How To Balance The Yamas And Niyamas In the Modern World
In my current YTT (yoga teacher training) program, the theory and practice behind the yamas and the niyamas is consistently present.
Following the Eight Limbs of yoga, I have to say that the yamas and niyamas are two of the hardest limbs to intertwine into our daily routines and into our lifestyles.
After all, for the most part, we are modern-age yogis who flock to Instagram and Lululemon.
That’s not to say that we’re shallow or materialistic. On the contrary! But it does beg the question: how do we live our modern yoga off of our mats?
I like to think of yamas as virtues. These are core principles that we can integrate into our lives and live by.
They are simple in their definition, but in practice, they can be fairly challenging. In today’s world, where we jump from one task and destination to the next, it’s easy to forget about these yamas.
It’s like trying to take a peaceful stroll through New York City: you want to do it, you know you can, but the outside distractions bully their way into your peacefulness.
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Ahimsa is non-violence, but instead of thinking about it in terms of not harming another person, animal, or plant, think about it in personal terms.
As much as it is about physical non-violence, ahimsa is equally about mental, spiritual, and emotional non-violence.
It’s self-love, self-acceptance, self-appreciation! When we step onto our mats and judge ourselves before we even begin, we pollute our energy with expectation and desire.
That smog of thinking hurts not just our spirit, but our bodies as well. Take baby steps, but make a grand intention of appreciating every step you take, on and off the mat.
That is Ahimsa.
Lordy, can this one be hard! Satya is truthfulness. When we lie — to ourselves or to others — we begin a journey of no return.
One lie does not stop where it began. It’s like eating one potato chip. It’s impossible.
Before long, we catch ourselves spinning in a circle of lies, and no good can come from that. As difficult as it may be, being truthful is more about you than it is about the other person or persons.
When we lie, at the core of it all, we are afraid that others will judge us, that others will be angry with us, that others will leave us.
It is our fear that nudges us in the direction of non-truth. Welcoming love brings honesty and purity. It gives us a freeing sensation of being ourselves, and that’s a beautiful thing.
Now, I’m sure many folks reading this aren’t planning on robbing a convenience store anytime soon.
Asteya is more than refraining from stealing physical things.
Think back on the last time you had a conversation with someone who was distressed and needed a listening ear. Did you really listen?
Did you pull back into your own head and prepare a reply or a story of your own? I’ve caught myself doing this, and I’ve experienced it many times from other people.
We listen to reply, not to really listen.
We put the other person in the background while we rummage through our head, looking for a story that is similar to their dilemma so that we can make it about ourselves. It’s not necessarily selfish; it’s simply a habit/pattern.
We’re not bad people; we just need to regroup our way of thinking and acting. This is Asteya.
We’re not stealing their watch or their money.
We’re stealing their time, their moment, their vulnerability.
How difficult is this in our world today, am I right? Non-hoarding is one thing, and if you can balance out your pile of materialistic things and get rid of what you don’t need, then you don’t have too much to worry about.
Just like the previous yamas, however, Brahmacharya is no different in the respect that it goes much deeper below the surface. Moderation is key. Whether that is moderating your food, drink, shopping, etc., Brahmacharya asks: What can’t you detach yourself from?
It doesn’t have to be a physical object.
Often times, the things we can’t detach from are patterns and habits that crowd our mind and take us away from simplicity. Digging deeper into your own heart to find the cause of that which you hoard can have a tremendous ripple effect on your entire life. Try it.
Aparigraha means non-possessiveness or non-greediness.
In our competitive world, greediness comes as a side dish.
Corporate jobs push us to indirectly trample our “competition” because that will get us further up the ladder.
Our education system teaches us to strive for bigger and better, when that bigger and better is really wanting more and more of something that doesn’t serve us.
Commercials, bank accounts, credit cards, fast food chains — you name it.
Wanting more isn’t greediness; wanting more eventually leads to greediness.
Being content with where you are, with what you have, and with whom you share it is Aparigraha. It’s about respecting the journey and holding on to faith that says “all happens for a reason.”
Niyamas go a little deeper, but welcoming them is like opening yourself up to infinite love and light. It’s about putting your Self first, something that we often forget.
Taking care of yourself. So often, we feel guilty for taking a spa day or splurging on a retreat.
Because we’ve conditioned ourselves to always take care of others.
That has to stop. Seriously.
You can’t take care of anyone else if you don’t take care of yourself first. Same thing with airplane oxygen masks.
There’s a beautiful logic in that, and it wasn’t accidental. Saucha is caring for your body, as well as your mind.
If your body is all knotted up, your mind will be, too, and vice versa. Cleaning out what no longer serves you, physically and mentally, is a beautiful way of purifying the temple of your existence. Take the time to nurture. It’s not a luxury, it’s a necessity.
Santosha is all about contentment.
Personally, one of my challenges this year is finances.
At night, I sometimes stay up late and worry, running through my thoughts to try and figure out the best way to control my bills.
The more I worry, the more problems I have. Santosha invites us to move past the “what if’s” and settle into contentment.
We can be content with the things that we already have. I have my health, my family, my friends, my job, my practice.
I have many blessings. We all do. Focusing on what is right instead of everything that could go wrong is a free way of looking at your life.
Take that freedom. Liberate yourself from the chains of your own negative thinking. Contentment is finding the little things that make your life bigger than you think it is.
When we keep ourselves on the path of truth and love, we stoke an internal fire.
We practice moderation, kindness, truthfulness — basically, all of the yamas — and we clear our mind of worry, fear, and anger.
That fire is known as Tapas. It is also known as self-discipline. Can you walk by a store with a “50% OFF” sale sign in the window and not walk in?
Can you stick to one drink at the bar when you know you’re on a tight budget? Self-discipline tests our yamas and niyamas.
It’s like a little voice in the back of your mind that reminds you of what you really need and don’t need. Often, we snooze that voice.
If we keep it near, however, we begin to detach from things, people, ideas, and patterns that make us less than who we really are. It helps us shed the layers that hide our true essence.
This is one of my personal favorite niyamas to practice and stumble through. Svadhyaya is the practice of self-study.
When we get home from work and we run down our to-do list, we hardly ever give ourselves the time to truly reflect on what’s happening on the inside. Even if we practice yoga, we come to our mats and move our bodies with an intent on achieving, not experiencing.
Svadhyaya brings us back into ourselves.
One of the best ways of doing this is either journaling or speaking to someone (a close friend, a mentor, a psychiatrist, etc.). Over the course of our lives, we attract scars. These scars are from traumas, bad relationships, fights, arguments, family disputes, etc.
We keep them in our bodies and in our minds, and rarely do we dive back there to get rid of them. When we journey with Svadhyaya, we open up our Pandora’s Box. Self-study is by no means easy.
It is meant to be challenging yet rewarding, bringing ourselves higher, out of the mud of past sorrow and into the light of the present moment.
When we’ve led each day with all of the yamas and niyamas in our heart, we come to Ishvara Pranidhana.
This is one of the hardest niyamas to welcome, but it is one of the best niyamas to experience. Ishvara Pranidhana means to surrender. Let go.
If you believe in God or a higher power, Ishvara Pranidhana means to lay everything at the feet of God.
The things that we cannot control, we surrender to our higher power. When we’ve done our best, we surrender. When we can’t plan and calculate and protect anymore, we let it go.
This niyama is all about faith and having the courage and love to close our eyes, take a step, and believe — in our heart of hearts — that everything will be OK.
Surrendering control, when we’ve lived our entire lives fine-tuning it, can be immensely terrifying. We have to ask ourselves, however, what is it that we’re really afraid of? Control is a shield, protecting us from what we deem as bad.
I can say that from personal experience, letting that shield fall away is one of the best things that can happen to you. Let go and have faith.
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