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Start Your Yoga Journey with the Yamas and Niyamas

Last month I wrote about my journey into the vast world of yoga. I promised that throughout the summer I’d take you on a deep dive into the eight limbs of yoga as described by Patanjali in The Yoga Sutras.

Today, we start with the first two – the yamas and niyamas, which respectively address how we interact with the world around us, and how we take care of ourselves. These first two steps on the spiritual path to enlightenment are often seen as ‘moral codes,’ or ways of ‘right living.’

Practicing the yamas and niyamas helps us to cultivate awareness. Yama is often translated as ‘restraint’ or ‘moral discipline.’ The five are:

  • Ahimsa (non-harming or non-violence): Non-harming doesn’t only refer to not causing physical harm, but also relates to compassion in our thoughts about ourselves and others. When we live in this way, it encourages others to live peacefully too. “Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habit. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.” – Lao Tzu

  • Satya (truthfulness): When we react instantly to situations on an emotional level, we’re often not seeing the truth, and are acting from a place of fear and conditioning. We can move closer to a state of truth when we slow down, take a couple of deep breaths, and observe things as they really are. “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” – Viktor Frankl

  • Asteya (non-stealing): When we feel a sense of lack or inability to create what we need by ourselves, desire and greed arise, which may lead to feeling like everyone else has what we want. We might buy more than we need to try to fill the gap, or to feel more complete, leaving less for someone else.

  • Brahmacharya (right use of energy): The first step in brahmacharya is to consider how you use and direct your energy. Your energy may be spent on trying to impress others, or worrying about things that don’t serve you. Our society tends to put emphasis on how busy we should be, but filling your schedule may leave you feeling empty. What activities or daily tasks drain your energy? Where can you make space for some peace? Be more aware of your body and what you need to thrive.

  • Aparigraha (non-greed or non-hoarding): The final yama teaches us take and keep only what we need, and let go when the time is right. To live simply, but also not clinging to a certain outcome. When we hoard possessions or cling to a positive feeling or experience, we weigh ourselves down with physical and energetic baggage. In the Yogic text the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says: “Let your concern be with action alone, and never with the fruits of action. Do not let the results of action be your motive, and do not be attached to inaction”.

Niyama is often translated as ‘observances,’ ‘self-restraints,’ or habits for healthy, ethical living. The five are:

  • Saucha (purity or cleanliness): This niyama goes beyond keeping our physical body clean, to address purity in food, thoughts, and environment. This might mean limiting processed foods that contain preservatives, additives, and pesticides. Pay attention to your thoughts and notice when you’re judging, being negative, or unkind.

  • Santosha (contentment): Seeing the world as it is, and accepting it as is. Also, letting go of perfection. Consider how often the phrase ‘I’ll be happy when….’ crosses your mind? Practice accepting and appreciating what you already have. After all, peace and happiness are already within you. Experiences and emotions come and go, but your true self is unchanging. Let go of who you think you’re supposed to be, or waiting until you’re ‘good enough,’ and recognize that you’re whole as you are.

  • Tapas (discipline): The deep inner fire and commitment to do the work. This has to do with effort, service, and having self-discipline, will power, and passion. Fire is the element of transformation, which happens when we step outside of our comfort zone, take on new challenges, and face our fears.

  • Svadhyaya (study of the self): Going into oneself to build awareness. This can mean paying attention on another level - having a beginner’s mind, but also applying knowledge and self-awareness. Take an honest look at yourself to recognize whether any of your habits or actions are harmful to your wellbeing, or driven by ego.

  • Isvara Pranidhana (surrender to a higher power): Devotion, surrender, and having faith in something greater than you. In practice, surrender can be challenging because our ego likes to have control. However, when we learn to trust in the universe, it leads to freedom to express ourselves as we are.

While each of these principles offers us guidance for how we can best act towards ourselves and the world around us, they can show up differently for each of us.

I hope this provided you with a place to start. I encourage you to consider what each of the yamas and niyamas means to you and how you might apply them in your life.

If you'd like to join in a deeper conversation about the Eight Limb Path of Yoga, contact me. I'm planning to host a workshop series in the Fall. Stay tuned as we continue to explore the remaining six limbs over the next couple of months.

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