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Yama and Niyama - My Interpretation

What the core values of Ashtanga yoga mean to me and how I can apply them to my life.

woman holding a book, next to a coffee mug

Prior to studying yoga in depth, I had always thought, like many others, that Ashtanga Yoga is a type of yoga. In many modern contexts, that is the case - you would see it on a class schedule along with Power Yoga, Vinyasa Flow and Yin Yoga. This is when it is referring to Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, which is a modern style of energetic and synchronized yoga.

The true meaning of Ashtanga Yoga is “eight limbs of yoga” as described by Patanjali in The Yoga Sutras. The eight components allow us to work inwards, from the outer layers to the inner. Yoga is not just about one of the limbs. It is through all eight that we reach the ultimate goal: to restrict the fluctuations of the mind.

The first two are yama and niyama, which suggest how we could think and act based on yogic principles. So what does this actually mean to us, modern yogis? Let’s dive in and see how we can apply this into our daily lives and practice.

YAMA - Abstinences

Yamas are moral disciplines. It teaches us to not trespass upon others or ourselves, so basically it reminds us to be kind to all beings. Let’s look at the five categories of yamas.

Ahimsa: Non-violence

“Being able to let go of negativity in your life will make you happier, and the first step is to notice what pushes your buttons.”

This means releasing all forceful intentions and being gentle to others, to our surroundings, and to ourselves. By adapting a plant-based diet, we are exercising non-violence not only towards animals and the environment, but also to ourselves by eating sattvic foods, cultivating health and positive energy.

Non-violence isn’t just about avoiding conflicts or spreading awareness against hate, but as Hillari Dowdle, writer for Yoga Journal, explains, it is an “opportunity to relinquish hostility and irritability, and instead make space within your consciousness for peace.” It can be said that negativity is a form of violence itself. Having negative feelings and attitudes toward things will keep you from feeling at peace. Being able to let go of negativity in your life will make you happier, and the first step is to notice what pushes your buttons.

It is also interesting to note that by being kind to others, you are being kind to yourself as well. When you hurt or disrespect somebody, you will end up getting hurt and disrespected too. That is karma. So start spreading love and you will receive love back.

Satya: Truthfulness

We’re taught that yoga is about connecting with our true selves and finding the truth. The mind creates illusions through our five senses so with internal practices, we still the mind in order to see what is real and what is not.

Satya requires us to set an intention of knowing the truth, which may not always be pleasant. We must understand the difference between the truth and our opinions, which are created by our minds and are usually biased. What we think and label as reality can actually just be comfortable lies to protect ourselves from the painful truth.

Meditation is the most powerful tool to slow down our minds and filter out our prejudices. Our thoughts reflect our words which reflect our actions. To know the truth, we must search within, and yoga gives us many tools to achieve this goal. I always find it comforting to know that the answer is already inside of us. We just need to look inwards to find it.

Asteya: Non-stealing

“ grateful to the things we do have and to trust that what we need will come naturally.”

Don’t steal. Don’t take things that don’t belong to you. These are things we learn from our parents and teachers as children. Asteya goes a bit deeper than simply referring to the act of stealing and teaches us why we should not WANT to steal in the first place.

This is a good time to point out that yoga is not a religion, and therefore yamas are not rules that must be obeyed. They are more like guidelines that help you become a better version of yourself. I like the way Dowdle puts this: “rather than thinking of the yama and niyama as a mandatory “to-do list,” view them as invitations to act in ways that promote inner and outer peace and bliss.”

Yoga doesn’t preach about what is right and what is wrong. It is about the truth and how to find happiness. So asteya does not say “do not steal” but rather suggests us to not want things that don’t come naturally to us. It tells us to not obsess over things we do not have but be grateful to the things we do have and to trust that what we need will come naturally.

I also like the interpretation of non-stealing as not taking time and energy away from yourself. By stressing over nothing and worrying about uncontrollable things, you are wasting, or stealing, your own time. As I have written in my Worrier to Warrior piece, I spent a lot of time worrying about my life and things beyond my control. I missed out on things because I was not present in my own life. Use the time you have wisely and spend it doing things you love to do. Use your energy on meaningful and positive actions and thoughts. The same goes to the time and energy of others, so respect them too and again, be kind.

Brahmacharya: Energy conservation

Celibacy is the most common interpretation of this yama because sexual activities use up a lot of energy, which could be considered a waste or disruption. As modern yogis, we do not all have to give up on sexual relations. We can, however, think about ways to conserve and manage our energy for our inner peace.

Brahmacharya literally means to follow the divine, which can be understood as surrendering to inner guidance. What this basically means is to listen to your inner consciousness and not let your five senses cause turbulence within. “Whatever disturbs the mind and body disturbs the spiritual life - it’s all one energy,” says Nischala Joy Devi, author of “The Secret Power of Yoga: A Woman’s Guide to the Heart and Spirit of the Yoga Sutras.”

It’s the same as the way you manage your money or when you’re out camping and you have a limited amount of food and water. You wouldn’t use it all up on the first day, right? You would conserve it with control so you’d last throughout your trip. Think about your energy the same way and try to relax in stressful situations so you are not wasting your precious energy. If you use up your energy wherever you go, you will be emotionally and energetically drained and will not have space for ease. Let go and be mindful of the amount of energy you use. It’s not worth spending all of it.

Aparigraha: Non-hoarding

Non-possessiveness or lack of sense of ownership. In other words, not forming attachments to things and not letting greed take over. When purchasing something, try asking yourself: do I really NEED this? Or do I just WANT it?

When you buy things just because you want it, whether it is out of fear or greed, you accumulate things and become attached to those things. The more you buy, the more things you identify yourself with, which makes it difficult to find your essence.

It’s not just about material objects but also the same for old beliefs and relationships. If you are holding onto things that no longer serve you, you do not have room for new energy to come in. Practice gratitude and be content with what you have now that truly resonates with you. If it doesn’t, then let it go.

NIYAMA - Observances

Niyamas are lifestyle observances which we can incorporate into our daily lives. It can be understood as a guideline to live happily and consciously. Here are the five niyamas of Ashtanga Yoga.

Saucha: Purity

“A pure mind is one that is not disturbed by material things and things that we do not have control over.”

First up is saucha, purity or cleanliness, both inside and out. A pure mind is one that is not disturbed by material things and things that we do not have control over. When we learn to detach ourselves from material objects, thoughts, and identities, we stop overreacting when something happens in our lives. We remain calm, we accept, and we let go.

A pure body can be defined as one that is free of illnesses and blockages, one that is full of sattvic energy. We can do this by physical practices of asana and breathwork, as well as adapting a healthy diet because as we all know, we are what we eat.

I like to think that external saucha is not limited to the physical body, but also applies to our surroundings. Just like how monks are taught to clean in silence everyday for a set amount of time, we can try allotting 20 minutes of our time to cleaning. It doesn’t have to be a huge task and the whole house does not have to be sparkling all the time. Try cleaning one room at a time, or even one corner of a room. When the 20 minutes are up, stop, even if you are not finished. By decluttering and keeping our home clean, our mind clears up and good things may happen.

Santosha: Contentment

This is my favorite one. Prior to finding yoga, my life was all about obtaining new skills, acquiring new items and wanting more of the things that make me happy. I was privileged but did not realize this because I was comparing myself to others and thinking it was “unfair” that I do not have something they have.

One of the greatest things I learned through yoga is gratitude- to be happy with what I have in the present. Not obsessing over things I do not have. To be content and believing that I am enough.

Gratitude practice is something I have been doing ever since I started YTT. I close my eyes and think about five things I am grateful for that have happened in the past 24 hours. By noticing the small things I already have, I easily became a happier person. The constant feeling of being left behind, FOMO, fear of not being enough, social and personal insecurities...they all miraculously diminished. They’re not all gone and they do creep up when I am feeling vulnerable, but I have learned to accept them because that’s all part of the journey.

Tapas: Devotion

“Tapas is not about intentionally putting ourselves in pain. It is about discipline in order to grow and eventually find peace.”

Tapas refers to intense discipline or heat. When you are determined to do something, you build internal heat, which acts as fuel. Tapas is about strengthening your will and “the willingness to do the work, which means developing discipline, enthusiasm, and a burning desire to learn,” says Charlotte Bell, author of “Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life.”

Something that requires tapas or discipline is not meant to be easy. If you are able to do something mindlessly, then your tapas might be to stop doing it. In order to grow consciously, we must learn from mistakes and hardships. We must face the things that scare us and rise above them. This does not mean we should immerse ourselves in difficult situations and surround ourselves with negativity. Tapas is not about intentionally putting ourselves in pain. It is about discipline in order to grow and eventually find peace.

Svadhyaya: Self-study

Education is essential and knowledge is power. Learning never stops and if we try to live to the fullest, we are open to new information and are inspired by new findings. Studying scriptures, listening and talking to others, and searching within are all important forms of self-study.

The first step to learning about ourselves is to learn from others. When you welcome other people’s opinions, you broaden your horizons. You do not necessarily have to agree with them but you can accept them and build your own opinions. Critical thinking is an important tool to soften your mind and have a strong voice of your own. Having opposing views with someone is not always easy, especially when that person is a close friend or family member, but it is okay to disagree and it could be beneficial to occasionally discuss issues. As long as it is a peaceful exchange of thoughts and opinions (and not an attack of disrespectful and hurtful words), it could end up being a valuable learning experience for both sides.

Take what you learn from your surroundings, both about yourself and about external matters, and make time to reflect upon them. Do this by sitting quietly by yourself, journaling, talking to a therapist or a trusted friend, or whatever way you can feel connected to yourself. Self-exploration is a never-ending journey and the things you learn along the way are worth everything.

Isvhara Pranidhan: Surrender to the Divine

“In other words, go with the flow. Don’t fight it. Let it be.”

There are many interpretations of Isvhara, or the Divine - God, Brahman, True Self, Higher Self, Unchanging Reality. Again, yoga is not a religion so it does not follow the teachings of one supreme being; it is instead an internal work that allows you to connect with yourself. With religion, you are connecting to an external existence, something that is not YOU. I love the saying, “yoga is not a work out; it is a work in,” because it is true- you work inwards and connect with what is already inside of you: your essence. Respect, accept, and love your true self and commune with it.

In addition to staying true to your essence, it is important to surrender to it. In other words, go with the flow. Don’t fight it. Let it be. Be an observer of the things that happen in your life without getting sucked in and being emotionally and mentally affected. When you let go of attachments, you magically feel free and can overcome sufferings.

As someone who has lived their entire life without God or any kind of spiritual guidance, I admit that it was difficult and awkward for me to think about spirituality as being a part of my life and who I am. I was surrounded by religion growing up, but was never a part of it. I went to school with kids who went to church on Sundays and I participated in Obon (Japanese Buddhist ceremony to commemorate ancestors) activities every summer in Japan. I celebrate Christmas but not to celebrate the birth of Jesus, just because it is a holiday and I get gifts. I was aware that I have always been around different religions and cultures but was proud to say that I am free of religion.

So when I started learning about the yamas and niyamas of yoga, I instantly felt uncomfortable because it started to feel like a religious teaching. But I thought yoga isn’t a religion? I was soon reassured that it is not. It is closely connected to Buddhism but “the Divine” is not Buddha, nor is it Jesus. It is just you. You are your own God, which was a relief to me because I had always believed in myself. I do not lean on God or ask for His guidance; I utilize the tools I have- my journal, my husband, my therapist, my fur babies, and now yoga- to overcome hurdles.

At the end of the day, it is about trusting what you believe in- whether it be yourself or a separate being. It is what you feel most connected to and feel is true to you. I am proud to say that I have found yoga in a time of confusion and worries, and have become stronger, happier, and more relaxed. Don’t overthink it, just let it happen. You’ll be surprised to see what a big difference a yogic mindset makes.


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