Updated: May 5
Spring is quickly approaching here in middle Tennessee, and the Vernal Equinox is less that two weeks away on March 20. For me, early Spring in a time that I wake up my garden, clean out any accumulations in my house, open up the windows to hear the busy birds singing for their mates and refresh my mind & body with a juice fast & kitchari cleanse. According to Ayurveda, spring is Kapha season which makes it the perfect time to refresh, renew and reinvigorate your inner & outer spaces.
With this fresh Spring start, it's fitting to reconnect with the foundations of Yoga as not only a skillful practice, but also a way of life. As yoga practitioners, we can learn how to infuse our practice into our everyday lives to develop a sort of inner compass to guide us on the right actions to take in all the challenges we may encounter.
Yoga is so much more than the physical practice; in fact, yoga is a lifestyle that has the potential to unlock the highest & truest qualities of each-and-every practitioner. Even if you’ve just started yoga yesterday, you may notice that you simply feel better after spending time practicing on the mat. You may even notice that “better” feeling followed you into the rest of your day, long after you rolled up your mat.
The physical practice, called Asana, is just the third of eight limbs in the system of Raja Ashtanga Yoga. However, the first two limbs are what establishes the yogic way of life.
Called the yamas & niyamas, these two limbs of yoga provide the ethical, moral and spiritual code of a yogi/ yogini. There’s a total of 10 yamas (ethical restraints) and niyamas (moral practices), and they lay the groundwork for how to interact with yourself and your community. Furthermore, the yamas and niyamas develop the foundation for how asana should be practiced on the mat.
The Five Yamas
Ahimsa: Meaning “nonviolence,” this is the foundation of a yoga practice. Ahimsa is a practice of creating the least amount of harm toward yourself, toward your fellow human beings, toward plants & animals, toward our environment, and toward our mother Earth. One way to approach ahimsa is to consider what is going lead to the highest experience of compassion or loving-kindness for yourself and others during a situation at hand.
Satya: this second yama means “truthfulness” and supports recognizing the path to nonviolence. Practicing satya includes not lying but also transcends it. Satya is recognizing what your highest, heart-felt Truth is beyond the external influences of society and culture, and how can you use this highest understanding of Truth for skillful action.
Asteya: “Non-stealing” is the third of the yamas, and it is inextricably linked to nonviolence and truthfulness. Asteya encompasses not stealing physical objects, ideas, work, credit, energy, time, resources or any other tangible or non-tangible sources. Keep in mind you can also steal from yourself by being dishonest and harmful to yourself.
Brahmacharya: “Non-excess” is how this yama is commonly translated in our modern times, but in the classical texts this yama is explicit in controlling sexual urges. Why? Learning to control sexual urges allows the yogi/ yogini to be in control of animalistic sensory desires and use that preserved energy toward elevating yogic practices. This is crucial to practicing nonviolence, truthfulness and non-stealing. Brahmacharya doesn’t mean you can’t have a romantic life or enjoy the finer things, it just opens you to being aware of what you are doing, why you’re doing it, and what it does to your energy.
Aparigraha: This final yama means “non-possessiveness” or “non-hoarding.” Observing greedy, envious, clinging or jealous behavior is also going to promote the practice of all five of the yamas. Practicing “letting go” of objects, ideas, behaviors—even people that may hold in very high esteem yet you observe a sense of clinging to—can clear the way for growth and expansion when you’re not holding onto unhealthy desires and indulgences.
The Five Niyamas
Saucha: Meaning “purity” or “cleanliness,” this first niyama is about being clean in body & mind. Self-care and hygiene practices are a part of saucha, as is developing a sense of “cleanliness” with your thoughts, such as not partaking in external drama by not gossiping or speaking ill about others—even the people you don’t like. Cleanliness in the mind also involves curbing the inner drama and not thinking poorly about yourself or involving yourself in negative self-talk. With a clean body and a pure mind, the clear light of the heart can shine through with ease.
Santosha: This is the niyama of “contentment,” and it means so much more than just “love and light,” feeling good or pretending that nothing is happening. Santosha is a sort of Divine contentment to acknowledge a situation at hand—be it positive or negative—and cultivate inner peace with your circumstances as you navigate the situation with ease, as opposed to allowing external or internal drama take hold and push you into the negative cycle of the kleshas (more on the kleshas in a future blog post).
Tapas: “Self-Discipline” is the definition of the third niyama, and its root is in the Sanskrit word for “heat.” Through disciplined practices that typically create heat in the body, there is a sort of physical, mental and spiritual distilling of the yogi/yogini. Tapas can include asana, kriyas and pranayama. The magic of tapas is it can give you an opportunity to lean into the discomfort or the unknown through a rigorous yet safe practice and offer you an opportunity to purify the mind-body (saucha) and discover a liberating contentment even in a seemingly difficult situation (santosha).
Svadhyaya: “Self-Study” is the fourth niyama, which includes practicing meditation, studying yogic texts, and doing the subtle yet profound “inner work” to better understand who and why you are. Svadhyaya is how the practice of yoga can deepen your “innderstanding.” Knowing yourself beyond your perceived sense of external identity can start to free you from who you think you are or who you’ve been told you are in order to discover you’re highest and truest Self.
Ishvara Pranidhana: This is the final niyama and is often translated as “Surrender.” This niyama is the ability to surrender yourself to something greater or bigger with a sense of deep devotion, dedication and trust. Surrender, as the practice of ishvara pranidhana, isn’t giving up; Surrender is letting go of the clinging, the fear, the external and internal drama, the harm—Surrender is a culmination of all 10 yamas and niyamas. Surrender creates space to hold different perspectives and multiple truths. If you are on a spiritual path, this is an essence of bhakti, devotion to the Divine Love of God. If you’re on a path of self-healing this is surrendering to the beautiful unfolding of the journey.