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Yoga Off The Mat, Living The Yamas and Niyama, Limbs 1 and 2 of Yoga

If I go to Yoga classes twice a week, am I Yogi? Maybe... but not necessarily. Yoga on the mat is known as Hatha Yoga, but what about Yoga off the mat? A Yogi is not just a Yogi for the hour or two they practice Asana, they live a yogic lifestyle 24/7. So, the question is, how do we live a Yogic lifestyle? 

There are ethical and moral guidelines within yogic philosophy, known as the Yamas and Niyama. They are suggestions for proper conduct and ways to behave as outlined in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. 

The Yamas are generally things to not do, whereas the Niyama are things we should do. They have five parts each, consisting of ten recommendations for living, much like the Ten Commandments of Christianity or Judaism.

In this blog, we will be looking at what each of the Yamas and Niyama are, as well as providing you with journal prompts to help you live the yogic lifestyle more fully. So put away your mat, we are taking our Yoga out of the studio and into the world!

What Are The Yamas and Niyama?

The Yamas and Niyama are the first two limbs, of the Eight Limbs of Yoga (We will go over the other limbs in upcoming blogs in this series.).

Yamas

Yamas is often translated as abstinences, as such, these are the things we refrain from doing in order to live a Yogic lifestyle. The five Yamas are Ahimsa, Satya, Asteya, Brahmacharya and Aparigraha and can be translated as:

  • Ahimsa: Nonviolence.
  • Satya: Non-falsehood.
  • Asteya: Non-stealing. 
  • Brahmacharya: Restraint.
  • Aparigraha: Not-attachment or Non-possessiveness.

Niyama

Niyama is often translated as observances, these are the things we try to do in order to live a Yogic lifestyle. The five Niyama are Shaucha, Santosha, Tapas, Svadhyaya and Ishvarapranidhana and can be translated as: 

  • Shaucha: Purity/cleanliness
  • Santosha: Contentment and Acceptance.
  • Tapas: Persistence and Self-discipline.
  • Svadhyaya: Study. 
  • Ishvarapranidhana: Contemplation/Commitment. 

*It is important to note that these morals, virtues and guidelines are something everyone on the yogic path should strive to live as fully as possible, whenever possible. However, there are times when you should not follow them (This is addressed in many texts, but it is especially emphasized in the Hindu epic known as the Bhagavad Gita). For example, the yogic texts are not saying that if someone attacks you, you should not defend yourself. Everything is not as simple as black and white, there are grey areas in life. It's about curating an awareness and applying the principles appropriately to your own life experiences. 

Living the Yamas and Niyama

The Yamas and Niyama seem simple and self explanatory at a superficial level, but many of them have profound and far reaching ramifications. Now that you are familiar with the definitions of the ten Yamas and Niyama, let's take an in-depth look at each and see how we can apply them into our daily lives. We will do this by further discussion of each Yama and Niyama (Updated for the modern age).

Yamas- Ethical Restraints

 

Ahimsa, Satya, Asteya, Brahmacharya, Aparigraha

 

1. Ahimsa: Ahimsa means no violence, or not causing harm, but it's more than not causing physical harm. Ahimsa includes all aspects, from physical to mental, emotional and even verbal violence. More than not causing harm, it includes the act of infusing compassion into every aspect of our daily lives.

This includes not thinking negative thoughts about others or ourselves (negative self talk), as well as making sure that what we do, and how we do it, is done in a peaceful way.    

Traditionally, this virtue was applied to all living things, as all living things are believed to share the same divine spark. Do you kill bugs indiscriminately without considering them living beings? What about the things you consume? Do you eat animals? Do you choose organic produce, so that the Earth has less pesticides and the people who grow it are not exposed to harmful chemicals? What about choosing clothing that is made of natural fibers vs. synthetic chemical fabrics? Does your career harm others or the environment or help them? These are just a few things to think about while practicing Ahimsa in the modern world. There are so many ways to live with care and cause no harm to ourselves, others or the planet. 

-Journal Prompt: 

  • What areas in my life can I act with more compassion to others and myself? 

2. Satya: Non-falsehood and truthfulness are the most common interpretations of Satya. It is the act of being honest with yourself and others. This virtue applies to not only words, but also actions and thoughts. Practicing Satya includes refraining from lying, and living in a way that aligns with your own highest truth. An additional emphasis is on being more authentic and real in all aspects of your life. It also means refraining from judgment and making sure to act and speak with awareness and intention- not just saying whatever is on your mind.

-Journal Prompts:  

  • Who do I hide or deny my true feelings from?
  • Is there an area of my life that I could be more honest with myself or others?  

3. Asteya: Not stealing is typically how Asteya is translated. It is refraining from taking what isn’t yours. It includes theft via action, word or thought. It also has the implication of not cheating others, for cheating someone out of something is simply theft by deception. Asteya is choosing to not to steal anything- whether that be taking credit for someone else's work, a person's time, or natural resources that do not belong to you. Examples for the modern age would include: Do you live in a tiny home or a mansion?  Do you carpool to work, ride your bike or drive alone? Not taking more than your share is so much more than the act of shoplifting.

-Journal Prompts:

  • Where and how do I steal someone else's time?
  • How do I feel when I take something that is not mine?

4. Brahmacharya: Brahmacharya is the name traditionally given to the practice of celibacy. In the past, this was seen as celibacy for single people and fidelity for those that are married.

The idea behind this was that self-restraint helped increase energy and focus, aiding one to self-realize and become one's higher self. This Yama refers to integrity in relationships by exercising self-control, while respecting oneself and others. 

A modern take on this Yama would be to apply the principles of non-excess and healthy self restraint, in regards to any kind of overindulgence. Brahmacharya therefore includes appropriate intake of food, sleep, social media and even our work life, without over indulgence. 

It is about becoming balanced and true to one's higher self, striving for a healthy respect and lifestyle for both body and mind. It includes paying attention to how you use your energy in your day to day activities, while providing your mind and body with what it needs and enjoys, without partaking in excess. Essentially, It is the practice of creating sacredness and balance in all aspects of life.

-Journal Prompts:

  • In what areas of my life do I need more balance?
  • Am I currently honoring myself and my partner (or friend) in our relationship? 
  • What is my relationship with sex and respecting myself?

5. Aparigraha: Aparigraha applies to non-attachment- attachments to people, places, things, experiences, titles, possessions or wealth. 

We can be attached to our image and our status, and this is often based on our wealth and our possessions. Our ego makes non-attachment one of the most challenging practices because in our culture, we’re conditioned to see our own worth based on these possessions. To not be attached to our own image or possessions is a virtuous goal. 

Everything in life ebbs and flows. Aparigraha is the act of not being attached to things as they are and allowing these changes to happen without a feeling or sense of loss and disappointment. 

-Journal Prompts:

  • What possessions are superfluous that I am ready to let go of? 
  • If I’m honest with myself, do I really need more things?
  • Could I live more modestly or environmentally? If so, how?

 

 Niyama- Self Observances

Shaucha, Santosha, Tapas, Svadhyaya, Ishvarapranidhana

 

6. Shaucha:  Shaucha refers to purity and cleanliness. It invites us to purify and clean our bodies, our thoughts and our speech. We strive to always speak with pure love and intention. We cleanse our bodies, both literally and figuratively. If we have stuck emotional energy, we work to free ourselves of those thoughts.

Real life examples include practicing self care, getting enough rest, not ingesting junk foods or filling ou bodies with drugs and alcohol, and not engaging in gossiping or judgement. These behaviors would all go against Shaucha. Shaucha is believed to prime oneself for living a good life, free of bad behaviors and thoughts that might lead one astray from their yogic journey. 

-Journal Prompts:

  • Is there an unhealthy aspect of my life that I could change? What is it and what can I do to change it?
  • If I were honest with myself, am I eating and living my life in a ‘clean’ way? If not, where and how can I start?
  • In what ways can I incorporate more self-care practices?

 

 

7. Santosha: Santosha is contentment and acceptance, but contentment and acceptance of what exactly? It is contentment and acceptance of your circumstances, of other people, of yourself, and of life in general. Contentment is an emotional state of satisfaction that often includes gratitude.

When we cannot accept people or things as they are, we become unhappy due to our attachments and expectations. Accepting things as they are, in all situations, is the path to contentment; which in turn, leads to living a happier and more fulfilling life. 

-Journal Prompts: 

  • What am I grateful for today? (Look for at least 5 things.)
  • What activities do I participate in, on a regular basis, that cause me any unwanted or negative feelings?
  • Do I spend time with people who cause discontentment? Who are they and why do I expose myself to their energy?

8. Tapas: Tapas refers to self-discipline and spiritual practices. Sometimes Tapas can be translated as austerities, which can feel quite intimidating, but the discipline we use in our yoga practice actually comes from love.

In tapas, we use our physical and mental conditioning to push against the natural resistance that our body and mind offer. This is not a practice in harshness and severity, or of penance. Practicing Tapas doesn’t mean pushing yourself harder; it means practicing with consistency.

Tapas are practices that one does to help purify oneself and aid them on the yogic path. Examples of Tapas include things like meditation, journaling, fasting, philanthropic work/volunteering, etc.

-Journal Prompts:

  • What are my short and long-term goals?
  • What are my current practices?  If I do not have any, what would I like to start doing and why? 

9. Svadhyaya: Svadhyaya means study, but it isn't the same kind of studying you might do for your exams at university. It was traditionally meant to be study of the Vedas and other holy scriptures that could help you self-realize. Svadhyaya is therefore the study of the self and our search for meaning. It also includes the practice of living mindfully.

Perhaps you do study holy scriptures, but you want to understand how to live this in a more modern way. Start with personal inquiry. How do you check in with yourself? Are you mindful in your daily life? This includes things like being aware of how people, places and things impact you. Does the food you eat nourish you or leave you feeling lethargic? How about your friends? After seeing them are you uplifted or do you feel down? Same goes for anything you consume, whether it be books, tv or music.

-Journal Prompts:

  • What inspires me?
  • What changes is my soul (being, inner-self) yearning for?
  • What people or activities fuel my inner well-being? Which should I discontinue?

10. Ishvarapranidhana: Isvarapranidhana, means surrender, but to what exactly? Lets take a closer look at the terminology. It is made up of two parts (pronounced ‘Ish-va-ra-pra-nid-hah-na’) and is the very last of the Niyama of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.

Isvara, translates as Supreme Being, God, the Universe, or True Self. Pranidhana means ‘fixing.'

This one is a little more esoteric and heady... In most translations of this Niyama, we are advised to ‘surrender’ to the Supreme Being (or higher self). Surrender is actively putting ourselves in the hands of a higher power, which essentially means cultivating a deep and trusting relationship with the Universe, or God. Trusting that this Supreme Being has our back, so to speak, so that we can be freed from the common stresses, anxieties and self-doubt that arise in our daily lives. 

It is the contemplation of, commitment to, and the offering of ourselves to, something bigger than ourselves. What do you think is behind everything? Do you believe in something bigger than yourself? Are you part of it, or is it separate from you? What is your relationship with it? The act of contemplating these big questions is Ishvarapranidhana. 

-Journal Prompts: 

  • What do I believe in? What does Ishvara mean to me?
  • In what areas of my life could I surrender more?

Final Thoughts

The Yamas and Niyama, or limbs one and two of the Eight Limbs of Yoga, make up the prescription to living the yogic lifestyle.

They are meant to be lived practices and help prepare each of us for the next three limbs of Yoga, which are known as Asana, Pranayama and Pratyahara (We will go over these in the next blog in this series).

We can only speak from our current level of ignorance (and we know we put a modern spin on some of these things), but we hope we have done this wonderful and necessary topic justice. We also hope that this blog has helped you step a little further into your own journey of Yoga; taking your Yoga practice off of the mat and into the rest of your life!

∼Namaste∼