Practice and All is Coming
AN INTRODUCTION TO THE YAMAS AND NIYAMAS
What does it really mean to practice yoga? Is it the fancy yoga moves that you see on Instagram? Is it sitting in meditation for hours on end? Well…maybe. But it also encompasses a lot of other things as well. When we say “yoga” in the Western World we are typically referring to an Asana practice. This means the yoga poses that we often see. But with solely an asana practice, we are forgetting 7 other limbs of yoga. Patanjali created an 8 step manual on how to live a meaningful and purposeful life, and there is a reason that the asana practice isn’t the first limb. First we must observe the Yamas and Niyamas, these are the core foundations of how we live our life. The Yamas are like your moral code, ethical standards, and your integrity. These are the acts that typically others do not see, but they build your character. Next comes the Niyamas, these are your inner work, your spiritual observances, connecting to something that is greater than yourself. Okay, so Patanjali wrote the 8 limbs of yoga a very very long time ago. The problem with ancient scripture is that it doesn’t always make sense to modern life, it can be misinterpreted, or as I like to view it “taken too literally.” As a quick example, there is a Yama that is often taken to mean celibacy, and maybe it did mean celibacy when it was written, or maybe it didn't. But we don’t have to take it so literally, keep reading for my interpretation of the Yamas and Niyamas, and how you can easily start incorporating them into your life.
Possibly the most well know Yama, Ahimsa asks us to do no harm. When we talk about doing no harm, this means to other people, to ourselves, and the earth. It is treating everything and everyone with empathy, respect, and harmony. How can you incorporate Ahimsa into your life? Be kind to others, you’ve heard the saying “be kind to others, you never know what a person is going through,” try and go out of your way to be kind to those around you. Ask how someone’s day is going, and actually listen to what they tell you. Be kind to yourself! We can honestly be our worst critic, so instead of saying and thinking negative things about yourself, try writing down things that you enjoy about yourself and your body. Eat more plants, know where your food is coming from, know how you are nourishing your body, and eat well!
Summary: be kind.
Satya looks at truthfulness, which on the surface we can take this to mean do not tell lies. But if we dig deeper into truthfulness, can you be true to yourself? Can you be true to who you are as a person, without the affects of other people’s expectations and judgements? If I could guarantee to you that no one would make you feel bad, guilty, sad, upset, etc. then what would you do today that is different from any other day? Would you act different, dress different, speak different?
Summary: be true to yourself.
Asteya is translated to non-stealing, and although it includes the stealing of material items, that is not its entirety. “I’m not good enough” is one of the easiest and quickest ways to steal your own joy. If you take a look at your life, is there anything that you are stealing from yourself? Time. Energy. Happiness. What about from others? Do you steal these things from others, as well as yourself? Do you believe that you alone, holds the power to provide everything you need for yourself, or do you look to others to fill your needs?
Summary: don’t steal from yourself.
This is the Yama I referred to earlier, that is often translated to mean celibacy. If we look at this Yama in a different light, we can see it as using our energy wisely. Take a moment and write out what a typical week looks like for you. Now take a look at this and see where your energy is going. Is your energy constantly being taken by things you do not enjoy? Is your energy used up by going from one activity to the next? How often do you use your energy to find peace and happiness within yourself? To me, this means how often are you using your energy to fill your cup, to feed your soul. Something in this world lights you up inside, this Yama is asking you to direct your energy towards that.
Summary: where intention goes, energy flows.
This Yama asks us to not be greedy, and to not hoard material/energetic baggage. Aparigraha wants us to only take what we need, to only keep what brings us joy, and to learn to let go. Do you ever purge your house? Most people do this in the Spring time, where you go through your clothes and your physical belongings, and you get rid of anything that you no longer need. I tend to feel weighed down by physical possessions, and that’s what drives me to purge. How often do we do this on an energetic/emotional/mental level? Can we also purge our thoughts, stresses, worries? Do we also purge people and relationships from our lives when they are no longer serving us well? What would a full purge look like for you? How would it make you feel?
Summary: let that s**t go.
Next up are the Niyamas! To recap, these are your inner work, your spiritual observances, connecting to something that is greater than yourself.
Do you ever sit in a cluttered space and almost immediately you feel stressed, anxious, and like you can’t relax? Saucha asks us to look at cleanliness, this can mean the space that is around us, the space in which we practice, and even ourselves. Being your best self with Saucha means that you keep your home clean, you shower and wear clean clothes, you put clean food into your body (free from pesticides and antibiotics), and you purify your thoughts. We have a choice in how we think, the next time your mind goes on a rant about what you don’t like about yourself, try stop and see how you can change those thoughts.
Summary: clean, clean, clean.
This Niyama asks us to be content with our life in this exact moment. Does that mean that we cannot have goals, dreams, or hopes of a better life? Not at all. It just asks us to find something to be grateful for. Do you feel yourself thinking or saying “I will be happy when…” your answer might be when you lose weight, get a raise, buy a house, fall in love etc. Santhosha asks that we not wait for happiness, that we decide to happy with what we currently have.
Summary: find happiness and be grateful.
Ah Tapas, the Niyama that will push you to your practice, even when you desperately want to stay home. Tapas asks us to find self discipline. This does not mean pushing yourself to your limits, it doesn’t mean practicing the challenging poses, for some people practicing Tapas may mean sitting in meditation for 2 minutes each day. Find a passion, practice it fiercely, this will help guide you to your true greatness.
Summary: find self discipline.
I like to think of this Niyama as self development. Maybe you listen to podcasts, all tend to rave about taking time to develop yourself to improve your business, career, or personal life. This is Svadhyaya. It’s taking the time to study yourself, recognize your thoughts and your habits. Have you ever had someone take a video of you, and you watch it back and you can barely recognize yourself? Pay more attention to what you do, what you don’t do, how you act and how you speak. To take this one step further, this Niyama is also the studying and reading of things that bring you closer to your practice. This could mean studying the ancient scriptures, it could also mean studying a more modern text about yoga and this way of life. If it makes you feel more connected to yourself and to your practice, then it’s Svadhyaya.
Summary: study the self and the practice.
The last of the Niyamas, and arguably, maybe the most important. This Niyama does not mean that you have to be religious and in service to a God. When we talk about a higher power, we are often referring to the Universe. Allowing yourself to let go and let the Universe be your guide. This can be very challenging for most people as we like control, and to know what will be happening next. How do you think your life would be different if you allowed something higher than yourself to be in control?
Summary: surrender to something higher than yourself.
This can be a lot of information to take in all at once! Maybe you spend a week on each Yama and Niyama and work on ways to incorporate it into your life. If you would like a more in detail explanation of the Yamas and Niyamas, I recommend the following books:
The Yamas & Niyamas: Exploring Yoga's Ethical Practice by Deborah Adele
The Path of the Yoga Sutras: A Practical Guide to the Core of Yoga by Nicolai Bachman
Living the Sutras: A Guide to Yoga Wisdom beyond the Mat by Kelly DiNardo and Amy Pearce-Hayden