Learn how to live a yogic life
Approximately 2000 years ago, the great yoga sage Patanjali set out eight limbs of yoga in his classical text The Yoga Sutras. While all eight limbs are key to truly practising yoga as a whole, principles one and two, the yamas and niyamas, offer specific guidelines for living a fulfilling and meaningful yogic life.
Yoga is such a personal practice and a yogic life is about living in a way that respects your true nature and helps you find union with all the sheaths of your being. The yamas and niyamas act as the stepping stones that work to cultivate self-awareness so you can find this balance and harmony within you.
Having said this, Patanjali’s lengthy verses aren’t always the easiest to digest and some elements can feel slightly out of place in our day and age. That’s why we’ve unpacked the essentials of the yamas and niyamas and how they can be integrated into life off the mat and according to your own needs.
The five yamas
Yoga’s five yamas offer a moral code of conduct for living a truly spiritual life. What’s interesting about the yamas is that they aren’t just limited to how we conduct ourselves, but emphasise our relationships with others.
Ahimsa or non-violence might seem fairly self-explanatory but there’s more to this first yama than meets the eye. This is because ahimsa applies not only in a physical sense but verbally and emotionally, too.
For instance, this means bouts of road rage where barrages of expletives are unleashed are considered a verbal form of himsa or violence. Putting yourself or others down is seen as emotional violence and pushing yourself to the point where you cause pain or injury on the yoga mat is also himsa in a physical sense.
Satya involves always speaking the truth, which means no lies (even white ones), no embellishments (even when they make your anecdotes sound that little bit better) and no gossip (even when it’s really juicy).
Practising ahimsa requires us to resist knee-jerk reactions where violence is directed towards ourselves or others. Instead, we must take the completely opposite approach. This means treating others with kindness, love and respect, even when they might not be doing the same to us.
The next time negative thoughts arise or the temptation to act or react in a way that could be considered “violent” occurs, step back and become an observer. Violence, no matter where directed, has a toxic, draining effect on the body and mind. When you realise the effect himsa has on yourself and others you can start to move away from resorting to violence and begin fostering greater peace internally.
The second yama, satya, is all about truth and the pursuit of one’s true self. Satya involves always speaking the truth, which means no lies (even white ones), no embellishments (even when they make your anecdotes sound that little bit better) and no gossip (even when it’s really juicy).
Actively practising truthfulness requires us to slow down. It involves objectivity, thought and careful consideration of our words, actions and choices so they do less harm and more good. Satya asks we respect the power and weight of truth and untruth and the impact they have on ourselves and others.
Patanjali says the purpose of practising honesty is to become open and fearless. When we embrace satya and uphold the truth to the utmost, we have nothing to be afraid of. Without worry or fear, the mind is clear and serene, which allows us to see our true selves and live in a way that respects this.
Adopting satya can be as simple as evaluating your day objectively and thinking about when you practised truthfulness and when you did not. It’s amazing how many white lies — with no malice intended and often for no apparent reason — we can drop each day. Becoming aware of living in a truthful manner even in this smallest form is a conscious step toward embracing satya.
Asteya or non-stealing applies in a very literal sense as well as on a more conceptual level.
To understand asteya and how it might apply to you, think beyond the physical and of the immaterial, intangible things one can “steal.” For instance, we can steal a friend’s time when we turn up to lunch late. We can steal someone’s energy when we demand too much of them and we can steal happiness when we treat people without kindness and compassion. You might even go one step further and think about the air you breathe, the water you drink and other elements you take and depend upon without acknowledgement.
If you have a friend who gives you a shoulder to cry on or is always there to get you out of a bind, you should return that love and energy on an equal level.
Practising asteya is about becoming conscious of what you take from others and your surroundings and whether it’s freely given or not. Awareness of this yama helps us avoid taking more than we need and encourages contentment with what we have and who we are.
Asteya also stresses the importance of giving back. If you have a friend who gives you a shoulder to cry on or is always there to get you out of a bind, you should return that love and energy on an equal level. This is kindness and gratitude in action and allows true “wealth” or happiness to come into our lives.
Brahmacharya: sense control
Brahmacharya has a number of interpretations, celibacy being one of them, which is why it can seem like a bit of a stretch to integrate into modern life.
To help you better understand this yama, let’s consider what it aims to achieve. Traditionally, one of the purposes of brahmacharya was practising abstinence in order to conserve sexual energy, the idea being that this energy could be better controlled and directed into other areas in order to progress our spiritual journey.
To make this more relevant to the present day, you can think of brahmacharya as an active practice of controlling your senses, urges and desires and using the time and energy saved to fulfil these needs more productively.
For instance, think about what senses might rule your behaviour; what temptations and vices you grapple with and how much time it takes to fulfil them. Whether you’re a shopaholic, love snacking on junk food or enjoy sleeping in till midday, the instant gratification you seek from these sense-driven excesses and indulgences is fleeting and takes you further away from your path or higher purpose.
Considering this, practising brahmacharya can be as simple as devoting time to meditation, journaling or walking in nature. These are just a few of many ways you can explore and connect with your inner self by directing energy away from outward desires.
More than ever, we are becoming defined by our possessions. Whether it’s the clothes we wear, the gadgets we own or even where we live, our ownership and attachment to our possessions, and the never-ending desire to accumulate more, have become an ingrained part of our identities and a measure of happiness.
The fourth yama, aparigraha, asks we do something very radical for our material world: that is, let go of our attachments and recognise their impermanence. This doesn’t mean you have to start throwing away everything you own. Instead, before you start accumulating new objects, think about whether you really need the item in question and what purpose it will serve. This kind of thinking helps ensure your material possessions don’t come to define you.
By slowly learning to curb the cravings of the ego and the desire to accumulate more, you can start to refocus and become content with and grateful for the immaterial things in your life. Letting go of greed and desire allows room for new energy and slowly lets us see we don’t need more objects to make us happy — we already have everything we need within us.
The five niyamas
Now that you have a grasp of the yamas’ moral codes, let’s move on to the niyamas or personal observances that you can actively adopt and use as a guide for living soulfully.
Saucha, the first of the niyamas, refers to purity and cleanliness. Outer purity can have a very literal interpretation and can be achieved by upholding a physical level of hygiene, choosing to eat nourishing, wholesome foods or maintaining a clutter-free living environment. On a deeper level, saucha can be achieved through asana practice to purify and detoxify the body, pranayama (breathing exercises) to cleanse the lungs and oxygenate the blood and meditation to clear the mind.
By slowly learning to curb the cravings of the ego and the desire to accumulate more, you can start to refocus and become content and grateful for the immaterial things in your life.
However, according to Patanjali, this pursuit of purity should actually serve as a reminder that our bodies can never be perfectly clean. No matter how much pranayama you do, you can walk outside and inhale polluted air. No matter how much you scrub yourself clean, you’ll eventually break a sweat again. And, no matter what you do, your body will age and decay.
Really, then, saucha reminds us of our transient nature and shouldn’t be done in the pursuit of vanity but out of respect for the consciousness within. It evokes the idea of treating the body as a temple. Purifying the body on the outside, and cleansing it within, acts as preparation as you progress down the yogic path of self-awareness.
The second niyama, santosha, focuses on finding happiness and peace within rather than from external sources.
During life’s wonderful moments, contentment comes effortlessly. But true practice of this niyama applies not only during good times but during the bad as well. Life can throw a lot of curve balls and practising santosha is something that can help you get through the less-than-great moments.
By taking things as they come and making peace with your present circumstances, you can cultivate contentment. Santosha’s priority is the present. No matter how difficult the road ahead might seem, santosha is that secret, inner source of happiness you can tap into in any moment.
Choosing santosha is an active decision. In life, we often find ourselves in situations where we feel powerless and without any choice. However, you always have the ability to practise santosha if you truly want to. Contentment isn’t dependent on the past or future, on material objects or anyone else. Being contented with what you have, rather than unhappy with what you lack, allows you to rediscover the abundance around you and more joy and bliss to enter your life.
Tapas: disciplined use of energy
The translation of tapas is to heat or burn away impurities by way of practising discipline or “austerity”. Tapas is a complex principle and, with reference to words like “fiery discipline” in The Sutras, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by this niyama. However, there are lots of ways to integrate the idea of tapas into your life in a simple and palatable manner.
If we focus on the idea of tapas as cultivating a sense of self-discipline, there are many ways it can be applied to our lives. For some, this might be simply finding time each day for asana practice, or it could mean progressing to the next level and dabbling in a more advanced posture. Tapas in reference to asanas, regardless of how you might apply it, shows the literal side of heating the body and cleansing it of impurities through a disciplined practice.
However, tapas need not apply only to asana practice. It could also involve making the conscious decision to become more mindful in your day, adopting and maintaining a healthy lifestyle or even actively implementing the yamas and niyamas. In whatever form, tapas is about motivation, consistency and achieving your goals. It’s about commitment, dedication and focus to avoid the habits, thoughts and impurities, whether physical or emotional, that cause you to diverge from your purpose or path.
Svadhyaya is all about self-study and self-analysis. In yogic terms, many of us already do this through asana, pranayama and meditation, but there are other ways to practise svadhyaya.
Svadhyaya can be as simple as studying yogic writings, whether ancient texts or blogs by your favourite yoga teacher, in a conscious manner. This means not just reading for the sake of it but actively engaging with the writings and thinking about how they apply to you and your life.
You can also practise this niyama by setting aside time to reflect on your actions, values and interactions and the impact they have on yourself and others. You can do this by keeping a journal or by simply finding a peaceful space to sit, focus on the breath and reflect.
Self-analysis allows us to start knowing our true selves on a much deeper level. When we reflect, we start to recognise the intricacies and nuances of our being. More often than not, we see things that surprise us and are far removed from how we like to think of ourselves. Remember during these times to also practise ahimsa and not look at yourself with judgement or criticism. Instead, take an objective standpoint during svadhyaya and recognise and accept all layers of your being.
Isvara pranidhana: self-surrender
While the final niyama, isvara pranidhana, translates to surrendering to God, it’s important to note that you need not take a religious standpoint here. The idea of God instead refers to a divine universal force that is so much bigger than ourselves. Think of it as the underlying order of the universe or the force that guides us along this thing called life, where we make up just one part of a great, big whole.
Isvara pranidhana makes sense as the last niyama as we’ve done a lot of work to get here. We’ve cleansed, practised contentment, learned self-discipline and reflected deeply on ourselves. Along the entire way, we’ve striven to find union and cultivate self-awareness and now must surrender to it. We must surrender to ourselves.
You can do this in child’s pose or when you find stability and peace within challenging postures. You can do it during the course of your day, perhaps when stress is building up and you need a moment to yourself.
To surrender, you quieten the mind, breathe deeply and become aware of your entire being and the unity within. Surrendering the ego and your desires requires trust and courage, for you must allow yourself to simply be, without the bells and whistles, without anything but that awareness of your true self. It’s a humbling and powerful experience where you simply let go and, in that moment, let it be.
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