What are the Yamas and Niyamas?

Your beliefs become your thoughts,

Your thoughts become your words,

Your words become your actions,

Your actions become your habits,

Your habits become your values,

Your values become your destiny.

Mahatma Gandhi

Part of our “Eight Limbs of Yoga” series

Many yoga teachers finish their classes with a ritual. They direct their students to bring their hands to prayer position, then to press their thumbs to their forehead, lips, and then heart. As the hands move, the class chants “kind thoughts, kind words, kind actions.” This reflects those famous words of Gandi: the way you think defines the way you speak and act.

This article, part of our series of articles looking at the Eight Limbs of Yoga, explores the first two limbs, the Yamas and the Niyamas, to discover what they are, how they are relevant to us, and how to observe them.

The yamas and niyamas address how you think, feel and act, recognising that changing your attitude ripples down to change how you interact with the world.

The five yamas relate to the attitude we have toward the world and people outside ourselves. The are often considered disciplines or restraints on our external thoughts and actions. Everyone can learn something from the yamas, and from thinking about how they treat others.

The niyamas are more intimate, and refer to the relationship we have with ourselves. They are particularly poignant for people living with MS and other chronic illnesses. We tend to have a more difficult relationship with our minds and bodies, and can benefit the most from examining how we treat ourselves.

Yamas

  • Ahimsa – non-violence
  • Satya – truthfulness
  • Asteya – non-stealing
  • Brahmacarya – right use of energy
  • Aparigraha – non-seizing

Ahimsa

The first of the yamas is ahimsa. It translates as the absence of violence, injustice or cruelty. This has obvious implications, such as pacifism and vegetarianim, but with all the yamas and niyamas, we need to look deeper.

Not allowing violence, injustice or cruelty means we should be kind in all our thoughts and deeds. This includes our interactions with ourselves. Inwardly, ahimsa teaches us to confront negative thought patterns and self-recriminations. It teaches us to be patient with our bodies during flare ups. It teaches us to be kind to ourselves and rest when suffering with chronic fatigue. Outwardly, ahimsa teaches us to be patient and gentle with the world when it frustrates us. To be calm when there is a long wait at the doctors’ office, and to gently explain when confronted by ignorance.

With all the yamas and niyamas, there is a balance to be sought between the teachings and our responsibilities in life. For example: if a plant-based diet makes you sick, your responsibility to take care of yourself outweighs the need to avoid eating meat. Look for other ways to practice ahimsa.

Satya

Satya requires us to be truthful. Sounds easy? Look deeper.

We need to balance being truthful with ahimsa, and avoiding causing harm to others. We must consider the impact of what we say and do, and recognise that sometimes telling the truth causes someone else pain. Sometimes, the right thing to do is to say nothing to avoid hurting someone. Other times, the painful truth is necessary. There are no rules for this. We need to examine each situation as it comes and use the tools of yoga to support our conscience when deciding how to act.

An important part of satya is acceptance – once we know the truth, we must accept it and act accordingly. Satya teaches us to confront the truth, and not hide from it. This is particularly important when thinking about health. It’s all too easy to ignore symptoms, put a brave face on and “push through,” often to our own detriment. Together, satya and ahimsa teach us to accept the reality of the situation, to recognise what we’re capable of, and to treat ourselves with kindness.

Asteya

Asteya translates to “non-stealing”. This doesn’t really mean robbery or pickpocketing (which I hope you aren’t doing anyway…). There are much less obvious ways that we steal from others. For example, when we’re late to meet friends, we’re stealing time from them, demonstrating that we value our time more than theirs. We steal attention when we dominate conversations and talk over others.

We also steal from ourselves all the time. Staying up late watching TV, we’re stealing rest and sleep from ourselves. We steal away our sense of peace when running late for something, getting anxious or over thinking things.

Asteya teaches us to notice these occasions and examine why they happen and how to change them. For someone who is consistently late to work, it may indicate they don’t really want to be there, and are subconsciously delaying arriving. Once we understand these behaviours, we can set about improving them.

Brahmacarya

This is a tricky one. The translation (based on car- to move, and brahma- which means truth) suggests movement towards the essential truth. Brahmacarya therefore teaches us to focus our energies on those activities that lead us towards our true selves.

Yoga is a movement from one point to another, higher one that was previously beyond our reach. It doesn’t matter whether this shift comes about through practicing asanas, through study and reading, or through meditation – it is still yoga.

T.K.V. Desikachar, “The Heart of Yoga”

For a long time, brahmacarya meant abstinence. Traditionally, yogis were celibate. In today’s world, that’s a bit of a stretch. A more useful interpretation is to focus our energy on relationships that ground and support us as we move forward, and not allow ourselves to be distracted in pursuit of pure pleasure or drama.

If you often find yourself feeling emotionally drained and overwrought, you’d benefit from contemplating brahmacarya. Try examining the scenarios where you notice this feeling getting worse, and identify where you could cut the drama and anxiety. Of course, you can’t always just cut out the cause of the drama. When it’s our children or family that’s not an option! But, by examining how your energy is sapped away, you can make more conscious choices about how you spend your time.

Aparigraha

Aparigraha translates as “not seizing”. On the surface, this seems to overlap with asteya, not taking advantage of others, but it actually goes much further. In a nutshell, aparigraha is moderation in all things. Only taking what we need.

Parigraha is the increasing focus on material things and taking too much. Aparigraha is the opposite. It is the practice of orienting ourselves away from material things and looking inward to our true selves. By practicing aparigraha, we examine the places in life where we tend to take too much and try to understand why. Examples are all around us: overeating, shopping addictions, excessive alcohol consumption.

This is where we can put the yamas to work together. When you identify these habits, explore the causes thoughtfully and without recrimination (ahimsa), accept the truth of what you find (satya), and make changes to help you focus your energy in the right direction (brahmacarya).

Niyamas

  • Saucha – cleanliness
  • Samtosa – contentedness
  • Tapas – self-discipline
  • Svadhyaya – self-study
  • Isvarapranidhana – surrender

Saucha

The first of the niyamas is cleanliness. The niyamas are to help us looking inward, so we know saucha isn’t about keeping a Mary Poppins-worthy spic-and-span home. Saucha is about respecting your body by maintaining its cleanliness and purity, and honouring the yoga practice in the same way. Practically this means keeping your yoga mat clean, and making sure you come to the mat feeling clean. 

It also means avoiding polluting your body, and making conscious choices about what you put in it. This includes what you eat and drink, the drugs you take, the TV you watch, the books you read and what you listen to. These all influence your stress levels, so make sure you consciously choose what to surround yourself with.

Saucha is also linked to two other limbs, asana and pranayama, which use physical movement and the breath to increase the circulation of energy in the body, with the goal of flushing out “rubbish”. We will also explore this idea with the niyama tapas.

Samtosa  

Samtosa is the idea of modesty and contentedness. This niyama asks us to accept our lot in life, and learn to be content with it. For someone with MS, that seems utterly laughable. Living with chronic illness feels like we’ve been short changed by life, so me telling you to be content with it will make you angry. Please, bear with me.

Accepting where we are in life is NOT the same as giving up. Samtosa teaches us to accept where we are today, while acknowledging the goals we have and things we’d like to change. Remember that yoga is “movement from one point to another, higher one” (T.K.V. Desikachar). As such, no yoga teaching would ever ask you to give up and settle with the way life is now. Instead, samtosa asks you to accept where you are on the journey today, while knowing that the journey continues ahead of you.

The society we live in means it’s easy to pin our hopes on the future. I’ll be happy once I get a new job. I’ll be happy when I’m thinner and fitter. I’ll be happy when this relapse is over. Samtosa teaches us that we need to build contentedness NOW, rather than waiting for the future. After all, we don’t know what the future will bring.

Samtosa may be the hardest yoga teaching to follow, but also the most important one. Especially for anyone living with a degenerative condition. We simply can’t afford to pin our happiness on the future: we need to find it now and everyday.

Tapas  

Sadly, we’re not talking about the food. Tapas in Sanskrit means heat. The simplest explanation for tapas is creating heat in the body to burn out the “rubbish”. This stems from Ayurvedic practices, which prescribe asana and pranayama as part of a healthy lifestyle. “Rubbish” refers to any form of stagnation in the body – excess weight, shortness of breath, dead skin etc. This is burned off by using movement to elevate the heart rate and pranayama to change the rhythm of the breath. This brings heat to the body which helps to cleanse it.

There is another, much deeper interpretation of tapas: growing stronger through pain or trauma. Because tapas means heat, I always think of this interpretation as being bathed in fire and emerging stronger.

An example I love seeing is the way people deal with their MS diagnosis. When diagnosed with a life changing condition, there’s naturally a period of grieving while we process what it means to our hopes and plans for the future. Tapas is about moving through that grief and learning from it. For some people, their diagnosis galvanises them to change their lives. Sometimes, this takes the form of lifestyle changes that actually make them stronger. For others, it’s quitting jobs they hate and seeking more satisfying and less stressful jobs. I love hearing these stories on Shift.MS and podcasts like Disabled to Enabled. They inspire me.

Svadhyaya 

The fourth niyama is all about self examination. Svadhyaya asks us to get to know ourselves, questioning how we think and act. More than that, it asks us to get comfortable with ourselves.

We all have a perception of ourselves and labels we use to describe ourselves. Outgoing. Friendly. Shy. Energetic. Fat. Lazy. Creative. Svadhaya is about interrogating the labels we give ourselves, where they come from and whether they’re really true.

Learning about svadhyaya touched a nerve for me. I’ve spent most of my life telling myself that I’m not a people-person. People don’t really take to me. I don’t make friends easily. I’m happier on my own. Through my yoga journey I realised that I told myself this story because it’s the way my Dad is. As a total Daddy’s girl, growing up I wanted to be just like him, to the extent that I internalised the idea that I wasn’t a people-person either. I avoided social situations, and would often act aloof when forced into them, so people didn’t talk to me. In this way, the story I told myself became self-fulfilling.

My husband spent years telling me I was wrong but I didn’t believe him. It wasn’t until a neighbour called me out, and asked me why I never came to his barbecues. I explained that I’m shy and not a people-person. Straight out, he told me that was total bull$hit, that I am a nice person and need to realise that. It finally sank in and I started to question myself. This is svadhyaya.

When we look inward with kindness (ahimsa) and honesty (satya) we uncover our authentic selves. This matters, because when we are being true to ourselves, we stop wasting energy pretending, and are better equipped to face the challenges life throws at us.

Isvarapranidhana 

The last of the yamas and niyamas is possibly the toughest.

Isvarapranidhana – to lay all your actions at the feet of God.

The word God isn’t important here; it isn’t about your religion or  beliefs. I’m sure everyone on the planet has experienced a situation where, despite doing your absolute best and doing everything right, things still go wrong. That’s what isvarapranidhana is about.

Sometimes we must accept that we’ve done everything we can, and the rest is out of our hands.If you are a news junkie, you’ll be familiar with the feeling of stress, anger and frustration that settles in after particularly harrowing news stories. Isvarapranidhana teaches us to recognise our limited influence on the world. The eight limbs outline our responsibilities and sphere of influence in the world. By focusing on these, we can do untold good to ourselves and the people around us, but we still need to accept our limitations.

How to observe the Yamas and Niyamas

As you’ve learned, the yamas and niyamas are vast. Becoming a yogi isn’t as simple as starting with ahimsa, nailing that and moving on.

The yamas and niyamas are relevant to every aspect of our lives, every action we take and almost every thought we have. They are complex and interrelated. The more you learn about one of them, the more it reveals to explore about the others. Having said that, their vastness means it doesn’t make sense to attempt to practice them all at once, at least not to start with.

Try this approach instead.

Read through the descriptions of the yamas and niyamas, and see if one of them jumps out as particularly important to you at this moment.

Once you’ve selected one to focus on, re-read the description a few times.

Close your eyes and reflect or meditate on what it means to you. In what ways is it relevant to your life? What ideas or questions does this bring up? You may find yourself coming up with a to-do list of things you want to change. For now, don’t act, just reflect.

Repeat these steps over the coming days. Each day you’ll think of new ideas, and go a little deeper. You may find it useful to use a journal to note down these thoughts.

Start to direct your thinking towards answering what does this mean for me, and how will I embody this?

You may emerge from this process with a set of changes you want to make. Try to avoid treating these as just another task on your to-do list. Instead, come back to your notes every few days, and remind yourself of how you wish to think and act. There is no failure in this practice. Simply by bringing greater awareness to what you think and say, you will succeed in changing how you act.


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