Exploring the Yamas and Niyamas
Each week in class throughout 2015 I introduced a Yama or Niyama into our classroom and we discussed it, observing how we may be able to see it show up in our practice on our mats, as well as how it may show up in other forms off the mat in our day-to-day living.
If it hadn’t been for my immersion into the teacher training program I may have floundered along in my asana practice without really knowing anything about these first two precepts of Pantanjali’s eight limb path of Yoga, set forth in the Yoga Sutras, as it was never discussed in the drop-in format of class in my experience.
The Yamas and Niyamas are useful guidelines to support us as we re-connect with, or awaken into, our higher selves. One could find him or herself overwhelmed or even un-grounded as he/she embarks upon this journey inward for the potency of even just the posture practice can be vastly transformative. I am sharing with you these tools so that you may benefit furthermore from your practice of Yoga and mediation.
I will summarize a list of these principals as ideas for you to explore further on your own. If any feedback or questions arise, please feel free to contact me.
This Eight Limb path goes as such:
Yama : Universal morality
Niyama : Personal observances
Asanas : Body postures
Pranayama : Breathing exercises and control of prana
Pratyahara : Control of the senses
Dharana : Concentration and cultivating inner perceptual awareness
Dhyana : Devotion, meditation on the Divine
Samadhi : Union with the Divine
(Please note, there are numerous translations of these ancient texts, here is the link to where I have gathered the above list; read more here…)
Yamas: Ahimsa, Satya, Asteya, Brahmacharya, Aparigraha
Ahimsa: The practice of non-harming, non-violence, non-hurting oneself or others. This precept must also include tolerance even for that which we dislike. The practice of compassion and love for all. This must start with one’s relationship with oneself for if we cannot love and accept ourselves, how can we expect anyone else to fill such a void? In our first week of class this year I read this Prayer for Self-Love by Don Miguel Ruiz in every class… I had many requests from students for a copy of it. This passage is drawn from the Mastery of Love, of which along with his books the Four Agreements and the sequel the Fifth Agreement, I highly recommend. Here’s the link to the prayer. And remember…“Love is what we are born with. Fear is what we learn. The spiritual journey is the unlearning of fear and prejudices and the acceptance of love back in our hearts. Love is the essential reality and our purpose on earth. To be consciously aware of it, to experience love in ourselves and others, is the meaning of life. Meaning does not lie in things. Meaning lies in us.” by Marianne Williamson
Satya: The art of living truthfully. This makes so much sense and seems to be so obvious, but our minds are clever and we can be very good at tricking ourselves into believing things that simply aren’t true but that we may use as defence mechanisms to protect ourselves from going deeper. Sometimes deeper is scary, if we’ve been hurt we may feel the need to hide parts of ourselves from others- or even from ourselves! To live the principal of Satya is to live authentically, to love oneself, to be our true selves. In doing so we allow others the same freedom to be. This is so eloquently put it in the words of Marianne Williamson; “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
Asteya: Non-stealing… this one requires us to look a little more closely at how we may be unconsciously stealing, for most of us are not thieves. I believe that if we study each of these principals and how we personally relate to them, we may see more clearly how they present in our relationships with others. So how are we stealing from ourselves? Well you might notice that although this list is presented in sequential order they all tie into each other again and again creating a cycle for us to re-visit each principal; so maybe we steal from ourselves by not loving ourselves or by not being true to ourselves… by not being present… We can get so caught up in the rat race of life, simply checking to-dos off our list, that we might actually be stealing the simple pleasure of being in each moment. I’ve heard grandparents say that to spend time with their grandchildren is a more complete or whole experience as they can be there more fully, unlike the experience of parenting, working, putting food on the table, getting the kids off to sports and other activities… we suddenly wonder…where did it all go? Where was I?? Here are some more ideas on how asteya may appear.
Brahmacharya: This one has the greatest controversy in its meaning. Where traditionally it translates as celibacy or chastity it has also been defined as moderation or balance. While it concerns primarily one’s sexual energy it could be observed in more facets of where we exert or conserve all energy. Sexual energy is potent and powerful. It is the energy of creation. It can be used in love or it can be an act of violence and hate. It is important to at least acknowledge our natural, human need for sex as it is programmed into our being as much as our need for food and water and as strong as our desire to connect with others as inherent social animals. So how are we using our sexual energy?…Are we allowing ourselves the freedom of this pleasure or are we stealing from ourselves or holding back by denying this true nature? Are we being honest with ourselves about our desires? Are we loving this part of ourselves? Brahmacharya rouses us to look at our conditioning; what were we brought up to believe about our sexual nature and behaviour? To every action there is a reaction. The actions of our sexual behaviour can create the most beautiful story or they can invoke a sense of pain, jealousy, violation or even hatred. This principal caries a weight that precedes all others and that is perhaps why it is most hotly debated and the most confusing in it’s variance of translation.
Aparigraha: Non-hoarding. Non-grasping. To neutralize the desire to acquire or to hoard wealth. To see the freedom in practicing non-attachment. There is a Buddhist saying that has stuck with me over a decade:
Buddha’s Five Remembrances –Translation by Thich Nhat Hanh
“I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.
I am of the nature to have ill-health. There is no way to escape having ill-health.
I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.”
All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.
My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground on which I stand.”
While it is our nature to attach, it gives us a sense of belonging to our family and formulates the basis for the world in which we live and the language of which we communicate our thoughts, this environment and all things are ever changing. We are grasping to certainty in a universe based on chaos and perpetual flux. While I may sound bleak in my interpretation I assure you that I am not suggesting to disassociate but rather to recognize that who we are is a far deeper experience than the one we may perceive or the image we may have created so that we can function. To let go of our attachment to the things we have acquired, to see that our clothes, our vocation or the car we drive are not who we are, nor does the colour of our skin or our hair define us, to know that love is not something we can possess, this is all to realize that we are not separate from each other, it is to see that we are one beyond all things.
Niyamas: Saucha, Santosha, Tapas, Svadyaya, Ishvara Pranidhana
Saucha: Acts of purification. This is involves that which brings us to a higher resolution of our selves. Cleanliness is at its most basic form, keeping good hygiene, eating in balance and reducing or eliminating toxins from our consumption (pesticides, sugar, alcohol, etc…) Choosing with intention what we read and watch, surrounding ourselves with gentle, compassionate and thoughtful people where by our spirit is elevated rather than depleted. Creating a home or work environment that is uncluttered as to generate an atmosphere where we are not distracted by unfinished business. In the words of Donna Farhi, “Far from from self-deprivation or dry piety, the practice of saucha allows you to experience life more vividly. A clean palate enjoys the sweetness of an apple and the taste of pure water; a clear mind can appreciate the beauty of poetry and the wisdom imparted in a story; a polished table reveals the deep grain of the wood. This practice both generates beauty and allows us to appreciate it in all its many forms.”
Santosha: Contentment, or the ability to feel satisfied within the container of one’s immediate experience. Not to be confused with complacency, santosha reminds us that we have the power to choose how we will respond to our circumstances. Santosha is an advocate for self-liberation, giving us the freedom to cultivate inner peace despite our surroundings. In our culture today we are inundated with solicitations to acquire and consume more, cleverly surrounded by the suggestion that we are not good enough as we are, that this product, or that investment, or losing five more pounds will somehow transform us into the ‘happy’ person we long to be. By letting go of comparison to others and tuning inward, we cultivate a deep sense of peace and knowing that… ‘I am enough, I have enough, there is enough.’
Tapas: Literally translated as “heat” or “fire”, it is the acts of self-determination or self-discipline which stoke the fires of our growth. We all have our moments to lesser or greater extent, in which we loathe the idea of cleaning the house, or getting out of bed for work, or even getting onto our mats! Yet at the same time we enjoy the product of having our space tidied up, or the value of the work we do and that it generates a means for our good living, or the positive affects our practice has on body and mind…So we know that our self-discipline helps us to achieve our goals, to move us toward personal and spiritual growth, to shine bright and be as our highest of selves. Tapas reminds us not to sell our selves short… that ‘we are powerful beyond measure…’
Svadhyaya: To study, to cultivate self-reflective consciousness. The form of this is inconsequential; whether it be mediation, service to community, study of sacred texts, philosophy, or the biology of the body, through athletics or writing or art. Whatever the practice, as long as their is intention to know oneself through it with a commitment to see the process through, almost any activity can become an opportunity for connecting deeper with one’s self.
It is important to note that as we get to know ourselves, we will uncover our flaws. That even our flaws, our mistakes, are in fact opportunities for learning. Let go of shaming. Remember, you are already perfect as you are. Let us welcome our limitations so we can get close enough to ourselves to see the roots of our anger, impatience, or self-loathing. We can then cultivate compassion for where and how our behaviours and beliefs were formed and through this understanding develop strategies and skill in handling and redirecting our previously self- destructive tendencies.
Ishvara Pranidhana: To be aware of divinity all around. This practise requires us to recognize that there is an omnipresent force larger than ourselves that is all around us that guides and directs us throughout our lives. When we struggle against this surrender taking matters into our own hands, attempting to control our lives as though we were the master of our universe, we may get caught up in the cycle of personal drama and feel limited by our own resistance. Sometimes events are painfully un-welcomed and it is only with time that we may begin to feel that there was some meaning or growth that manifested from the experience. Letting go to a divine force may feel scary, like walking without seeing where we are headed, but it’s within the letting go that we are truly able to find peace. A good mantra for facing this fear or resistance is…‘May I trust in my life’s mysterious unfolding’
Practicing Ishvara Pranidhana may come in the form of observing the wonder of a sunrise, or admiring the sacred geometry of a sea shell, or from observing the good heart and good acts of another. It may be practiced in the form of faith, religion, meditation, gratitude or other spiritual practice. How you do it is up to you, for the divine lives within you as the divine lives within all of us.
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
For more reading on the Yamas/Niyamas visit this page for an article by Donna Farhi.
Farhi has had a huge influence on my practice from one of my very first Yoga books, The Breathing Book. I recommend anything written by her as her language and the values of her teachings have a way of touching deep into the soul. A lot can be extracted from the internet so please explore! I welcome your feedback as I consider myself a perpetual student, your thoughts on these subject may help me to further understand the concepts.
With love and gratitude,