Me and My Yama

So, if you watched a lot of Sesame Street in the past, you probably get that little joke.  If not, here is a fun video to watch, but it has nothing to do with this post except that it amuses me (and the protagonist and said lama are, in fact, practicing some of what I will discuss below):

In Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga, the first two limbs are yamas and niyamas.  Yamas are basically our ethical code, how we should behave in interactions with others.  Niyamas are necessary personal observances to maintain the path.  Each of these are part of yoga that can be observed in our daily lives, on and off the mat.

Yamas: Universal Moral Code

Ahimsa — Non-harming.  This can include avoiding harm to self, others, and the world around us.  Harm could mean something physical, psychological, emotional, etc.  Some yogis practice vegetarianism or veganism as a part of ahimsa, while others do not.

Satya —Non-lying.  Satya is about maintaining an intent to not deceive.  This does not always mean we will be correct in information we give, but honest mistakes are a different thing than intentionally misleading someone.  Satya does not suggest that we be brutal in our interactions with others, as the principle of ahimsa is primary.  Sometimes we may need to present a different truth, or present a truth in a different way to avoid violating satya while also maintaining ahimsa.

Asteya —Non-stealing.  This could be about physical objects (i.e. don’t steal from Target), monetary units (don’t cheat on your taxes) or even less concrete things like time (don’t be late for all your meetings, thereby stealing the time of others).  In an academic setting, always much on my mind, this also is about not stealing the ideas or words of another (plagiarism).

Bramacharya — Sexual responsibility and restraint.  In the  most restrictive sense, this yama could be about celibacy.  But, for most of us, it’s more about treating each other with sexual respect.  Don’t objectify others.  Don’t guilt/push/connive others into sexual activity.  Behave in such a way that all sexual thoughts and acts are mutually uplifting (thanks for this phrasing, Beth) for all involved.

Aparaigraha — Non-grasping, non-coveting.  To some degree, coveting what we don’t have or what others has seems to be a natural part of our animal natures, but it’s not something we have to give into.  We can cultivate a sense of contentment with what we have that reduces our greed and allows us to be truly happy for what others have, without feeling the desire to possess it ourselves.

Niyamas: Personal Observances

Sauca — Cleanliness/purity.  Sauca refers to the idea that we should maintain physical and emotional cleanliness.  We should maintain a clean and healthy body, both inside and out.  This can be promoted by eating a healthy diet, utilizing pranayama and asana to remove toxins, engaging in external cleanliness habits, and working toward removing the “ick” of jealousy, anger, greed, pride, etc. from our minds.

Santosa — Contentment.  As you can see, the yamas and niyamas are intertwined with one another.  Santosa is much related to aparigraha.  Can we be content with what we have and where we are?  Can we accept this moment for itself and not yearn for something more or different, the past or the future.  Can we find ease even in the midst of difficulty, accepting that everything passes?

Tapas — Turning up the heat.  It’s easy to get passive in life and in our yoga practice – to fall into patterns and habits and fail to challenge them.  Tapas relates to utilizing our energies well to push our practices a little further.  This might be through more vigorous or regular asana.  It could be through a daily 5 a.m. meditation.  It might be a process of fasting that energizes.  Establishing what is tapas will be different for each individual, as it is relative to the current pattern.

Svadhyaya — Self-study.  For some people, self study comes more easily.  For many, however, it is quite difficult.  Svadhyaya involves turning a light on the self and engaging in analysis of one’s own patterns in thought, behavior, emotion, etc. Svadhyaya includes examining both our “positive” qualities and our limitations and challenges.  Through understanding and accepting where we are, we create room for change.

Isvara pranidhana — Surrender to a higher power.  Taken literally, this niyama could be said to mean “laying it all at the feet of God.”  That might be a perfect way to see it for you, or maybe it isn’t.  But, that’s ok.  This niyama does not specify what god or what divine we should be giving up our efforts to.  That leaves room for each of us (perhaps in the process of svadhyaya?) to determine what “greater” being/principle/? we see as divine to which we can devote our actions.

So, there you have a very brief summary of the yamas and niyamas of yoga.  They can be practiced every day, any time, anywhere.   You don’t have to “twist into a pretzel” (my extended family/friend network understanding of yoga) or worship a certain god to do these things.  Looking at them, you can see the underlying tenets of behavior for pretty much all religions or moral codes, and it’s hard to find fault with any of these ideas, even if you don’t see yourself as a yogi at all.   You can do yoga 24 hours a day!  Sweetness!



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