Yamas & Niyamas: Yoga Practices Off The Mat

Often when someone comes to yoga it is because of asana – the workout or the stretching. That is one very small piece of a yoga practice. In fact, outside of the 8 limbed path, it is only mentioned 3 times in Patanjali’s yoga sutras. Pantajali’s 8 limbs wake us up to our highest potential and truest self. The Yamas and Niyamas are the first 2 of these 8 limbs and provide tools to reduce suffering as we interact with ourselves and the world.  

More of an auditory learner? Want to pair physical and breath practices with these Yamas and Niyamas – check out our On Demand series on each of the 10 yamas and niyamas. >>

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YAMAS

Relationship With the World (Relationship)

The yamas are about how we treat others and relate with the world through ethics and compassion. Yamas are presented first because a great deal of human suffering occurs in relationships. As T.K.V. Desikachar says: “the only way to be sure your yoga is working is if your relationships get better.”

ahiṃsā – nonviolence

Ahiṃsā is generally translated as nonviolence and invites us to explore how we treat ourselves and others in thought and action. It can also be translated as respect for life and kindness for all living beings. Ahiṃsā requires us to look at how we treat others and the underlying attitudes behind these behaviors. Oftentimes we are not aware of how our attitude, actions, or inactions impact others. While in its simplest form Ahiṃsā could mean “don’t hurt others or yourself”, it also means putting action into reducing harm in the world in all its forms. It is an active practice, not a passive one. Ahiṃsā is showing up. It is speaking up and speaking out for justice. No justice, no peace. Our yoga practice is about creating peace for ourselves and others.

Ask yourself: Are my thoughts, actions, and deeds fostering the growth and well-being of all beings?

Practice: exploring how you show up for yourself and others – is your action aligned with your intentions? Are you taking action where needed to reduce harm in your surroundings? Practice the act of being kind to yourself. Practice showing up and speaking out. 

Satya – truthfulness

Satya is our commitment to truth – truth in thought, speech, and action. Satya is both learning about our essential truths, speaking our truth, and listening to the truths of others. We are only as sick as our secrets. Truthfulness can feel daunting but when ahiṃsā is the start of our spiritual practice, truthfulness becomes another practice of non-harming. Your truth is real and your truth will change. Following what we know to be essential for our growth may mean leaving unhealthy relationships or jobs, taking risks that jeopardize our comfortable positions. It may mean making choices that are not supported by outer culture. The truth is rarely convenient. As Gloria Steinem says “the truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.” 

Ask yourself: What is your practice in radical truth right now?

Practices:

  • Right speech: this means when we say something, we are sure of its truth. If we were to follow this precept with commitment it means many of us would have far less to say.
  • Practice listening to others’ truths: through conversation, education, books, podcasts – find things that offer a different perspective than your own.
  • Write down your privileges rather than your gratitudes. Able-bodied, neuro-typical, born in the USA, etc. Write or say “I am” or “I have” before these privileges in a practice of truth of who we are and how the world interacts with us. How can we now use those privileges we are honest about to leverage for more equity in those spaces for others? 
  • Call 3 loved ones and ask them what you are the best at. Write down what they said with an “I am _______” statement in front of it. Try on how it feels to believe the truth on how you show up to the world. Often we see ourselves with less clarity.

asteya – non stealing

Asteya asks that we are careful not to take what has not been freely given. Don’t take what isn’t yours, nor more than you need. When we are being honest (satya) about how much we really need – we take less. This isn’t just material but in time and energy too. Be mindful if you’re stealing time from yourself by not being fully present in places you want to be or stealing time from others when they have not offered it freely. 

Ask yourself: When was there a time or a situation I claimed more than what I needed?

Practice: Take a yoga class or some other dedicated time of self-care and do your absolute best to stay focused, stay curious about the task at hand. No phones, no walking away, no multitasking. Don’t rob yourself of time you wanted for yourself. Practice giving rather than getting/taking.

brahmacharya – moderation

Traditionally this means celibacy. Each time you find these concepts in spiritual practices it’s oriented around preserving energy for a higher purpose. If everything is energy exchange how can you engage in activities, relationships, and purposes that fill your cup and refuel you? Be mindful of the things that feel like they deplete you. 

Ask yourself: Does your expression of energy in your relationship and free time bring you closer or further away from your spiritual Self? In what areas am I sharing my energy too abundantly without refilling it?

Practice: Write a list of your passions. Where does your job, relationships, and lifestyle intersect with your passions? Schedule more of THAT in your life. 

aparigraha – non-grasping

Let it go. Let it be. It’s not yours to have and hold and control anyway. If we’re practicing ahiṃsā, satya, asteya, and brahmacharya it’s only practical that we will find a need to let some things go. To cling a little less to the things we have so we have an opportunity, to be honest in how to practice moderation, to take a little less, and to be a little more active in our pursuit of reducing harm in the world. Aparigraha invites us to explore our resistance to change. Suffering is rooted in wanting things that are changing to stay the same and wanting what is not changing to change. It is rooted in grasping and holding on tight. 

If “let it go” feels like a lot to wrap your head around, an image we dig is to think of this work like ziplining – you have 2 carabiners – the first attaches to the platform and you attach the other to the line before you let the other go and fly. You keep that process going until you reach the last platform. Imagine that as you do this inner work that you are linking to something greater, more aligned, and letting go of what no longer serves you. Keep going. 

Ask yourself: Where am I holding on/attached?

Practice: Examine your tendencies of possessiveness – do you take better care of objects than you do yourself? Do you depend too much on others… for love, attention, self-esteem, validation? The practice of non-possessiveness helps us to examine our assumptions and guides us back to healthy relationships with ourselves and others.

NIYAMAS

Personal Observances (Lifestyle)

The niyamas offer a set of ways in which we can cultivate discipline and overcome our innate resistance to change and encourage us to develop healthier habits in our daily lives. 

SAUCHA – cleanliness 

Saucha invites us to look at what we read, watch, discuss, eat, and what/who we surround ourselves with as we identify what we do and don’t want in our lives. It is about maintaining cleanliness in the body, mind, and environment. Just like our car requires regular maintenance and cleaning, so do we as humans.

Ask yourself: What am I associating with and how is it impacting me?

Practice: personal hygiene, food that feels good, seek support for mental and emotional health, take care of your body in ways that feel right for you, maintain cleanliness in your environment 

SANTOSHA – Contentment

The practice of contentment is the ability to feel satisfied within our life experience – to want what we already have. In a society centered around consumerism, this can be difficult. Contentment does not equal happiness, it is seeing things as they are without expectation. Contentment does not equal complacency, it is practicing peace and patience as we intentionally work to live our best lives. 

Ask yourself: Am I satisfied within the container of my experience? What is getting in my way?

Practice: an attitude of gratitude, refraining from comparison, and cultivate a feeling of enoughness.

TAPAS – Burning Enthusiasm/Self-Discipline

Tapas translates to “fire” or “heat” and is the burning enthusiasm that fuels us to change that which no longer serves us. Think of tapas like a fire: once it’s completely died out it takes great effort to get it back, but once it is lit, you need to continue to feed it to keep it going. So too, we have to fuel ourselves to keep the momentum going. Tapas is a way of directing our energy towards our quest to reduce suffering and experience more joy. Discipline is having enough respect for yourself to make choices that nourish and provide growth opportunities.

Ask yourself: Where are you avoiding action? What do you need to stoke the flames?

Practice: trying something new, eliminating things that no longer work for you

SVADHYAYA – Self-Study/Reflection

Any activity that brings you closer to seeing yourself is Svadhyaya – be that journaling, music, yoga, meditation, working with a therapist, coach or teacher. The form this takes doesn’t matter. Svadhyaya is about gaining a deeper understanding of yourself, your strengths, weaknesses, addictions, samskaras (habits), and self-talk. This is not an opportunity to beat ourselves up, but rather to uncover and observe the truths of who we are with compassion and ease as we discover who we truly are. 

Ask yourself: What are your tools for self-study? What are you not willing to look at?

Practice: examining self-limiting beliefs/attitudes, working with a trusted teacher, mentor, or therapist

ISVARA PRANIDHANA – Surrender

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change. Isvara Pranidhana asks us to go quietly, even when it’s not possible to know where we’re headed – to do the work, focus on the quality of our actions and surrender to the results. Some interpret it as surrender to God, or the universe. Another interpretation is teachability – the ability to be taught and remain open to possibility. Isvara Pranidhana says “I’ve done everything that I know how to do and I surrender/can learn from whatever comes next.” Surrender is not “giving up,” but rather letting go. Connect with your highest Self and surrender to your own divinity.

Ask yourself: What do I need to surrender?

Practice: cultivating faith