The Yamas & Niyamas are ten practices for ethical living. They comprise the first two limbs of Patanjali’s eight-fold path of yoga. These ten jewels offer guidance for conscious living.
“The yamas and niyamas are emphatic descriptions of what we are when we are connected to source. Rather than a list of dos and don’ts, they tell us that our fundamental nature is compassionate, generous, honest, and, peaceful.” – Donna Farhi.
In Sanskrit, the ancient language of yoga, yama means restraint and niyamas are observances. The yamas involve our relationship with the world, while the niyamas, our relationship with ourselves.
Yamas: Ahimsa (Nonviolence), Satya (Truthfulness), Asteya (Non-stealing), Brahmacharya (Non-excess), and Aparigraha (Non-posessiveness).
Niyamas: Saucha (Purity), Santosha (Contentment), Tapas (Self-discipline/Practice), Svadhyaya (Self-Study) and Ishvara Pranidhana (Surrender Into Source).
The Yamas and Niyamas are not a set of rules of self-control but rather a passionate expressions of service, love and compassion. Each section below includes definitions, questions to support the process of inquiry and practices to help bring these ten precepts into daily life. Journaling is a wonderful way to explore the questions in the following sections. In the spirit of releasing all dogma, may we each find our own personal relationship to and expression of each yama and niyama.
The First Jewel – Ahimsa (Ah-Him-Sah) Nonviolence: is the practice of not harming ourselves or others on the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual levels. Kindness and compassion are also expressions of this yama. “Any thought, word, or action that prevents us (or someone else) from growing and living freely is one that is harmful.” – Donna Farhi
Do you love, acceptance and forgive yourself? What are the roots of your anger and how do you react/respond to this emotion? Do you hold anger in (depression) or do you act it out (rage)? What about the many judgements you have about yourself and others?
Practice: 1) Cultivate awareness around of the foods you eat and products you purchase. Most of us are totally unaware of animal treatment, use of pesticides and their impacts, how farm workers are treated, and the resources used to create and deliver the products we purchase. 2) Become aware of negative self talk. Set the intention to bring more love and compassion to your inner dialogue. 3) Explore anger and rage, it’s roots and how you express it.
The Second Jewel – Satya (Saht-yah) Truthfulness: Honesty with our selves and in our communication with others. The willingness to reveal ourselves as we are. With self-honesty, we acknowledge our shortcomings, mistakes, and areas which need re-alignment.
Do you consider withholding information a form of dishonesty? Do you speak about other people unkindly (gossip)? Are there aspects of your past and present that you keep hidden from the people closest to you? Are you afraid that if you share your truth, you will be abandoned, rejected, or scorned? How do carrying these unshared burdens impact your relationships, happiness and well-being? Are you living your life true to your soul path or are you living the life others wish you to live?
Practice: 1) Consider a person in your life that you deeply respect and love. Make a commitment to take only those actions (including thought and speech) that you’d feel comfortable sharing with this person. 2) Set the intention to share truth with people you love. Begin with less intense content, in time reveal truth of greater intensity. Witness how sharing truth with compassion allows your life to come into greater alignment.
The Third Jewel – Asteya (ah-Stay-uh) Non-stealing: To steal is to take what is not ours, which may include wastefulness or using more than we need. Abundance is the recognition that most of what we truly need is already present within us. Stealing can only occur when we feel a lack of abundance. Asteya does not just apply to stealing physical objects but also how we steal (take) love, attention, energy, time and power from others that is not freely given.
Do you take credit for accomplishments not entirely yours? How do your lifestyle and habits impact mother earth and her resources? From the Native American perspective, how do your actions affect the next seven generations?
Practice: 1) Buy only what is needed and look beneath each purchase for the hidden roots of grasping. 2) When contemplating the above questions, consider the underlying roots which may lead you to take what has not been freely given.
The Fourth Jewel – Brahmacharya (brah-muh-Char-yuh) Non-excess: Non-excess means to live with moderation. Celibacy, another aspect of brahmacharya, means to abstain from sexual activity but we can also examine how we use our life force or energy. For those choosing celibacy it is vital to incorporate yogic practices to channel sexual energy into spiritual energy, otherwise repression can result. Tantra is a whole field of yoga dedicated to the senses and using sexual energy as a means to connect more deeply with source. For many of us brahmacharya simply means living a life with balance and using the life that has been given to us with wisdom and intention.
Questions: Do you use more than you need? Where do your exhibit excess in your life? What are the negative impacts of your excess? Do you crave more than you need: food, water, sex, space, time, entertainment, and material items? Do you use sexuality to deepen your relationship to Self and other or to escape? Do you feel depleted or in balance with all that is?
Practices: 1) Choose one area of life that feels excessive and consider how to create balance. Create action steps which includes evaluating the underlying emotions that may be perpetuating excess.
The Fifth Jewel – Aparigraha (ah-pah-ree-Grah-hah) Non-posessiveness: To possess is to covet. One of the main tenants of Buddhism is non-grasping. The Buddha taught that all material objects are temporal, they come and go. The great Indian saint Ramana Maharshi shared that if something changes, its not real. Even our very life in this body comes and goes. When we are living from true Self (being-awareness-bliss) there is no need to possess or grasp anything. When our cup is filled with love and light, we can’t help but share our time, space, and energy with others.
What do you really own in this life, property, spouses, children or employees? Are you jealous in your relationships? Do you hoard or protect time, space and energy? Do you wish you were living or doing someone else?
Practices: 1) Contemplate areas of possessiveness and determine underlying emotions and beliefs. We often grasp in order to feel safe: if we just had this or that or more, we would feel complete. However, we often find that getting what we want does nothing to change the underlying dynamics of grasping, so the search for something outside ourselves continues. 2) Meditation is a wonderful practice of Self-love/reliance/acceptance. Watch your sensations, emotions and thoughts in loving kindness, without grasping. 3) Practice sharing time, space, energy with others. Sharing is a very powerful ego-busting practice.
The Sixth Jewel – Saucha (Sow-chah) Purity: To be clean in body, heart, mind and spirit. To be in alignment with purpose. Sat-Chit-Ananda (being-awanress-bliss), the true nature of Self, is pure and infinite. However, the veils of senses, emotions and thoughts can distort perception and inhibit our connection. As we cleanse the body, mind and spirit we become a more affective channel for spirit to flow through us. If we truly desire to raise our consciousness, purification is essential.
What do you carry that no longer serves and even blocks you from living your purpose? Do the foods you eat enhance your consciousness? Do you practice good hygiene? What is unresolved on the emotional level? What mental baggage do you carry: concepts, beliefs, judgments and strategies that create distortion in how we perceive life?
Practices: 1) Meditation is one of the greatest forms of purification. As you sit in silence, with breath, watch the passage of sensation, emotion and thought. Bless everything, purify everything. Allow your awareness and breath to cleanse, heal, and dissolve all distortion and illusion. 2) The Native American Sweat Lodge is an ancient ceremony of purification where participants enter the womb of the earth mother. The elements of earth, water, fire, air and ether are used as doctors which bring forth medicine. Yes, the heat makes us sweat but our intention, willingness and commitment bring purification to all levels of being. 3) Practice impeccable hygiene – teeth, body, hair with the intention of honoring the body as a temple.
The Seventh Jewel – Santosha (san-Toe-shah) Contentment: is to be at peace with what is. When we live from ego (grasping and aversion) we suffer greatly. When we walk the path of healing, awakening, truth and love, we gradually become more content. We often seek love and acceptance from the outside but we realize we already are the love we have been searching for, we experience great peace.
In what areas of your life are you dis-satisfied? Where do you feel out of alignment? Do you know what your life purpose is? Why did you incarnate and what are your here to learn? How do you keep yourself from what you really want?
Practices: 1) Choose an area of life where you feel dis-satisfaction and decide what changes are needed. For example, “I am too sedentary, I need more activity.” The questions above can be contemplated to discover the blocks to contentment. 2) Welcoming/Softening: while breathing in, silently say to yourself welcoming, while breathing out, silently say softening. 3) Emotional allowing: set the intention to welcome all that you feel. Use number 2 above with every emotion that arises throughout the day.
The Eight Jewel – Tapas (Tah-pahs) Self-Discipline/Practice: In Sanskrit tapas means fire. Other descriptors include: determination, sobriety, focus, mindfulness, commitment, follow-through and consciousness. Tapas is the commitment to our intention (sankalpa in Sanskrit). We can’t achieve what we truly desire in our heart of hearts if we don’t take daily action in support of our intentions. Self-discipline is the foundation supporting each of the other jewels. It is not a form of self control as much as determination to take action based upon what we truly want in this life.
Do your actions hold true to your intentions? Do you walk your talk? If you are not able to hold fast to your intentions, then why? What is holding you back from living and being your prayer?
Practices: 1) Make a commitment to spiritual practice every morning and regardless of how you feel, uphold this commitment until it becomes part of your daily life. This practice may include chant, breath work, exercise, yoga, meditation, journaling or prayer. It can take three months before a new practice becomes established.
The Ninth Jewel – Svadhyaya (svahd-Yah-yah) Self-Study: Turning awareness in, we explore our physical/sensory, energetic, psycho-emotional, mental/wisdom and spiritual/bliss bodies (the five Koshas from yoga philosophy). We cultivate the willingness to explore our strengths but also our weaknesses (the ways we stray from balance, alignment, connection and intention). Many of the great sages ask us to inquire, to question, to leave all dogma behind and directly experience the mirror of this life.
Questions: Why do you feel the way you feel? Why do you act the way you act? Why do you believe what you believe? Who are you beneath sensation, emotion and thought? Who is the watcher?
Practices: 1) Journaling is a wonderful form of self-reflection, insight, and healing. Pose a question and let your deeper self respond. Keep the pen moving on paper and release all judgement. These pages are a sacred form of expression and listening. 2) Asana (posture) is but a thin slice of yoga. Even within asana, physical practice is but one of the five koshas (sheaths or bodies). Yoga is union with all that is, leave no stone within, unturned.
The Tenth Jewel – Ishvara Pranidhana (Ish-vah-ra-prah-nee-dahn-uh) Surrendering Into Source: To surrender is to move into flow with what is. Like the leaf that falls from the tree in autumn and lands upon the the flowing river of life. Surrendering to all that is, is an attitude of openness, softness, welcoming and letting go. The ego is about protection and separation. When the veils of the ego dissolve, we become aware of our connection to the sea of consciousness.
When feeling emotional pain, do you blame, judge, control, tell stories and or go into planning mode? What are your default strategies that unconsciously run when you feel mental and emotional discomfort? What keeps you from feeling grounded to mother earth and open to father sky?
Practices: 1) When emotional pain gets activated, sit or lie down and release all thought. Simply drop into the realm of energy within. Let yourself deeply experience the present moment, call in the support of spirit, light, and love and just be present – watching, listening, feeling, experiencing everything. Relax more fully with each breath. 2) Mindfulness is a wonderful practice of connection through being present with the world of sensation. We release the thinking mind and bring awareness to the task at hand: washing the dishes, standing in line, taking a shower, brushing our teeth or walking. For example, when washing the dishes, focus on sensation of the water, its temperature, texture, the feel of the soap, our feet on the ground, breath, and the use of our muscles. Let go of the commentary of mind.
The yamas and niyamas are not just practices for ethical living, they are natural expressions of our essential nature. At first, because the ego has strength, the yamas and niyamas may require great effort but in time they become effortless. Contemplate each jewel and create your own relationship and observance. Choose one yama or niyama to explore for a week or a month before moving on to the next. Let intention, willingness and commitment guide the way.
When we remember who we truly are, the ten jewels become effortless. Until then, we must practice.
Eaden Shantay co-owns True Nature Healing Arts with his wife Deva Shantay. He guides meditation, shares scared chant, and facilitates earth based ceremony.
For further exploration consider reading Deborah Adele’s, The Yamas and Niyamas.