“Practice of asanas (physical postures) without the backing of yama and niyama is mere acrobatics.” – B.K.S. Iyengar
After practicing yoga for awhile, you may begin to notice the positive effects not just on your mat, but off your mat as well. And you may become curious about how to continue to incorporate yoga into your life. Or you may have had a yoga teacher mention the Yamas or Niyamas in class.
The Yamas and Niyamas are two of the eight limbs of yoga, and invite us to remember that yoga is a way of life. They are the foundation of an open heart and a peaceful spirit upon which we can build our lives. Without them, the rest of the eight limbs become simply technique. How can we focus the mind, when it is full of cravings and aversions? How can we hold a posture if we do not have self-discipline? How can we enjoy the fruits of savasana if we are unprepared to surrender?
In the Yoga Sutras, an ancient text written between 200 BC - 400 AD, the first guide map for yoga was written. A step-by-step path for purifying the body and mind. The ultimate goal: to help practitioners cultivate a steady mind, leading to calm bliss. The first two stops on the path are ethical principles that are supposed to guide how we relate to other people and how we take care of ourselves. They’re called the Yamas (social restraints) and the Niyamas (self-disciplines).
The Yamas and Niyamas are like guideposts, to assist the yogi toward self awakening and bliss. As you read, consider how they can be incorporated into your yoga on and off the mat.
These 5 principles have mostly to do with our behavior and thinking toward other beings.
Ahimsa. No-harming, non-violence or, maybe more practical, “doing as little harm as possible”. We all do some harm to others in living; whether we eat cows or kale, we take a life. The idea of Ahimsa is to do our best to be loving and compassionate. For many yogis it means eating without using animal products… for others, being kind and caring to others. What is the least harm you can do?
Satya. Truthfulness, in one's thought, speech and action. See and communicate as they actually are, not as we wish them to be. Satya requires that we constantly look within to discover what is true in every situation. When we lie, we disconnect from our higher self and we cannot trust ourselves. Satya usually works best when keeping the spirit of Ahimsa in mind – being honest while doing as little harm as possible.
Asteya. Non-stealing. Again, this principle is clear but not always easy to implement. Look not just at non-stealing from others, but also from oneself. What numbing, escapist, unhealthy activities might you be engaging in that is stealing time from taking better care of yourself and the ones you love? Be totally present where you are. When your aren’t, you steal from yourself the experience of being alive in the moment. If you do that most of the time, you will miss your life.
Brahmacharya. Following a middle path. Overindulgence can deplete your prana, your life force. Be mindful of when you are overindulging, whether in thoughts or actions. Turn your mind inward, balance your senses, and free yourself from dependency and cravings. Sometimes translated as abstinence of sexual behavior.
Aparigraha. Non-hoarding. Think of the minimalist movement. Letting go of greed and acquiring more than we need to live comfortably. We can be generous and sharing – in fact, this is what brings abundance. We live in a universe that is abundant; there is enough for everyone, there’s no need to hold on to excessive things.
These principles have to do with our thinking and behavior toward and within ourselves.
Saucha. Purity, cleanliness. Pure mind, body and spirit. Being clean in our thoughts, as well as what we consume through both our mouths, but also our eyes and ears. Being mindful not just of the food we eat, but also the media we subject ourselves to and anything else that is toxic. Yoga reminds us that our true self already exists, lives in us inherently and perfectly. Our task as yogis is to strip away the outer layers that obscure our true nature. Many of the yogic techniques are practices to cleanse ourselves inside and out.
Santosha. Contentment. To be content is to accept and enjoy life as it is. We may still use our creative abilities to change and develop situations, yet doing so from an attitude of contentment greatly enhances our effectiveness and well-being.
Discipline and willpower are sometimes extremely helpful. But sustainable change happens when we are first content with who we are and where we are in the present moment. From that place of equanimity, we can then initiate change and pursue our calling.
Tapas. Fiery Discipline. Cultivating a sense of self discipline, passion and courage in order to burn away impurities physically, mentally and emotionally to pave the way to our true selves. Some days tapas may mean sitting for meditation and observing the mind. Other days it may mean getting onto your mat for yoga practice. It’s having the discipline to do what we know is good for us even when we don’t feel like it. It takes three weeks to create a habit. Commit to one area of your practice for three weeks and notice positive benefits.
Svadhyaya. Self-study. We develop an ever-deepening understanding of ourselves through self-inquiry, meditation, mindfulness, study of texts, and/or any other method that reveals the truth of who we are. Think of it as polishing the mirror. So that we can see ourselves as we truly are. Looking beyond the strategies and stories, often from our childhood, and sometimes maladaptive, so that we can see through to our highest self.
Ishvara Pranidhana. Sweet surrender. If you have a spiritual faith, it can mean surrendering to that higher power. It can also mean surrendering to your true self by letting go of ego. When we let go of ego, and realize we are divine and perfect, Yoga is achieved.
Contemplating the Yamas and Niyamas can bring higher awareness to parts of ourselves that we don’t always notice, and help us live in a way that doesn’t cause harm, which in turn allows for less regret and a more peaceful mind. But in the beginning, it might seem overwhelming to integrate all of these principles into our daily life.
So how can you incorporate these time-tested techniques into your own life and practice? My suggestion would be to pick one or two and see in which situations you can apply them, and how it helps your life. If you can’t choose, perhaps start with Ahimsa and Santosha and invite some more kindness and contentment into your life.