Do you need to make change in your life? The Yamas and Niyamas are yoga’s core principles (listed below) that help guide us in how we relate to other people and how we can take care of ourselves. They offer a chance to weigh up your life and help create positive change.
In my own case I went religiously to yoga classes for 10 years and experienced many physical and mental benefits, yet it was on my yoga teacher training that I encountered the transformative power of these ideas. Sitting on a beach in India after the course and weighing up life at that time alongside the principles, there were some glaring areas that needed some attention!
The enduring power of these principles - that were written around 2000 years ago by Patanjali - is that they can highlight ingrained attitudes that are detracting from the kind of life we may want to lead, or make sense of a niggling feeling that we aren’t in quite the right place; perhaps with our work, relationships or simply in terms of being in touch with what we really want from life.
They can help us make changes in a very visible way; like moving jobs, where we live or moving away from certain relationships that are no longer working for us. Or the changes can be more subtle; instead of telling the occasional white lie, we can choose to always tell the truth (satya), or we can make the split second decision not to snap at someone who has triggered us because we’re tired or feeling pressured, and simply be kind instead (ahimsa).
So here they are below with a brief description:
Yamas = What to avoid
Ahimsa = Non Harming
Ahimsa is a foundation principle in eastern thought and a call to work towards being at peace with ourselves and the world around us. To avoid harming other people, animals and the environment. Subtle forms include talking badly of others, over exercising, negative self talk or over working. Kindness isn’t always our first ingrained response, so Ahimsa takes strength, particularly in the face of animosity. Self care is an important part of keeping our reserves of positivity stocked up.
- In what ways are you kind to others, yourself or the environment?
- Are there any ways you could do more to offer kindness?
Satya = Avoiding being untruthful
Satya is a call to be truthful with ourselves and others. Are we keeping secrets from those close to us or not being transparent with work colleagues? In our yoga practice, can we be truthful with ourselves about where we are on any given day and move away from striving too hard in postures?
- In what way are you truthful with yourself and others?
- Are there any areas you’re not truthful in?
Asteya = Non stealing
Asteya refers to refraining from stealing. We may feel we’re not in the habit of robbing banks, however more subtle forms include being an ‘energy vampire’ and talking at length without listening to responses, or asking too much of someone who keeps giving. It is a call to recognise what we do have, rather than focusing on what we don’t have – abundance and gratitude over scarcity.
- Are there any ways that you steal from others in a subtle way?
- What do you feel grateful for in your life?
Aparigraha= Non grasping
Aparigraha is a call to be ok with letting go – of people or relationships that are no longer working well for us, of material possessions we don’t need, of regular patterns we may have got into, of being ok with change and detaching from feelings of jealousy. If we are dealing with grief, it is a call to go with the process and an encouragement to be ok with the letting go of someone we love.
- In what ways are you good at letting go?
- What do you cling to?
Brahmacharya = Maintaining our Energy
Traditionally, brahmacharya referred to celibacy, however in a modern context we can think of it in terms of trying to avoid depleting our energy. Are we overworking and finding ourselves exhausted? Are we partying more than is sustainable or eating food that makes us feel lethargic afterwards? It comes back to self care.
- In what ways do you deplete your energy?
- How could you improve your energy levels?
The Niyamas = What to embrace
Tapas = Purification through discipline
Tapas is about committing to the discipline of a yoga practice (or other holistic practices/exercise types) because it helps purify your body and mind. By detoxing/moving the body, eating well and calming the mind, we are helping to purify our system, and the upshot of purifying ourselves is that it tends to make us feel happier and more inspired in our lives.
- What is your discipline or practice of yoga?
Santosha = Aiming for contentment
Santosha is about mastering the art of feeling at ease and at peace with yourself. We are all born with different capacities for contentment and it will also be influenced by our life experiences…for some, contentment will come quite easily/often and for others, it will require more practice. Yoga and Meditation are excellent tools to bring about a more contented mind, though there are plenty of others – walking/gardening/music…
- What helps you to feel contented?
Saucha = Cleanliness or Purity
Saucha is a call to be aware of our own cleanliness and the environment that we create around us, as our environment often reflects our state of mind. The food we eat has an impact on our mood and health, so considering our food choices is key. Then there are our thoughts…an impure thought may be judging another’s actions from a place of superiority or judging yourself for not acheiving what you hoped to.
- Are there any areas of your life that could be less cluttered?
- Can you be judgemental of yourself or others?
Svadhyaya = Self Study
The philosopher Socrates wrote, ‘An unexamined life is not worth living’. Studying our self though yoga is a chance to understand the ego, and in turn helps us to understand better how other humans around us approach life. Study is a chance to expand our knowledge and inspire us to understand more about the complex and fascinating world we live in.
- What would you like to learn more about?
Ishvara Pranidhana = The Practice of Surrender
Ishvara Pranidahana is a call to recognise a force larger than ourselves, a sense of ourselves as a tiny part of a vast universe. It is a chance to move beyond our own ego and surrender to something bigger than us. A chance to offer our actions up to that power and a recognition that we are all one, rather than the separate entities that our ego would have us believe we are.
- What are your thoughts/beliefs about our place within the universe and a higher power?
A powerful exercise to do is to consider one principle per week and answer the questions above in a journal.