that if you think you are sick, then you are sick. But if your body is sick and you think you are not sick, then you can manage the ills of the body more effectively as your mind is not identifying with the sickness, rather the mind is suggesting to itself, 'I am healthy'.
He used to say that, when people came to the ashram he used to tell them, 'While you are in the ashram forget that you are sick and just live a natural, normal life.'' That was his attempt to bring them out of their mental whirlpool of identifying with the illness and sickness. Whenever he used to say that he used to imply manahprasad: extract your mind from the experience of suffering, don't identify with suffering. You may be suffering, there will be aches and pains, yet if one aspect of your mind observes the suffering, rather than getting caught in the suffering, one can analyse and detach from the suffering more easily. This was the firstteaching: detach yourself from your mental experience of pain, suffering, stress, anxiety, dejection, depression. When you overcome these conditions, then what is the state of mind? Contentment sets in, happiness sets in. The firstyama of yoga is to become happy. Even in adverse situations, one should try to remain happy, knowing that resistance is futile.
Manahprasad is the firstyama and the firstniyama is japa. Japa is mantra. Why japa as the firstniyama? In normal life we are engaged in the world 24/7/365. Our mind is identifying with it, our mind is thinking about it, our mind is craving things, our mind is expecting things, our mind is rejecting things. There is a continuous association with the outside world via the senses which connects us to different sense objects, from a watch, to food, to a poodle dog. Our mind is always extrovert. Even in sleep we are only reflecting subconsciously and unconsciously about our associations and connections. The mind is never detached from the world; the mind is never disconnected from the sense objects.
So in comes japa. Ten minutes you are asked to close your eyes, to pick up a mala, to move the beads, to repeat a mantra. In those ten minutes you disconnect from the world, from the sense objects, from the sense experience and you just focus on your mantra, on your japa. Those ten minutes become your disconnection from the senses and the world of the senses. This disconnection gives you inner peace, balances the ruffed feathers of the mind and connects you with your own inner strength. Therefore, japa is the firstniyama.
How to practise japa? With a mantra. The only initiation in yoga is that of mantra diksha. There is no other yogic initiation. Jignasu and karma sannyasa are not yogic initiations, they are sannyasa initiations. Yogic initiation is only mantra. That mantra allows you to disconnect from the senses and the sense objects. It allows you to focus on your own inner self. A mantra everybody can have, there is no restriction in receiving a mantra.
The definitionof the word mantra is also appropriate. The vibration, the power which disconnects the mind from its sensorial associations: mananaat trayate iti mantraha. From this perspective it is also appropriate to be the first niyama, as it indicates the baby steps that you take to disconnect yourself from the world. In twenty-four hours of association, you separate ten minutes and those ten minutes you are disconnected. That is the first niyama. The first yama and niyama are the most important ones for you to recognize your mental condition and to provide a direction to your efforts. Then other yamas and niyamas follow.
You can use different mantras too. Yogis would use specific yoga mantras. Religious people would use specificreligious mantras. Whatever the mantra may be, the important thing is that it gives you the ability to disconnect yourself from your sensorial associations and to divert the mind inwards. Therefore, mantra has become an important practice of yoga.
In the Indian context, right since time immemorial, people believed that if they receive a mantra from somebody, that person becomes their guide and guru. However, that is only a projection of personal gratitude, for receiving a mantra from anybody does not make the giver the guru. It is only an aid, a tool to help you focus, meditate and go beyond the sensorial, material restrictions. By virtue of receiving a mantra you do not become a disciple. It is only a matter of personal sentiment for someone with whom you wish to remain connected. Otherwise a mantra is only a tool to discover your inner nature.
—30 September 2018, Ganga Darshan, Munger