If you're new to yoga practice or yoga philosophy, the yamas and niyamas are a great place to begin your exploration. They form the very foundation of what yoga is and are part of the 8-Limbed Path. They make up the disciplines and practices that cultivate real changes; without them, we're just stretching.
Yoga exists to break patterns. It was created as a systematic method to notice, study and break free from any and all of our samskaras (patterns) that create bondage. As we integrate the yamas and the niyamas into our physical asana practice and into our thoughts and behavior, they help us to discover all of these patterns that make up our reactions and habits.
Take a look at the following descriptions of each yama and niyama. How might you incorporate each one into the way that you move your body? How do they impact your relationships? Your speech? Your job?
The 5 Yamas:
- Ahimsa: Ahimsa translates to 'non-harming' or 'non-violence.' You can easily practice ahimsa by speaking lovingly, being compassionate toward yourself and others, or practicing awareness and care within your yoga asanas. Ahimsa means that we're always practicing toward the greater good of all.
- Asteya: Non- stealing. It might be obvious to not steal other people's possessions, but what about other people's joy, security or hope? We can practice non-stealing for ourselves by seeking balance, and for others by honoring boundaries and giving credit where credit is due.
- Satya: Satya means 'non-lying' or 'truth speaking.' Satya is very powerful when we realize how often we might say 'yes,' when we really mean 'no,' or make decisions outside of what our heart really needs. We must practice truthfulness with ourselves by understanding what our body is saying and listening, truthfulness by having clear speech and relationships, as well as honoring the deepest sense of Truth within us.
- Aparigraha: Take a deep exhalation to practice aparigraha. It means non-greed. All greed comes from fear, so in order to practice aparigraha we must practice trust. Trust that there is enough of everything to go around, trust that you ARE enough right now and rid yourself of poverty/victim mentality.
- Bramacharya: Bramacharya loosely translates to non-sensuality. Traditionally, bramacharya was the practice of sexual abstinence, not for deprivation, but so that the excess sexual energy could be used toward something else for a time. You might think of it in a similar way to how Christians view Lent: temporary withdrawal or self-control from one activity in order to prioritize another.
The 5 Niyamas:
- Sauca: Sauca means purity: purity of thought, actions, body and spirit. We are called to cleanliness by eating well, organizing our environment, maintaining a healthy body and mind and working to remove mental impurities such as jealousy, pride, anger…etc. Cleansing the mind involves rigorous observation, honesty, non-attachment and forgiveness.
- Santosha: Contentment. ‘San’ means ‘completely’ or ‘entirely’ and ‘tosha’ translates to ‘contentment’ or ‘acceptance.’ So santosha means accepting the truth (the body, the relationship, the discomfort…etc) as it is and learning from it. In this way, we develop an attitude of calm happiness, regardless of circumstances.
- Tapas: Tapas means steady self-control. It comes mostly from the breath and learning how to control it. With balance and tapas, we have a sense of being unaffected by opposites, such as heat and cold, hunger and thirst, sitting and standing, etc.
- Svadyaya: Through meditation, prayer, curiosity, study and self-inquiry, we strive to know more and more about ourselves, our reactions, our emotions and our soul. Self-study (svadyaya) is the real crux of yoga. We work to refine ourselves just by this gentle studying of ourselves and/or yoga philosophy.
- Isvarapranidhana: Spiritual devotion. Whether you are comfortable with spirituality or not, it is within all of us. Yoga is not a religion, but it supports, enhances and strengthens our spiritual connection. Yoga sadhana (daily spiritual practice) is a beautiful way to grow on your spiritual path.
Keep these tenants in the back of your mind. Next time you practice yoga or encounter a stressful situation, consider how these simple practices might change your responses. Allow them to challenge and change you. Perhaps even take the time to meditate on each one, acknowledging ways in which you might grow in your understanding. Just like exploration in asana, the yamas and niyamas are tools for your healing.