Decoding the Yamas and Niyamas - Part 1

Updated: Jun 26, 2020

Let’s talk yoga philosophy!

But don’t worry, we’re going right back to basics. Here you will find some simple ways to incorporate concepts from traditional beliefs and ethics into your day-to-day life, and also how these practices can help your overall wellbeing.

The first thing you need to know is that yoga is a lot more than just poses. Yoga is traditionally an Eight-Limb Path, and physical positions (called Asana) make up just one of those limbs! Over two posts, we’re going to go over our first two limbs: the Yamas and Niyamas.

Essentially, they address ethics and behaviour. They’re the first things outlined in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, which is one of the OG yoga scriptures.

The Yamas are our social discipline, or things that we shouldn’t do. The aim of these is to help make us better people and better participants in society.

The Niyamas are our personal discipline, or things that we should do. These practices aim to cultivate a way of living that serves you best.

Before we get into it, I’d like to highlight that I’m not trying to tell you what your values or morals should be! Our values are deeply personal and are made up from our unique life experiences. But what you’ll notice as we go through, is that these concepts are very similar to what we find in ethics systems and religions all over the world. I encourage you to think about each yama and niyama and how it translates or expresses itself in your life and beliefs.

There is of course an immense amount of nuance and depth to these philosophies, and we’re only scratching the surface here. If you’re interested in learning more, I recommend diving into the original Yoga Sutras themselves, or reading one of the many books available on the topic.

So, we’ll start on this post with the Yamas.

There are 5 Yamas:

  1. Ahimsa – Non-violence

  2. Satya – Truthfulness

  3. Asteya – Non-stealing

  4. Brahmacharya – Moderation

  5. Aparigriha – Non-possessiveness

Let’s break them down and explore them in a little more depth.

For each Yama we’ll explore what it is and how it relates to modern life, how it might bring value to you, and some inspiration on little ways that you could start bringing these practices to life.

Ahimsa: Don’t be mean

Ahimsa is one of the most commonly known yoga philosophies, and it roughly translates into ‘non-violence’. Not just in the physical “Don’t punch that guy” sense, but trying to minimise the harm that you bring to others.

This includes using your words kindly, acting in a way that won’t hurt others, and not being rude or harsh. It also means making decisions about the way you live that brings the least amount of harm to others.

How could this improve your life?

According to old mate Patanjali, when you stop harming others, others will stop harming you. Of course, it doesn’t always work that way, but it can certainly help to foster more loving and genuine connections with those around you when you make an effort to be extra kind. It doesn’t take a scientist to know that compassion, empathy, and gentleness towards others also positively impacts our own wellbeing.

Looking for a way to manage your anger when it comes to practicing Ahimsa? There are lots of different tools to manage those intense feelings, but one of them that has consistently been proven very effective is mindfulness, which we can also cultivate in our Asana and meditation practice (check out this study that explored the effect of mindfulness on aggression and rumination).

How you might bring this into your life:

  • Take a close look at your own self talk. Are you being harsh or critical? Non-violence starts with how you treat yourself

  • When it comes to food and other consumables, have a think about where they came from. What does “ethically produced” mean to you?

  • If you have to deliver feedback or criticism, try to make it constructive, and from a place of love rather than frustration

  • Think about any tension in your close relationships. Could you take any steps to resolve it?

Satya: Tell the truth

More than just abstaining from telling lies, this is about trying to bring integrity to different parts of our life. Have you ever shared a news article without checking out the credibility? We can all sometimes get caught up in gossip, rumours, and fake news (celebrity magazines, much?). On a personal level, being honest with our own feelings can be a really intense experience, sitting with the discomfort of vulnerability. And we can certainly see this creeping into our relationships with little white lies and not being honest when expressing our feelings.

How could this improve your life?

Good communication is the cornerstone of strong relationships. You don’t need science or philosophy to tell you that lying to your loved ones isn’t productive, but in case you need convincing, this study found that meta-honesty (which is being honest about trying to be honest) is a particularly important factor in intimate relationships.

Vulnerability also has massive effects on not only your relationships, but your own wellbeing. One researcher who talks about this extensively, and whose work is certainly worth diving into is Dr Brene Brown (check out her research here)

How you might bring this into your life:

  • Before you say anything, take the test: is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary? If not, don’t say it

  • Practice leaning into vulnerability when it comes to tricky conversations and sharing feelings with loved ones

  • When someone says something that upsets you, be true to your own feelings by taking some time to gently explain to them why, rather than brushing it off

  • Ditch the celeb gossip magazines and TV spots, or at least practice critical consumption!

Asteya: Don’t take what isn’t yours

This one seems basic- don’t steal stuff. But more than stealing physical items that don’t belong to you, think about the other ways you could be taking things that aren’t yours, or taking more than what you need. When you’re running late, you’re taking someone else’s time. When you don’t give credit, you might be stealing someone else’s idea. And when you appropriate cultures what aren’t yours, that can be a form of stealing too.

On the other hand, it also means not allowing others to take things that are yours. This might mean putting in boundaries for who gets your time and energy.

How can this improve your life?

This value really ties into our sense of fairness. And more than that, it goes hand in hand with what is called an ‘abundance mindset’. This means that rather than seeing the world as a competitive and threatening place where there aren’t enough resources to go around, we understand that sharing and collaborating is more beneficial for everyone.

This also means having a sense of gratitude for the things that we have, without feeling that we need to take from other people. Both of these things can strengthen your connection with the people around you, and help to put you in a better mindset to see the world.

How you might bring this into your life:

  • At your next meeting, remember to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land you’re on, if you live in a place where indigenous people have had their land stolen. In Australia, we do an acknowledgement of country to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of the local area.

  • If running late is a theme for you (it absolutely is for me), make an effort to be on time. When I re-frame ‘being on time’ as respecting that person’s time, it feels more natural for me to prioritise

  • Lift others up and give credit when they’ve helped you or you’ve used their work. There is enough success to go around

  • If you’re in a position to give money, time, or resources, this can be a beautiful and rewarding way of being anti-greedy

  • Your energy is important, so make sure that you’re protecting it by being selective with who gets it

  • Next time we’re in a pandemic, don’t panic buy!

Brahmacharya: Moderation

Okay, there are a few ways that this one can be interpreted. In a very traditional sense, this refers to abstaining from sex and sensual activity to further your spiritual practice. But of course, you don’t have to give up sex to practice yoga! However, it is a good opportunity to talk about creating a sex life that is consensual, safe, and ethical.

The other side of moderation is to think about creating balance. We NEVER shame or discourage indulging (whether that be food, TV, hobbies, or whatever), but it is an opportunity to think about what overindulgence means to you, and how to balance those indulgences at a place that makes you feel your best.

How could this improve your life?

Creating intention around your pleasures can help you understand what you like and want. Especially when it comes to sex, we’re not always encouraged to explore this in a safe and healthy way, but it can be such an important part of your life and experiences, both with and without a partner. And similarly, in terms of learning to balance your indulgences, it introduces a new way of knowing yourself, and choosing what you want to engage in

How you might bring this into your life:

  • Sex education is something I’ve always been passionate about, so go pursue it! Alone and/or with a partner, find a way to create an experience that is safe, consensual, healthy, and enjoyable for you

  • Take a look at your relationship with food and indulgence. This is a huge can of worms to open, and I encourage you to explore this with a professional if it brings up hard feelings for you

  • Think about your work, rest, and play during the week. Do you find yourself burning out on work and binging on Netflix every weekend? Challenge your routine and see if there are any ways you can find more balance in your life (yes, this means making dedicated time for rest!)

Aparigriha: Don’t hold onto things you don’t need

Look, I’m not going to go all KonMarie on you, but minimalism and decluttering has been trending recently, and for good reason. Faiths from all over the world have practitioners, such as monks, priests, and nuns, who give up all their worldly possessions to pursue their spirituality. You don’t have to go that far! But over-attachment to our possessions can cause all sorts of obsession over our material things. And not only material things, but attachment to our ideas and plans, and even more detrimentally, our grudges. The idea behind this Yama is to rediscover what you feel is most valuable in your life, and making sure that you have space, time, and energy for those important things.

How could this improve your life?

Finding out what you need and want in your life is a journey that is never complete. It requires constantly re-evaluating what you find important. When the things we do and the things we value aren’t consistent, we run into a form of cognitive dissonance, which is a state that our mind doesn’t like to be in. If you’re holding onto objects that you don’t value, you’re taking up space in your life that could be used for things that you do value.

And on a more surface level, don’t you always feel a little more put together when you’ve tidied a room? Plus, this study found that a ‘minimalist’ low-consumption lifestyle reported higher positive emotions, better mental clarity, more autonomy, and overall increased wellbeing.

How you might bring this into your life:

  • Make a list of your most important values in your life. It might be connection with family, time on a hobby, your passion project, your health. Pick a week where you pay attention to everything you do, and all the objects in your life that you engage with. Are those things consistent with your values?

  • Pick something to physically declutter, but start small if this is new to you. The cup holders in your car, your wallet or purse, the kitchen counter. Notice how the lack of clutter makes you feel. Try to build these little mini-declutters into your daily routine

  • Are you holding a grudge against someone right now? Even mild animosity? This might be the time to start working through it

And that is my take on the first limb of yoga, the Yamas!

I hope you found something that you can relate to or find value in. Please let us know in the comments which of these practices you’re keen to try out!

Let's move onto Part Two- the Niyamas -->

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