Whether you are new to yoga, or have been practicing for a while. you have probably heard about asanas (postures), meditation and pranayama (breath control). However, you might not have come across the Yamas and Niyamas - the golden guidelines for life on and off the mat.
Around 1700 years ago, an Indian sage named Pantanjali wrote the Yoga Sutras - an eight-limbed guidebook for classical yoga that suggests not just asana (postures) and meditation, but also attitudes or behaviors that can help us live a meaningful and purposeful life. The Yamas and Niyamas make up the first two limbs of this very dense text. We may not be gurus trying to achieve enlightenment, but we could all use a little help navigating this crazy world we live in.
1.Ahimsa - Non-violence
This first yama goes beyond not just physically harming people, animals or plants. It’s also about avoiding negative thoughts about others, as well as yourself. It’s a real opportunity to let go of hostility, aggression and irritability and make space for more peaceful feelings. On the mat, it’s the attitude, ‘hey, I can’t touch my toes, but I can touch my knees and that’s enough for today, so I won’t beat myself up mentally or think nasty thoughts about the human pretzel next to me.’
2.Satya - Truthfulness
This yama is a challenge! It requires that you think about both the spoken and unspoken aspects of your words. Take a week and be aware what you say and how you say it; spend some time in silence and see how necessary everything you say is. You don’t have to say everything on your mind, especially if it’s going to hurt someone or serves no purpose , but you don’t want to deliberately mislead someone by leaving something out either. And remember, truth is not opinion, it’s reality, so keep that in mind when you speak.
3.Asteya - Non-stealing
Sounds easy enough, right? You are probably tempted to skip over this one as you are saying to yourself, I am not that guy who would take someone’s wallet, sunglasses, leather jacket, etc. However, Asteya is more than refraining from stealing material things. You can steal someone's moment when you are not truly listening, their time when you are late to meet up, their energy, their happiness, even their ideas if you claim them as your own. Asteya also asks that you look at what you give back, as it’s always a balance of give and take. So check out what you truly need in your life and try to avoid letting your desires talk you into taking more.
4.Brahmacharya - Moderation
Brahmacharya is not necessarily asking us to give up sex, but it is asking for moderation in how you indulge your senses in all areas of your life, be it food, drink, sex, video games, television, spending, etc. It suggests you to pose the question “What can’t I detach myself from and why?” It also encourages you to look at how you expend your energy and how you can preserve it, on and off the mat. For example; is staying up late clubbing or watching TV draining you? In your practice, are you pushing and forcing your body to do things or is there some ease in your practice? We all have areas in our lives that we unconsciously clutter or overdo… the journey to find the reason why can be an enlightening one.
5.Aparigraha - Non-possessiveness
We live in a competitive world where more is often equated with better. We are wired to want to acquire, succeed, get ahead... Being content with what we have or where we are at is what Aparigraha is all about. Before we bring anything into our homes or our lives, we should ask ourselves, do I need this for my role in my life or am I just accumulating stuff? Aparigraha is about being grateful for what we have right now and letting go of excess possessions, as well as old beliefs, careers or relationships that no longer feed us.
6.Saucha - Cleanliness
Saucha is about keeping things clean inside and out, on a physical level as well as on a mental one. This Niyama goes beyond showering daily, washing your yoga clothes on a weekly basis, and keeping your living space in order, although those things totally count! It’s also about keeping your thoughts uncluttered and calm through your meditation and yoga practice.
7.Santosha - Contentment
It’s so easy to get caught up with what we are lacking in our lives, but Santosha asks that we be content with what we have right now and abandon the concept of perfection. We can’t control everything! On the mat, you can practice by accepting where your body is today rather than focusing on doing the poses as perfectly as your teacher. So sit back and let yourself enjoy where you are and who you are with right now. Feels pretty good, right?
8.Tapas - Self-discipline
Tapas is about creating healthy habits and breaking unhealthy ones. You can apply this Niyama to anything you want to see happen in your life: learning a new sport, a language, changing your diet, your spending, etc. It’s having just one pint at the bar or skipping a dinner out because you’re on a tight budget this month. It’s getting up every Saturday morning and going to yoga because you have committed to your practice. Tapas tests the rest of your yamas and niyamas and requires that you listen to that inner voice that’s telling you, really, you don’t need it or really, this is going to be worth it.
9.Svadhyaya - Self-study
This is an interesting one, as it is based on self-reflection, on becoming the observer of your own life and getting to know who you truly are. It’s shining a torch in the dark areas of our inner lives, or working through our baggage that we’ve collected over a lifetime, by writing things down in a journal, talking things through with someone you trust or simply making mental observations. This is the dirty work of our journey, but it can leave us feeling so much lighter!
10.Ishvara-Pranidhana - Surrendering
This last Niyama is comes once one has a very established spiritual practice, but everyone can adopt the attitude behind it whenever they wish. It’s looking for the highest good in every situation. It’s knowing that everything in life cannot always be controlled and surrendering to the fact that there is a bigger picture, a master plan. This isn’t asking you to roll over and render yourself powerless; it’s just asking that you accept the things you cannot change.
Yoga is a life-long journey and the path changes daily. Each time we get on our mats, we learn something new about the practice and about ourselves. The Yamas and Niyamas take your physical practice to a deeper level and invite you to become a better more peaceful person.
We would like to give special thanks to Dr James Mallinson, Senior Lecturer in Sanskrit and Classical Indian Studies at SOAS, University of London, for his assistance with the devanāgarī classical Sanskrit script used in this article.