As you get more excited about the rabbit hole that is yoga, you will eventually hear the terms yama and niyama. As big a cornerstone as asana (perhaps more so, if we are being honest!), the yamas and niyamas are precepts which not only indicate behavioral adjustments that are required to truly practice yoga, but also reveal how we will show up when we are connected to our most compassionate selves through yoga.
Now, don’t get me wrong, asana is great! But as I tell classes all the time, I know a lot of assholes that can do handstands. If we want to practice yoga, we need to ask: who are we during practice? This is where yamas and niyamas come in! Asana is a vehicle, yamas and niyamas remind us how we should feel and be when driving that vehicle.
What Is Yama?
The Yamas are the ‘first limb’ of yoga, as outlined by Patanjali. They are the characteristics we seek to embody as our most compassionate selves. Yamas indicate how we should best relate to others and, more subtly, how we should best relate to ourselves. Yama’s include:
Ahimsa- The practice of non-violence to our world, others, and importantly, ourselves. This is one of yoga’s most fundamental practices. If we are endeavouring to prove a point or become something ‘better’, chances are we have lost our connection to ahimsa. Ahimsa asks first: how can I ensure no harm is done here?
Satya- A loving commitment to truth is cornerstone in the practice of satya. And, this truth must acknowledge both our inner landscape and longings, as well as the world-at-large. Importantly, you cannot have satya without ahimsa; we cannot be truthful to our most-loving, compassionate nature when we are trying to be right or blindly factual.
Satya does not mean ‘brutal honesty’ - it means aligning with the fundamental truth of our love and light at all times. When practicing satya, one might consider: if I follow this course, will I feel most aligned with myself?
Asteya- Asteya is a commitment to never taking outside what is given freely to us. This involves physical, emotional, and energetic resources. Asteya demands we take an active role in recognizing and promoting our own self-sufficiency. This does not mean that we have to aim to become millionaires so we want for nothing; rather, it means recognizing we have more than enough as we are, so we never feel inclined to steal away attention or resources.
Brahmacharya- Often misunderstood as celibacy, brahmacharya is one of the more misinterpreted practices in yoga. Brahmacharya is the practice of sharing and rightfully expending one’s energy in devotion. Many teachers expound that brahmacharya is not about gut-wrenching denial, rather a conscious commitment to sharing our energies (sexual and otherwise) in a loving, celebratory manner. Following, if and when we decide to make love, we share this energy with a connection to our spirit and our divine nature.
Aparigraha- Aparigraha teaches us that we already have what we need. Often spoken of as ‘non-grasping’ or ‘non-hoarding’, this precept encourages us to cultivate a friendly relationship with change, so that we are never reliant on externals to feel at home. When we fully acknowledge that we have what we need, we no longer need the house, the relationship, the body (!) to recognize our own divinity. Our identity will surely evolve throughout our lifetime, yet as we practice aparigraha this evolution will never seem debilitating.
This is just the first of my two-part series on yoga’s golden rules. Hopefully you guys learned something and got a better understanding of the first limb of yoga. Stay tuned next Saturday for Part 2!