Young woman practicing yoga outdoor in the nature

10 guidelines for leading a healthier, happier life

To discover yoga is to discover your true self. It is a journey that once embarked on will be the source of greater physical and mental wellbeing. It will provoke a deeper understanding of your true self, raising some questions that can change the course of your life. Yoga is a practice that can be integrated into your everyday life at home or take you to some wonderful places as you share with other students around the world one of the greatest sciences of our time. Yoga means different things to different people. For some it is all about the physical (a change from the gym or the usual fitness routine); for others it is precious time to just sit in silence; and for the committed student it is a way of life.

Yoga reunites all opposites: mind and body, stillness and movement, masculine and feminine, sun and moon. Yoga is designed to bring balance into your life. Through continuing dedication to the practice of yoga you will naturally begin to engage in the many other elements of yoga. Far beyond any workout routine, it is the start to viewing life in a more proactive state as you become less reactive to all life’s challenges. Yoga is like a tool kit you can delve into when you most need it and with time and practice you’ll begin to discover an inner peace as you understand what it means to be truly present in every moment. In the practice of yoga the ultimate aim is self-development and self-realisation.

We live in a world that is fiercely competitive and materialistic. For many people this way of living has created a confused state of being and a nagging yearning to search for more meaning in life. Yoga takes you on a conscious journey to discover what simply is potentially posing such questions as “Who am I?” and “What can I become?” As the days go by, do you find yourself more stressed, anxious and less connected to your own needs? If so, be warned: over time your ability to deal with this way of life will be compromised by fatigue, low energy and stress-related illness.

The yamas and niyamas were first recorded thousands of years ago by an Indian sage named Patanjali in an ancient text called The Yoga Sutras.

I’ll give you a little insight into my own experience. Some years ago I was working my way up the corporate ladder at a steady pace. On the outside I looked to be happy and content, busy getting on with life. Inside, however, I was lacking connection to my inner self; it felt as though a spiritual dimension was missing in my life. Back then, for me, spirituality equalled religion, something I had some strong resistance to because of personal experience. It was in a yoga class, however, that I discovered one of the world’s oldest traditions, a spiritual practice that is non-judgemental and not “religious” in the traditional sense of the word. Yoga is a science based on the concept that peace and happiness do not come from external sources but from within.

Now a yoga teacher and freelance writer, I look back and can appreciate the extent to which yoga has had a positive impact on my life. During the challenges I faced through my career change, my regular practice and personal disciplines based around yoga philosophy have been the key to unlocking the doors of my mind — each time the key turning that little bit further, opening the door to a life of peace, happiness and fulfilment. Yoga is very much about taking control and responsibility for your own health. It is about calming the fluctuations of a manic mind through breath, movement and meditation. In essence, it is active mastery of yourself.

The eight limbs of yoga are codes or practices designed to help you achieve optimum health, wellbeing and, possibly one day with much dedication and practice, enlightenment. Most people start yoga with the asanas, learning the poses that exercise and energise the body and relax the mind. After regular practice of these and perhaps also breath control, you will notice that other changes are happening.

Becoming more balanced and in harmony with your true self enables your thoughts, perception of life, ethics and personal conduct to change. Your wants and desires rule you less, therefore you move on to limb five, withdrawal of the senses. As your concentration becomes better and your mind calmer, you will be ready for meditation. As you develop your yoga practice, the limbs of yoga philosophy (the yamas and niyamas) are likely to become of more interest to you. The yamas (restraints) and niyamas (observances) are 10 guidelines for leading a healthier, happier life, bringing spiritual awareness into a social context. They are there for you to ponder with a rational mind, because yoga is not about mindlessly accepting externally imposed rules; it is about finding the truth for yourself and connecting with it through the physical practice in everyday moments and interactions with others.

The big picture

I describe the yamas as “the big picture”. Five universal principles that form the ethical foundation for living one’s life, they are guidelines to assist you to reach your greatest potential and they form the basis for living in harmony with all beings. Translated from Indian Sanskrit, the five yamas are ahimsa (non-violence), asteya (non-stealing), satya (truth), brahmacarya (control of sensual desires) and aparigraha (non-possessiveness, or greedlessness).

Niyamas, the second limb of astanga yoga, work on a “micro” level, focusing on personal disciplines and ways of living that relate specifically to the individual as opposed to the community at large. They essentially work on the ways you approach yourself. The five niyamas are saucha (purity), samtosha (contentment), tapas (self-discipline), svadhyaya (self study) and ishvara-pranidhana (surrender). Initially, the yamas and niyamas are an external source of guidance. Although difficult or frustrating at times, when practised with consistency they bring you closer to your centre until, ultimately, they come naturally and spontaneously from within, enhancing the remaining six limbs of yoga and resulting in a happy, content life.

The practice of yoga and the awareness of the yamas and niyamas has provided me with powerful insights into my strengths and weaknesses; each I day move closer towards the goal of self-realisation. Depending on your circumstances, the practice of yoga will serve different needs in your life. For me it is a practice I return to time and time again to inspire me, enable me to truly surrender to the flow of life, help me seek guidance, give me strength and, most of all, connect me to my true self during inevitable times of change. Although my introduction to yoga was initially through the practice of asanas, the importance of the other seven limbs of yoga and yoga philosophy itself has become increasingly evident in my life over time.

Yoga reunites all opposites: mind and body, stillness and movement, masculine and feminine, sun and moon.

Yoga philosophy helps you manage your energy in an integrative manner, working to ensure that your outer life complements your inner development. The yamas and niyamas help you view yourself and others with compassion and awareness, respecting the values of this life while balancing your inner growth with outer restraint. In short, they help you lead a conscious life. Yoga philosophy is not about right and wrong. It is about being honest with yourself.

The yamas and niyamas were first recorded thousands of years ago by an Indian sage named Patanjali in an ancient text called The Yoga Sutras. It was the first written record of ancient yoga practices, which, up to that point, had only been taught orally. Patanjali put in writing what he learned from his teacher, who had learned from a lineage of other teachers. Now, thousands of years later, this sutra (simple thread) is available today for us to read.

The following explanations are designed to help you reflect on this simple thread and how it weaves through your own life. The original text was written in Indian Sanskrit but there are now many translations and good philosophy books on the subject available. I encourage you to read further and discover the relevance of the sutras to your own life.

The changes that have taken place for me on the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual levels are profound indeed, reinforcing for me, personally, the power of yoga and the many different ways it works to achieve clarity, balance and self-awareness in life. As you read through the following yamas and niyamas, ask yourself if your thoughts, words and actions correspond with each of these principles. It’s all about awareness of how you live your life. Awareness is the first step.

The yamas

Ahimsa (non-violence)

Ahimsa refers to non-violence of mind, action and speech. It means being kind, having thoughtful consideration of all beings and demonstrating compassion for others as well as for yourself. Like all these guidelines for living, the practice of ahimsa works on different levels for different people. Thinking twice about killing an insect, avoiding negative thoughts about another person or refraining from pushing your body too far physically in your practice are all very different but relevant forms of ahimsa. Being more mindful of the fact that violence, no matter how subtle, is present in your life and working to change such negative actions (which ultimately affect others as well as yourself) is to practise ahimsa in everyday life.

Satya (truthfulness)

Satya is speaking the truth with kindness, approaching the world in which you live with honourable intentions and living your life with integrity. The spoken word is more powerful and meaningful than we realise. Mindless chatter and dishonest, loud or inconsiderate speech are not only a waste of energy but devalue the important things we do have to say. These days I find myself asking the following questions in relation to speech and communication: Is it kind? Is it necessary? Is it true? Will it improve on the silence? From your practice comes awareness on many levels. I have become increasingly aware of the power of speech and the importance of words that are based on integrity. To speak the truth is to form the basis for happy relationships and inner peace. To lie is to only deceive yourself in the end.

Asteya (non-stealing)

Asteya refers not only to stealing or obtaining physical objects without permission, but also to taking credit for anything that is not rightly yours. This important principle encourages us to take only what we need and what is freely given to us. I used to think that grabbing a few almonds while browsing in the Health food store or helping myself to my flatmate’s milk in the fridge had no impact. These may seem like only small things, but viewing these actions now as technically “stealing” according to yoga philosophy reinforces why I always felt uneasy about them in the first place. Although they might seem insignificant at the time, such deeds ultimately add up to leave you with a bad feeling that can so easily be avoided simply by being aware.

The yamas and niyamas are often “gut feelings” we instinctively have. The practice of yoga not only helps create space in the body by freeing up the flow of prana, or life force energy, within the body, it also works to clear a space so you can see clearly in your life. This enables you to tap into gut feelings with a new-found sensitivity that is ever present and always there to guide you.

Brahmacarya (control of sensual desires)

Brahmacarya refers to the practice of abstinence, particularly in relation to sexual activity. This doesn’t necessarily imply total celibacy but, rather, responsible behaviour and the movement towards truth. Applying brahmacarya to Western culture today is an interesting exercise, highlighting how promiscuous society has become and also the pain and suffering that often results. Containing your sexuality, or “vital force”, increases inner strength, ideally transforming this vital force to a spiritual level.

For others to respect you, you must respect others. By being virtuous you not only hold yourself but also others in high esteem, hence developing a healthy respect for the complete person encompassing body, mind and spirit. The outcome of practising brahmacarya in your life is a gradual, nurturing relationship based on friendship and consideration of your partner’s feelings instead of the short-term gratification of your own selfish desires.

In matters of the heart and sexual intimacy, never underestimate the power of emotion and the need for mutual respect. Once again, compassion, awareness and kindness are principles that will guide you when faced with choices in life. Listen to your gut feeling, or instinct, telling you what is honourable and what is not. Only when you listen to your voice within will life begin to play out as you hope and dream. Every action has a consequence and whatever your beliefs are about karma, on some level it is at work every day in our lives.

Aparigraha (greedlessness)

Aparigraha refers to the practice of greedlessness and only taking what we have earned. The mentality of our materialistic Western society is characterised by always wanting more and wanting what we don’t have. As Gandhi once said, “The world has enough for everyone’s need but not enough for everyone’s greed.” Not hoarding or accumulating unnecessary things is the practice of aparigraha. The more “things” you have in your life, the more stress is created, particularly with regards to expensive items. You become so attached to these possessions that they tie you down. Keep it simple.

Ironically, I have spent 10 years of my life working in an industry based around creating that endless want which ultimately leads to discontent and dissatisfaction. The more I earned the more I spent, in a bid to fill an increasing emptiness in my life. I have never been a materialistic person as such, but I can now see the lifestyle trap I was in. No matter what I did, where I went or what I had, it was never enough. I yearned to break this want/need/have cycle. I just wanted to experience that elusive state of contentment but had no idea how.

They say the simplest things in life are often the best. My life today is so much simpler. I love it this way. I have stopped wanting what other people have and can see beyond the small world of my personal desires. I still want to travel, live in a lovely home and be in a position to buy beautiful things; there is nothing wrong with that. The difference now is that these luxuries won’t be at the expense of my happiness, which is a price far too high to pay.

The niyamas

Focusing on personal disciplines, the five niyamas refer to the attitude you adopt towards yourself.

Saucha (purity)

Saucha is the practice of cleanliness and can be experienced on different levels from both an inner and outer perspective. Outer cleanliness is self-explanatory, while inner cleanliness can refer to the way you prepare and eat food, the healthy functioning of your bodily organs and the clarity of your mind. Practising asana and pranayama are essential for attending to this inner saucha.

T.K.V. Desikachar once said, “The process of purification and letting go helps us in the search for our true essence. As the impurities dissolve, the light of self-awareness and knowledge begin to emerge.” With regular practice of saucha you begin to realise the impact toxins have on both your body and mind and how nutritious, healthy food is such a powerful medicine that has a direct impact on your vitality and energy. Practising saucha forms the basis for a life free from disease and long-term suffering.

Like any of these principles, if followed, the concept of purity will be integrated into your life in your own way, in your own time. For some, this concept is harder to apply to everyday life, depending on where you live and your lifestyle. However, by just being more aware of what it is you put into your body and what thoughts you let consume your mind, you will find that your actions begin to align with what serves you best at the time.

Whether it’s a spreading waistline, an unsettled, anxious mind or negative words from another, be aware of saucha at play in your life. Look at where these problems that are arising in your life stem from and take gradual action to change for the better. We are so quick to blame others and not take responsibility for our own actions. By looking deeper and being honest with yourself, you will usually find that most of the pain in your life is indirectly self-inflicted in one way or another. You are ultimately the driver in the front seat; make a conscious decision about which road you take.

They say it takes three weeks to break a habit and discipline is required to make any significant changes. Balance is the key. You need to be realistic and have your fair share of fun. However, next time you reach for a cigarette or alcoholic drink, for example, or think badly of another person, be mindful of the consequences and, once again, let your gut feeling be your guide.

Samtosha (contentment)

To be content with what you have and accept where you are in every moment sounds easy enough, yet it is a difficult concept to implement in today’s world. To truly accept what happens in life is freedom in itself. The ability to accept when things go wrong, to learn from these experiences and then move on has had a huge impact on my life. Acceptance is a graceful power and one of the greatest lessons I have learnt through yoga.

Constantly building up unrealistic expectations of yourself and others will always lead to disappointment. Instead, work to accept each situation the way it is and let go of your attachment to the way it is supposed to be. Having a long list of how things should be in your life will only weigh you down. Don’t cling to the past and worry about the future, all the while wishing your life was that little bit different. Be thankful for all you have rather than wasting energy thinking about all the things you don’t. B.K.S. Iyengar once stated, “From contentment results unparalleled happiness.”

Next time you are sitting quietly or, ideally, when you are in the savasana posture (corpse pose), close your eyes and say to yourself, “I am enough now” — not tomorrow when you’ve been to the gym; not at the end of the week when you’ve spent half your pay packet on the latest pair of designer jeans. The next time you lie in savasana, lie there not wanting to fix or change anything — not yourself, not the people closest to you, not your situation. Listen to your breath, be totally absorbed in that moment and with gratitude see your life as absolutely perfect just the way it is. This is what samtosha feels like.

Tapas (self-discipline)

Tapas literally means “that which generates heat”. It refers to disciplines and actions that purify the mind and body, increasing a person’s desire for enlightenment. In this sense, tapas has some crossover with the practice of saucha (purity). Paying attention to what you eat, how you breathe and your posture are all forms of tapas that help prevent the build-up of what T.K.V. Desikachar describes as “rubbish” in the body and mind.

Tapas refers to self-discipline, a conscious commitment to your aim and the burning of all desires and obstacles to reach your chosen goal. A regular yoga practice has the potential to set a new benchmark in your life in terms of commitment to routine and changing your lifestyle for the better — change that will serve you in life rather than hold you back. It isn’t easy maintaining discipline. It is hard to resist temptations that inevitably present themselves. I now try to see temptations as a test of my new-found strength rather than a weakness in my life.

Replacing negative habits, one by one, with positive ones and dedicating a specific time each day to practise some yoga (even if it’s only 15 minutes) is the key. Without self-discipline your actions, words and thoughts become scattered and your life force energy is weakened. Be patient and be positive. When you let yourself down one day just make sure you pat yourself on the back the next. Be realistic and kind to yourself. With discipline and compassion combined, things will slowly but surely begin to turn around. We often resist what we need the most in life. Remember the words of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois next time you’re making the choice to go to yoga or not: “Do your practice and all is coming.” There is no better advice.

Ishvara-pranidhana (surrender)

This niyama has had the greatest effect on my life over the past few years. It has been through my yoga practice and meditation that I have begun to understand what it means to “surrender”. Trying harder and pushing more (typical responses to a challenge in our culture today) is not the answer to progress on your yoga journey. To truly let go and be detached from pain, people, thoughts and things is to surrender to the flow of life. To find yourself in this space is to just be in life without wanting to force or control anything — a magic feeling, indeed.

It seems that the more we let go in life, the more things come to us — a concept that can take years to understand. Plan less and feel more. Be open to the wonderful possibilities and people that enter your life every day and take nothing for granted. When problems or pain arise, just tap into your breath, focus on your centre and surrender to the flow. To resist often creates more pain in the end. Life will rise and fall as it’s meant to. Focus more on being in the moment and making the most of every day, looking only within to seek the truth and knowing that inner strength and a positive outlook on your future will be the result.

Svadhyaya (self study)

Self study requires introspection. Studying how your actions, words and thoughts harmonise or create conflict in your life is a powerful yet at times confronting exercise. Are you saying one thing and thinking another? Are you walking your talk? The study of sacred literature is a great way to facilitate self study. By reading this type of literature your mind is less consumed with the pettiness often associated with day-to-day happenings and more exposed to higher thoughts and words of inspiration, giving you the strength to look within. Yoga is not a religion. The study of yoga can be incorporated into any religious belief you may hold and can be applied philosophically as well as physically to your life. By focusing on a higher ideal, you enable positive energy to flow into all areas of your life. Self study is getting to know your complexities, limitations and potential. It is a constant journey, one that will never end and should be enjoyed.

Divine expression is not only “out there”, in a child, a flower or someone you love, but is also deep within yourself. Awareness of this principle ensures that every action is carried out with significance, every word is spoken with meaning and every thought is processed with clarity. Most people don’t have an answer for their distress so they go looking everywhere but inside themselves. The more actively you seek out happiness, the less likely you are to find it. Happiness is your birthright, so claim it. Be one of those people in the world who decides to become all they can be, making the most of every day and living life rather than just existing in it. To feel energised and excited about your future and all you have to learn is wonderful. To feel free, liberated and in control of your destiny is possible. Such is the power of yoga.

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

You May Also Like

Wellbeing & Eatwell Cover Image 1001x667 2024 02 14t125429.653

The importance of stillness

Wellbeing & Eatwell Cover Image 1001x667 (93)

Yoga for a flexible mind

Wellbeing & Eatwell Cover Image 1001x667 2023 10 25t100852.360

Healing Through Yoga: How Mindful Movement Eases Grief

Imposter Syndrome

Yoga for imposter syndrome