by Judi Checo
In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, the great, late Maya Angelou once said she woke up every day with the intention to be so good, and went to bed every night reviewing all the ways in which she’d failed, and prepared to do better the next day. I remember hearing that and thinking: “Thank God!” It inspired me and made me feel less alone to know that even the amazingly wise and brilliant Maya Angelou had this struggle and worked hard to do better everyday.
I share this before I dive into the Yamas and Niyamas of the yoga sutras because they can sometimes feel like pretty lofty ideals that take time (a lifetime!) to cultivate. I’m still scratching the surface with putting them into full practice in my life, but having them as goals in my mind and heart is a start and while I’m far, far, far, far (I could probably add another hundred “far’s” in there!) from enlightenment I have had moments of what I like to call mini-enlightenment when I’ve used them and when I look at my life (and my asana practice) through the context of their lessons. I often tell myself that perhaps many moments of mini-enlightenment in one lifetime is better than nothing.
The Yoga Sutras of Master Patanjali are the philosophical/spiritual bread and butter of yoga. They are a collection of threads of yogic wisdom that Master Patanjali, known as the father of yoga, documented from what he learned from his teachers, and their teachers before them. The Yamas and Niyamas are the 1st and 2nd limb out of the 8 limbs of yoga, so it all starts there, with how we show up in our lives and in the world. We can think of them as the 10 commandments of the yogini/yogi.
The Yamas are the abstinences. They are our commitments to others. The behaviors we agree to stop doing, lay down in order to plant the seeds of love and good will in the world.
The first of the Yamas is Ahimsa which means practicing non-violence in word, thought or deed. This one seems pretty basic. Guess where it starts? With yourself. Don’t be harsh or mean to yourself. Watch how you treat yourself, talk to yourself and think about yourself. As far as how it relates to others,it goes beyond being a “violent” person, or being an animal rights activist and becoming vegan. It’s also about that moment you’re in your car and someone cuts you off really aggressively and you see red and a slew of angry, negative thoughts run through your head and perhaps some of those even spill out of your mouth in colorful epitaphs…Ahimsa asks you to curb that too.
Satya, or telling the truth is the second of the Yamas. This goes beyond your not being a pathological liar, or a cheat. It means not ever giving anyone an impression of yourself that is anything but true. It reaches into the white lie territory too.
The third Yama is Asteya: don’t steal. And beyond the obvious meaning of literally not stealing, also extends to not stealing the spotlight, or people’s time, or energy.
The fourth Yama is Brahmacarya which literally translates into the chariot of god (that being your body, the temple of god), and for the purposes of abstinence is tricky because in the traditional sense it meant celibacy. For our modern purposes, it can be applied more as serial monogamy. Being faithful in your relationships and respectful of others relationships.
The fifth Yama is Aparigraha- non-hoarding or non-possesiveness. Working on not being envious, not coveting. Working on being generous and not hoarding our gifts and our blessings. Helping and giving of ourselves to others with an open heart.
The Niyamas are our commitments to ourselves. The behaviors we agree to practice in order to cultivate greater self love and greater kindness towards ourselves and others.
The first of these is Saucha or cleanliness. Maintaining our bodies clean inside and out. Our asana practice is one way we practice this because the poses are meant to rid us of both physical and energetic toxins. So every time you do yoga, you’re practicing Saucha. Beyond
bathing, it means watching what we eat, watching what we think, watching what we allow into our consciousness. In our times, what movies, TV, books do we fill our wells with? What do you follow on Social Media and does it serve your highest and your best?
Santosha or contentment is the second niyama and was the topic of my last blog entry. It means contentment. Making contentment a practice. Being content with what you have, with where your practice is on your mat and with all the blessings you already have in your life. It’s a gratitude practice that will bring more joy into your life. In my opinion, if you can only handle cultivating one of the Niyamas, this is the one to work on daily.
The third Niyama is Tapahs or discipline. Effort. It literally means fire. The fire of our work. On our mat it means not cheating our way into the pose or through your practice. No shortcuts but taking the full journey. Use your blocks to find the alignment. Build the pose slowly, over time, subtly until one day there you are! I promise it’s the best feeling in the world, better than any high when you finally perfect your down dog or triangle, or fly up into crow after months or gracefully come up into your headstand. In our lives it means understanding that we must work for what we want. That our hopes and dreams and progress requires effort on our part. Discipline.
Svadhyaya or self study is the fourth Niyama. Know yourself. Accept yourself. Love yourself. This practice for me happens on the mat in the poses I love and the poses I struggle with. They inform me of where the work I need to do is. I love poses that require flexibility because in my life I’m VERY flexible. I struggle in poses that require strength – arm balances, because it is hard for me to draw boundaries and be firm. Off my mat, meditation is the ocean of self knowledge I’m still surfing. I wipe out a lot, but each time I come out understanding myself so much more and with a renewed sense of acceptance and compassion.
Isvara pranidhana is the fifth and final Niyama. It means surrender to god. Devotion. But if you wanna keep it super simple, it can mean devotion to your practice. Practicing with love, with intention and offering the fruits, labor and energy of your practice to something outside of yourself and your ego. Which is why you often hear teachers begin or end class with the beautiful mantra Loka Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu: “May all beings everywhere be happy and free, and may the thoughts, words, and actions of my own life contribute in some way to that happiness and to that freedom for all.” I mean, this is the ultimate goal of yoga.
We want to practice yoga because there is something in this system of movement that unlocks and moves us physically, energetically and emotionally.
So why should you care about any of this if all you want to do is learn a rockin’ handstand? And by the way, I do too! There’s nothing wrong with loving our asana practice and wanting to do it gracefully, strongly and beautifully. I believe and have experienced how amazing and beneficial it is ALL by itself. However, if we just wanted to work out and move our bodies, we could go to NY Sports Club or Planet Fitness. If we just wanted to learn handstand, I’m sure we could learn it in a gymnastics class. We want to practice yoga because there is something in this system of movement that unlocks and moves us physically, energetically and emotionally. There is something in yoga that connects us to our primal personal truth. It starts with the poses, and hopefully our physical practice transcends and opens us up to cultivate and shift our inner landscape and brings us into greater union with all the parts of ourselves. The Yamas and Niyamas are a guideline for creating that union right along with your trikonasana.
The new year is upon us. It’s a time when we are thinking of how we want to improve and grow in our lives. The Yamas and Niyamas are a tall order for sure. As I said before, I’ve got MANY lifetimes to go in my practice of them. Having the desire is half the battle. We are all breathing, beautiful beings doing our best and this is just one way we can go about putting that love and effort into ourselves and into the world. They are a great place to start on our journey towards improvement. Try them. And when and if you fall short, rather than beating yourself up (Ahimsa!!), remember that every day is an opportunity to try again as Maya said.
Hoping 2015 is full of whatever growth you seek to cultivate and that an abundance of beauty, bounty and bliss comes your way.
See you on the mat!