One of the first things every yoga teacher training student learns in their philosophy class is about the ‘Yamas and Niyamas’ – the values and daily practices that should underpin their lives as yogis. They learn that asanas (poses), pranayama (breathing) and all the stages of meditation only come after ten Yamas and Niyamas in the classic ‘eight limbs’ (in Sanskrit, ‘Ashtanga’) of the Yoga Sutras. This is the text said to have been written by Sage Patanjali in the second century BCE and the fifth century CE, outlining the theory and practice of classical yoga.
Patanjali’s five Yamas are a set of values, sometimes referred to as ‘abstinences’ or ‘social restraints’ that serve as an ethical guide to life. Whether you are on or off the mat, you can try to incorporate them into your life in meaningful ways. Here we explore how…
1. Ahimsa – non-violence in thought, word and action towards other living beings.
Made famous by Mahatma Gandhi, this is the reason why many yogis don’t eat meat but the term can manifest in so many ways in daily life. Not only can our actions create violence in the lives of other people and animals, but we can often start this process within ourselves. How often are we unkind to ourselves about our bodies, about things we’ve done or said in the past, about our performance in the jobs that we do or our actions within relationships? Being this violent towards ourselves can create a wellspring of negative thoughts that may manifest in our treatment of others. Be kind to yourself on and off the mat and the rest will follow.
2. Satyam – truthfulness in thought, word and action.
The Sanskrit word ‘Sat’ means ‘true nature’ or ‘true essence’ and this Yama is intended to align the truth within ourselves with what we say and do. There should no difference between ourselves on the inside and the outside – no representation of fact that sways from the truth. As with Ahimsa, this can apply to others and oneself. Yogis should not speak ill or gossip about another person, but in turn, they should not represent themselves as what they are not on the inside. This can mean both dealing with an ego that is seeking to impress others by spinning a false narrative, but also one that is being derogatory about itself. Yogis should try to be as honest as they can in every scenario, but employ ahimsa if they think it may hurt others. The old classic: think before you speak.
3. Asteya – non-stealing from others, in thought, word and action.
This Yama seems straightforward enough, but it is so much more than just taking or intending to take something from others. For Gandhi, it became a focus on mankind’s greed, leading us to take or create things we don’t need. Yoga guru Swami Sivananda once said that “desire or want is the cause for stealing”, implying that a feeling that we lack something on the inside makes us want to fill the void. This may manifest itself as robbing ourselves of our ability to be present on the mat by pushing ourselves too far, or by competing with another student and robbing them of their peace and focus. By discovering that we are enough on the mat, in our jobs and within our relationships, we can find inner peace.
4. Brahmachrya – moderation, non-indulgence, the right use of energy.
Many people thing this Yama simply refers to the abstinence from sexual activity, but as with the other Yamas, its meaning has a far wider scope. The word Brahmacharya translates as ‘walking in God-consciousness’. In Indian philosophy, Brahman is ‘the creator’, so it could be said that Brahmachrya is behaviour that leads us towards the divine. By practicing it, we neither over-indulge in external sensory activity nor completely restrain it – we find a middle path for our energy that allows us to find peace and harmony – a balance – within. In daily life over-indulgence can manifest as too much time spent on our phones looking for online validation or too much to drink at a party, even too much time exercising. Think about maintaining balance in your life and be more Brahman.
The opposite of Aparigraha is the scourge of modern life and for me, the most important Yama. How many things or people or scenarios do we cling on to, even if they no longer serve us? This can range from hoarding belongings in our homes, unable to consider a life without ‘our stuff’, to remaining in toxic friendships and relationships. Even more so, we might be refusing to forgive people who have wronged us in the past, only serving to deprive us (and them, if they’re aware) of inner peace. The easiest of these to deal with is our possessions – I packed up my stuff in London in order to come to India for six months and as I did so, I felt the million stresses of the past leave my life in the trash and charity bags. I love knowing that only what I truly need is sitting in a small container back in England (ok, maybe a few extras – Brahmachrya and all that.) But the hardest thing is to let go of people and relationships that no longer serve us, and especially to forgive them. Some of our most negative thoughts circle around these scenarios and we return again and again to them, in the middle of the night, clinging on to the narrative. Perhaps they even ping back into our heads in savasana sometimes. I know mine do. Imagine a life where you let go of those things and watch them from a distance, fading away. Imagine being able to smile and say, I forgive you and I have moved on. Imagine turning to the person next to you and offering them something, a cup of tea, your time, a smile. Imagine being that person and you are halfway there.
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