Yamas, niyamas, and you

If you’re a yoga teacher, I have a query for you:

Do you try to uphold the yamas and niyamas in your own life? Which of the yamas or niyamas are particularly challenging to you? Please share a real-life anecdote.

(This query is an assignment for my Iyengar training. I asked a few teachers I know and then decided to widen my net. Through blogging, I now “know” other teacher bloggers across North America. And bloggers tend to be contemplative, articulate, and willing to share their ideas!)

For readers who might be unfamiliar with the yamas and niyamas, the ethical precepts that constitute the first two limbs of Patanjali’s eight-limbed definition of yoga, here’s a brief definition:

Yamas (principles of social discipline):

  • Ahimsa – Non-violence
  • Satya – Truthfulness
  • Asteya – Non-stealing
  • Brahmacharya – Moderation
  • Aparigraha – Non-possessiveness

Niyamas (principles of personal discipline):

  • Saucha – Purity
  • Santosha – Contentment (note: this might be my “work”)
  • Tapas – Self-discipline
  • Svadhyaya – Self-study
  • Ishvara Pranidhana – Surrender

Image: I bought this book from a guy selling used books on the street (in New York, as I recall). It was cheap, “like new” (to use Amazon terminology), and as compact as Strunk and White’s. I couldn’t resist it!

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13 thoughts on “Yamas, niyamas, and you

  1. Yes, I do and the ones that seems to come up most often (and collide!) are Ahimsa (non-harming) and Satya (truthfulness). I’m relentlessly honest, but I struggle with knowing when telling the truth would be harmful (to others or myself). It’s a fine line to walk and it comes up often in my life.

    1. Thanks for your comment. You are probably an exception, if you are “relentlessly honest.” Most people seem to veer toward white lies to spare others’ feelings, smooth otherwise-tricky interactions, avoid arguments, etc. But I agree that telling the truth might not always be necessary. Silence can be golden. Of course, the challenge is to know what’s appropriate in a given situation. Good food for thought.

  2. Wow, this is a great question. I do work to integrate the yamas and niyamas into my everyday life – mostly because they make me feel better about myself. I think it doesn’t matter which ethical code you choose, but that “outstanding moral fibre” (I think that’s a quote from Harry Potter #4) is something buried deep within us all.

    I think Satya is my biggest challenge/goal right now: living truthfully to myself, distinguishing personal truth from Truth, speaking truthfully and mindfully, acting on my truth no matter how hard it may be or how much it may go in the face of what I “want” to be true.

    One of the small ways I learned to integrate these teachings into my everyday life is to refrain from engaging in gossip and negative-speak. For me this reflects Satya, with elements of Ahimsa, Santosha and Tapas mixed in, oh, and maybe some Asteya.

    For example, when I speak (or think) negative or harmful thoughts about myself or others, that’s against Ahimsa. If I gossip about someone else, it might not be true (Satya), and I might be taking away from their dignity (Asteya). Engaging with the negative – complaining all the time – goes against contentment, Santosha, and it takes self-discipline, Tapas, to make a constant commitment to refrain from gossip or not participate in it if it’s going on around me.

    There’s a small practical example from me… Great question! I’ll be interested to read other comments, too. 🙂

    1. Many thanks for your thoughtful (and thought-provoking) comment. It seems that satya is a challenge for most people, perhaps because it is so fundamental. I can relate to your decision to avoid “negative-speak,” which includes not only obvious examples like mocking but simply talking about yourself (or others) when it’s not necessary or when its self-serving. Thanks again!

  3. I think that understanding and trying to live by the yamas and niyamas is what yoga is really all about. What is the point of a physical practice without honesty, non-violence, discipline, purity, etc.?

    I personally work with santosha (contentment) a lot. I’m someone who often has my head in the clouds about what’s next in life. I tend to fantasize a lot about the future and get overly excited or anxious about it. Working on santosha has helped me to stay more focused on the present and to feel less anxiety about the future.

    Here’s my favorite affirmation from Kripalu: I am content. I am grateful for what I have and for what I do not have. I learn from the joys and disappointments Life brings me. I honor the good in myself and others. I refrain from criticism and fault-finding. I accept Life just the way it is. I enjoy my LIfe!

    Here’s a link to a few posts on my blog that include references to yamas: http://thepragmaticyogi.blogspot.com/search/label/Yamas%2FNiyamas

    Good luck with your training and your ‘work’!

  4. The answer is yes, and I went through all of them on my blog. My last post on ishvara pranidhana was posted just as I finished teacher training. It was perfect. I would say that the most difficult one for me at the moment is tapas. More specifically, it is about finding a balance in tapas – between the ascetic and living in the material world. I love that the yamas and niyamas give us guideposts, and I do think about them each day. They are really wonderful reminders of ways to exist in the world and within ourselves.

    As an aside, I had a dear teacher one spend ten weeks of her classes discussing each of the yamas and the niyamas. Those ten weeks opened my eyes in a way I never knew possible. Perhaps that is why I am so drawn to them.

    Finally, my personal anecdote relates to aparigraha. During the course of my life, I have defined myself in particular ways. First, I was a basketball player. One day, while drumming on the basketballs at practice, I realized that I was really a drummer at heart. Then I went to college and law school, where I defined myself by my mind, through academia. Through that same period, however, I began studying yoga. What I have realized is that instead of possessing one of these personalities / definitions for myself, I have to let go of that and follow whatever path is before me. Of course, this letting go has been bolstered by ishvara pranidhana, but that process begins by not grasping or possessing any preconceived notions of ourselves.

    Thanks for the opportunity to reflect.

  5. Hi yogaspy,

    Great question! Of course, I’ll have my issues with all of them, but the most difficult for me is Ishvara Pranidhana – Surrender. How to surrender the ego? It’s a question that has been on my mind lately.

    I read Paul Grilley’s yin yoga book the other day, and he quoted one of his teachers Mr. Motoyama:

    “The hard shell of the ego cannot be cracked without surrendering to something bigger than itself. This is why meditation should always start and end with prayer”

    I wasn’t raised religiously, and I have really no idea how to find a way of prayer that will resonate with me (an my ego:). First step will probably be that I’ll have to let go of my antipathy against (catholic influenced) concepts like “prayer”, “god”, “devotion” and redefine them in a way I can work with.

  6. Yes, I try to apply the yamas and niyamas in my daily life. I also try to include them in my teaching by choosing one each week to use as my bhavana for that week’s yoga classes.

    Personally, my biggest struggle is with Santosha. Finding the balance between striving for improvement and contentment is a huge challenge. Practicing Santosha means practicing acceptance of the things we cannot change and that has been a hard lesson for me to learn.

  7. Brahmacharya. I typically just overlook this one. I’m a recovering Catholic, and we don’t worry about the sex rules too much 🙂

    This one confuses me. Interpretations range from strict celibacy (no looking even!), to monogamy, to moderation in all things.

    Judith Lasater talks about being respectful / mindful with your sexual energy (whether in sex or celibacy).

    Another Tantric article I read talks about how you can’t have mindful sex without periods of celibacy, and vice versa. It’s more important to be mindful in sex, than repressive & harmful in your celibacy.

    I have trouble with this one. It seems harsh, and not in keeping with the ‘essence’ of yoga — connecting with the body.

    I like to think that these rules were written for young boys who were in training & needed to stay focussed on their studies. And not knock up a girl. You can’t be a 100% focussed on your third eye when you have a houseful of kids to feed.

    Having said that, I’ve wanted to engage in a period of celibacy, so I’m not distracted & pulled in all directions by my heart.

    Maybe Brahmacharya is about regaining some power & composure, and being more thoughtful about how you express yourself.

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