LIVE LIKE A YOGI
Using the Yamas and Niyamas to Enhance Your Practice and Your LifePhoto: 2TPhoto
by Sheila Ewers
This is the first of a two-part series on the Yamas and Niyamas by Sheila Ewers. Part 2 will appear in next month’s issue.
What does it mean to live like a yogi?
In today’s media-saturated world, images of people in yoga poses might lead one to believe that living like a yogi requires super-human flexibility, overpriced clothing, trips to exotic lands and Instagram celebrity. To the uninitiated, yoga can seem inaccessible: the domain of free spirits at worldwide festivals, the offshoot of seemingly esoteric Eastern religions, or the purview of meditators and ascetics disconnected from the material world.
The truth is simpler and accessible to all. More than two thousand years ago, the sage Patanjali scribed the Yoga Sutras, which might be understood today as a handbook for how to live as a yogi. He emphasized that along with the practices of asana, pranayama (the regulation of energy through deliberate breathing practices), and meditation, life as a yogi requires restraint of egoic impulses and a practice of purposefully creating inner awareness and harmony.
Patanjali called these two branches of yoga the Yamas, ethical restraints, and the Niyamas, inner observances. While the Yamas provide guidance about interacting with the outer world, the Niyamas guide us to “Self”-awareness, the realization of our true essence.
The Yamas and Niyamas are tools for navigating every dimension of our lives. To authentically live as yogis, we can and should intentionally engage with them on and off the yoga mat.
PART 1: THE YAMAS
AHIMSA: NonharmingPracticing ahimsa asks aspiring yogis to live completely free of harmful action, speech and thought towards themselves and all sentient beings. In its highest form, it is the spontaneous expression of pure love and an outpouring of the realization that to harm another is to harm oneself, since all beings are connected. As the virtue deepens, we gain awareness of the ways that our choices might inadvertently cause harm. Our choices can include what we consume and purchase, the words we use, the organizations we support and more.
On the mat: Use your physical practice to cultivate compassionate and nonjudgmental awareness. Consider whether you are moving in a way that is beneficial to both body and mind. Notice when you are pushing through pain or forcing yourself into postures that might be unsafe.
SATYA: TruthfulnessThe word sat in Sanskrit means “truth that is unchangeable.” Satya is the practice of aligning more completely with Truth in its absolute form. Outwardly, this requires that we refrain from telling lies or misrepresenting truth. Inwardly, it calls for reexamining our own stories and beliefs so that we might see through the illusions created by our fears and desires.
On the mat: Over the course of a day, a week or a lifetime, your body will change, sometimes strengthening through commitment to practice and sometimes deteriorating as a result of injury or age. Keep your practice aligned with both the truth of your current circumstances and an awareness of the part of you that is unaffected by change.
ASTEYA: NonstealingOn the surface, asteya literally means not stealing objects or possessions. But on more subtle levels, it applies to mindless consumption of natural resources, ideas, information, energy and even time. Practicing asteya means to cultivate the discipline to only reach for what rightfully belongs to you. It demands that we give credit where credit is due when we share other people’s words and ideas. And it means that we respect other people’s time, property and person.
On the mat: Remember to keep your attention focused on your own practice. Avoid comparison and competition with those around you. Notice when you are “stealing” from your breath to force some shape into the body. Practice with a balance of effort in the body and ease in the mind and breath.
BRAHMACHARYA: Regulation of the sensesIn its most traditional form, brahmacharya is associated with celibacy. As yogis, we have chosen lives of productivity, relationship and engagement in the world, so practicing brahmacharya requires that we make skillful choices around our own desires, senses and vital energy. When it comes to sensory pleasure, one way to do so is to ask the simple question, “Does it uplift or does it degrade?” Then make choices that consistently direct your energy in ways that connect you to your higher nature.
On the mat: Practice conserving vital energy and keeping the body in equilibrium. Try using minimum effort to get the maximum result. Refine muscular engagement and regulate energy with breath and mindful attention instead. And learn the practice of directing energy upward and toward the heart.
APARIGRAHA: NongraspingIn a fairly materialistic world, refraining from “grasping” can be a challenge. We live in a culture that is literally built on consumerism and the accumulation of material goods. Nevertheless, when we accumulate possessions, we can easily become possessed by them, clinging ever more tightly to what we think we need. To develop true equanimity and peace, we must let go of all attachments, material and emotional. This includes not only possessions, but the myriad ways we grasp in relationships, hold on to resentments and cling to unhelpful beliefs.
On the mat: Notice if you are holding a set of expectations or goals in your practice that are manifestations of ego. Give yourself permission to enjoy asana as a natural expression of your energy and a way to grow into deeper connection to all that you are. Practice for the sake of practice!
Founder of Johns Creek Yoga and Duluth Yoga Center, Sheila Ewers leads yoga and yoga teacher training classes, and hosts retreats locally and internationally. She has been published online in Elephant Journal and Writers Resist. Reach her at [email protected].