Yoga’s Life Lessons: Learning the Yamas and Niyamas

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Yogis at any level are sure to know about the benefits – physically as well as mentally – of a regular yoga practice in their lives. However, many westernized versions of yoga focus primarily on the physical aspects of practice (or asana). This approach is fine, but not technically yoga – or at least not yoga in its entirety.

The yoga that came out of Eastern spirituality has three main aspects: mind, body, and spirit. If you neglect one of these aspects, then your practice isn’t the yoga we are speaking of. While evolution and change have brought this amazing yoga practice to many new places, the ancient foundations remain the same.

The ancient roots of yoga feature beautiful and rich texts about not only the physical and mental aspects of yoga, but the spiritual aspects of a full yoga practice. Pantanjali’s Yoga Sutras are one such text. The Yoga Sutras contain the Eight Limbed Path of a yoga practice, and the Yamas and Niyams are laid out in the first two limbs. They are not rules, regulations, or restraints, but rather guidelines to help you on your life path. Think of them as simple life lessons the modern yogi can use to live mindfully and extend their yoga practice off the mat and into daily life.

In Sanskrit, “Yama” translates to “restraint” or “self-control.” The 5 Yamas are:Nonviolence, Truthfulness, Non-stealing, Non-excess, and Non-possessiveness. They relate to how we should interact with the outer world.

In Sanskrit, “Niyama” means “moral observance,” or “positive duties.” The 5 Niyamas are:Purity, Contentment, Self-Discipline, Self-Study, and Surrender. They are ways we relate to our self and our inner world.

yamas and niyamas

Yamas

1. Ahimsa
Translation: Nonviolence

Simply said, this is kindness. Have compassion and care for yourself and those around you. This doesn’t mean, however, that you should become a doormat. Having kindness also means having respect and being able to rightly defend yourself and others.

It is also good to remember this means nonviolence toward the self in your thoughts, words, and actions. Give yourself a break! You aren’t perfect and don’t have to be. You don’t need to force your body into uncomfortable positions during your yoga practice. Respect yourself and your physical, mental, and spiritual yoga practice with kindness and non-violence.

2. Satya
Translation: Truthfulness

Always be honest with yourself and others in your actions and deeds. Stay true to your word. When you tell the truth, it makes life simple. When you’re honest with others, you cultivate trust in your relationships. When you’re honest with yourself, you can meet yourself exactly where you are in your yoga practice and in your life without having to pretend to be something you are not. Through the practice of Satya, you can cultivate deeper self-love and self-acceptance.

3. Asteya
Translation: Non-stealing

Apart from the obvious greed- or lack-related stealing, there is a more personal level of theft. When you hold yourself back out of fear or worry, you are depriving and ultimately stealing from yourself. You don’t have to force yourself into anything – and shouldn’t – but that doesn’t mean you should stop trying to reach the goals you seek to accomplish.

On an external level, stealing can take place through your words as much as your actions. Just as you wouldn’t steal a possession from someone, you shouldn’t use negative words to steal someone’s happiness, peace, or sense of security either.

4. Brahmacharya
Translation: Non-excess

This can also be thought of as moderation. Go ahead and have the cookie, but just don’t eat the whole box. Go ahead and buy that lovely dress you’ve been eyeing, but don’t fill up your closet with possessions you don’t need. Less is more, and in so doing, you’ll tap into one of the most powerful mind states of all: contentment!

5. Aparigraha
Translation: Non-possessiveness

Ever heard of the saying, “Don’t take what you don’t need”? Non-possessiveness can also mean non-attachment…to your material possessions, to the outcome of your day, and to all things in your life. Releasing attachment means finding contentment with what is.

You don’t know someone else’s story, so why should you desire what they have, or long to be like someone else? In learning to love yourself, you will be able to let go of jealousy and feelings of inadequacy. A simple way to practice this is to act as though what you already have is truly enough. Keep your focus set on this concept of contentment (see #4), and soon you’ll authentically feel that what you have is truly enough.

Niyamas

1. Saucha
Translation: Purity

Think about what you put into your body. The food you eat, the things you drink….are these things serving the temple that is your body? Now apply that to your mind: do your thoughts serve your highest good, or are they negative and self-defeating?
Purity can apply to physical as well as mental cleanliness, or tidiness. Just as a cluttered work environment is distracting and inefficient, so too is a cluttered mind. Keep things simple and you will find you are able to maintain a better sense of daily calm. Think about the way you live. Does it align with your yoga practice and with the concept of Saucha?

2. Santosha
Translation: Contentment

Enjoy your life as it is. Life is sometimes difficult, and you will inevitably encounter challenges. Regardless, it’s a waste of your time to obsess about past decisions, regrets, or waiting for things to get better. Learn to find happiness even in the dark places in your life. Life is beautiful—you just have to stop and take the time to look! It might be hard at times, but finding contentment is always worth the effort.

3. Tapas
Translation: Self-Discipline

Sometimes translated as “internal fire,” Tapas is about enthusiasm for life. The willingness to really work for something you want and not get discouraged by setbacks. Put in the effort for the things you really want and you can overcome the greatest of obstacles. With a passionate self-discipline, you’ll be motivated to continue improving yourself and your life. Maintain a disciplined passion for the things you do in your life. Your work, your hobbies, your relationships—really sink your teeth into life, and live it with passion!

4. Svadhyaya
Translation: Self-Study

Know yourself and what truly makes you happy. What are the things you would like to learn or work on? How can you live a life that is fulfilling and meaningful by your own standards? Self-study is incredibly important and central to our success in life. To know yourself is to understand your needs and the necessary actions to fulfill those needs to the best of your ability. It is from this place of self-study that we can continue growing, evolving, and making a better life for ourselves. Take the time to be alone and enjoy your own company – you are awesome!

5. Ishvara Pranidhana
Translation: Surrender

Respect the universe and develop your relationship with whatever higher power you believe in. You don’t have to believe in any specific god or subscribe to any particular religion. Rather, come to terms with your place in this vast and beautiful universe. To surrender is to soften to what is…to the beauty and interconnection that surrounds us all. “Surrender” in this context is not a sign of weakness; it is instead a signal to the universe that you are strong enough to soften, and in so doing, you’ll be able to embrace life precisely as it is with elegance, grace, and peace.

Modern yogis can find just as much meaning in these ancient words as those who practiced them thousands of years ago. These explanations are just some of the ways in which the Yamas and Niyamas can be interpreted. At their core, though, they are about respect, simplicity, self-knowledge, and living a meaningful and virtuous life. These are tools that can extend a purely physical yoga practice to a more full yoga practice that will ultimately become part of your daily life.

by Ashley Stern

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About oksanawd

Namaste, My name is Oksana Wadhawan and I am originally from Kiev, Ukraine. I presently reside in Mumbai, India, with my husband since October, 2014. I started doing Yoga from 2007 in Cyprus. I was reading a lot of literature on meditation and asanas, trying to do home practice. I was lucky enough that I didnt get injured through my home practice. I started learning Yoga from 2009 (Hot Yoga and Iyengar Yoga) in Kiev, Ukraine. After 3 years of learning, I commenced the yoga teacher’s training course in YogaHot Centre, Kiev, Ukraine (2012). I became a certified yoga teacher and began practicing master classes of Iyengar yoga from 2012. My classes were taught by great Iyengar teachers such as Igor Podmazin, Irina Korovina, Oksana Bogush and many others. In 2013 and 2014, I also went on a 7 day Camp to Yoga Institute, Santacruz, Mumbai, India. I studied Ashtanga Yoga with Lesley Fightmaster in 2013-2015. My teaching experience includes 2 years of Hot yoga, 1 year of Ashtanga yoga and 1 year of Restorative Yoga or Yin Yoga. I am regularly attending and practicing Iyengar Yoga since 2009. As a teacher, I conducted a yoga retreat for a month in Kiev, Ukraine (May, 2015) where I shared my daily experience and knowledge with my students on asanas, pranayama and meditation. In August 2015, I did my first retreat in Goa, India. I believe in words of K. Pattabhi Jois "Do your practice and all is coming." Its slowly coming for me! I learn and experience through my body, my emotions, my pain, my enlightenment, what it is Yoga! Yoga is my way of life! And I can show you a way that Yoga can be your way of life as well))) Love and Light!

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