Learning how to incorporate the Yamas and Niyamas into our modern-day lives for more peace, clarity, and well-being.
In our modern world, we are inundated daily will all sorts of stimuli, distractions, and temptations. It can be easy to lose oneself in the chaos of it all. Fortunately, many of us have found the wonderful practice of yoga and meditation to be the calm amidst the storm. And at the very heart of yoga are some ancient philosophies that we could benefit from implementing into our lives to further quell the exterior odds stacked against us.
These philosophies are, of course, the Yamas and Niyamas, the Moral Restraints and Ethical Observations, respectively, that help to guide us through our relationships with the internal and external realms. They are the first two among the Eight Limbs of Yoga outlined in the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, which also include “Asana” – Physical Practice, “Pranayama” – Breathwork, “Pratyahara”, “Dharana”, “Dhyana”, and “Samadhi” – the growing stages of consciousness found through training our mind and meditation.
Starting with these first two philosophies is perhaps the easiest and most applicable way to bring the practice of yoga more deeply into our busy daily lives. There are Five Yamas and Five Niyamas, and as we will see below, they all play off one another in a synergistic way.
Image by Lisa Ellefson
The Five Yamas Principles:
1. Ahimsa – Non Violence/Non-harming
“Being firmly established in ahimsa creates an atmosphere where not only you let go of hostility, but others can as well.”
Here we can let go of our hostilities and irritations to make space within ourselves for more peace; by doing so we also let go of projecting those hostilities onto others and can allow more space for them to do the same. Think of it like opening your heart to even your worst enemy and giving them the freedom to be who they are and follow their journey. This, in turn, will allow you the same freedom. This is especially important to consider with our own “self-talk”. When we are violent in thought to ourselves, we create more hostility, which breeds further hostility and becomes a downward spiral.
2. Satya – Truthfulness
“For those grounded in truthfulness, every action and its consequences are imbued with the truth.”
Satya is not just about speaking the truth, but also addressing how our perceptions shape what we believe to be true. How can we better connect with “Atman” – our true self, the eternal witness, which is ever pure, indivisible, uncompounded, and far beyond the senses or the ego? How can we cut through the lies and perceptions that our ego feeds us and get down to the real truth of who we are and the reality we create for ourselves? To better speak the truth, ask yourself these questions of your words before spoken…
Is it truthful and unadulterated by my perceptions?
Is it necessary to say?
Is this the right time?
Is it kind?
3. Asteya – Non-Stealing
“For those who have no inclination to steal, the truly precious is at hand.”
Though this Yama seems straightforward, it is important to address two factors. First, the ego’s notion of scarcity in our lives. Second, everything we consume requires resources and energy. If we can realize that we are always provided with more than we need – be it love, time, money, material goods, or energy – and then shift our focus to mindful consumption of these resources, we can better maintain balance and never take more than we truly need. A challenging concept in a world that thrives on our consumption of goods, media, and more!
4. Brahmacharya – Moderation/Celibacy
“The chaste acquire vitality.”
When this Yama is taken literally, and it historically has been, it would ask us to participate in sexual moderation and celibacy from all sexual acts. More modernly it has been viewed as a suggestion to use our sexual or creative energy wisely. Many translations and commentary on this Yama have indicated that semen holds vitality and by taking that vitality and drawing it deeper inward, health and peace of mind are cultivated. Think of this as being more about the subtle link between the energy that ascends, chakra by chakra, from root to crown, and the physical body, although many believe that our desires and arousals stem from this energy reaching only to the second chakra before we seek a way to release that energy outward by attaining that desire. If we can sit with our desires, evaluate them, allow the energy to continue its climb, and then mindfully put that energy forth, we can achieve the same vitality as if we were to continually hold onto it.
5. Aparigraha – Greed-lessness
“Freedom from wanting unlocks the real purpose of existence.”
At its core, this Yama focuses on the opposite of greed –generosity. By freely allowing our resources to be open to others –be it time, money, energy, or love — we again make more room for abundance in these areas. Much like Asteya, this Yama asks us to let go of the notion of lack or scarcity and not only consider the resources we use but also what more we can give. Many yogis also view this Yama as an invitation to live more minimally and let go of our material things.
The Five Niyamas:
1. Saucha – Purity/Cleanliness
“Purification also brings about clarity, happiness, concentration, mastery of the senses, and capacity for self-awareness.”
The first Niyama asks us to seek to purify our bodies and minds. Many yogis and sutra commentators believe that we should look not just at keeping our external bodies and spaces clean but also look at the fuel that we give ourselves, mentally and physically. So a clean diet, letting go of excess intoxicants, and overdosing on mental stimulation are advised. It is believed that by doing so we eventually can see the true nature of our body being separate from our true self and hopefully shed our attachment to our physical representation and rest in simple and joyful awareness.
2. Santosha – Contentment
“Contentment leads to unsurpassed joy.”
Allowing ourselves to be content at every moment is a much harder task than it may seem. After all, the nature of life is change and impermanence and not always for the better. If we can allow ourselves to sit in contentment, even when the going gets tough, it often helps us to detach from the drama of the ego and we can confront life’s challenges with a clearer heart and mind. There are three essential steps to achieving Santosha. First, you must always do your best to live in the present moment, not looking to the past or longing for the future. Second, become very aware of any judgments you might have about what is unfolding at this moment. Last, make peace with what is.
3. Tapas – Austerity/Self Discipline
“As intense discipline burns up impurities, the body and its senses become supremely refined.”
This is all about doing the HARD work! Even when it is uncomfortable (hello, boat pose!) to allow yourself the ability to be rid of habitual things, perhaps harmful, and usually blocking you from achieving your greatest potential. As mentioned above, a really great way of viewing it is liking holding a challenging yoga posture, especially one you may not be the biggest fan of. As you continue to come back to it and work through the challenge, it becomes easier and forms into a strength.
4. Svadhyaya – Study / Self-Analysis
“Self-study deepens communion with one’s personal deity.”
This Niyama can really be broken into two parts. The first is self-study or reflection and the second is the study of scripture. Looking back on all the previous Yamas and Niyamas, a general theme of removing that which could block us from our truth and developing habits that help us to see it more clearly is present. Now we are asked to make seeking the truth a part of our practice. More importantly, it asks us to see both the light and the dark of it. To drop our perceptions about both and release the judgments around them. Then it asks us to read and reflect on spiritual texts so that the lessons within them can inform us and our present circumstances. In traditional translations, this practice would connect us with our deity of choice (Shiva, Vishnu, Jesus, etc.), but it can also be viewed as simply refining our energy to connect with a higher vibration.
5. Ishvara Pranidhana – Surrender
“Through orientation toward the ideal of pure awareness, one can achieve integration.”
What happens when we let go of our need to be in control and truly “trust the process”? According to this Niyama taking this step is the final hurdle of achieving samadhi – yogic enlightenment. It also asks us to put our trust in the “supreme” or “spirit”, however, that fits for you, and attain an understanding of these 3 parts:
The universe is guided by great intelligence.
Because we are part of the universe, we are also guided in the same way.
Therefore, it is also logical to allow this intelligence to guide our lives.
This doesn’t mean we do nothing, but that we trust our gut and allow what we often call intuition to take the helm. I hope that you enjoyed some of my modern adaptations of these classic encouragements and can find some creative ways to bring them int