Beyond the Physical Practice: Yamas and Niyamas

In class today we started to explore the principle of Ahimsa, the first of the Yamas, so I thought it a good time to expand a little on my understanding of the Yamas and Niyamas, two central tenants of yoga practice. I often get asked if there is more to yoga than what we do on the mat, and the Yamas and Niyamas are a great place to start. Yoga means "unity", and the Yamas and Niyamas help to join our physical yoga practice with our mind and spirit.

The Yamas and Niyamas form the first two limbs of Patanjali's eight limbs of Yoga, and can be thought of as an ethical guide or pathway to living a good and fulfilling life. As with everything in Yoga you can take from it what you need, with no requirement to follow any specific belief system. These are simply basic principles on how to live decently and with contentment, helping us to be more present and aware, and can help take your yoga practice off the mat and into the world.

Loosely translated from the Sanskrit, "Yamas" can be defined as "ethical considerations relating to others", while "Niyamas" could be translated as "ethical considerations relating to the self". Each yama and niyama is open to interpretation and you can find countless ways to relate them to your everyday.

While Ahimsa is a yama, and traditionally refers to non-violence towards others, it's a useful concept to bear in mind when thinking about how we treat ourselves. It can help to look inward and reflect on how we speak to ourselves; what is our inner monologue telling us? Is it speaking as a friend might do, lifting us up and encouraging us, or are we allowing the inner monologue to chastise us or berate ourselves for being too inflexible, too unfit, too immobile?

By practising kindness towards ourselves and transforming that inner voice into a positive force, a little non-violence towards ourselves goes a long way!

Here is a brief overview of the Yamas and Niyamas. In a future post we'll take a look at each one in more detail.


The 5 Yamas

Ahimsa - non-violence, non-harming

Satya - truthfulness

Asteya - non-stealing

Brahmacharya - non-excess, moderation

Aparigraha - non-covetousness/possessiveness, non-greed

The 5 Niyamas

Sauca - cleanliness of body, mind and spirit

Santosha - contentment

Tapas - "fiery cleansing", self-discipline

Svadhyaya - self-study/self-knowledge

Isvara Pranidhana - surrender to the universal, acknowledgement of something greater than the self

By starting to consider each of these concepts and bringing them into being in our daily lives, we start to expand our yoga practice off the mat. This is where the magic happens; it's not just our physical bodies that start to change, lengthening and strengthening; it's our minds and spirits too, bringing us closer to a connected state of living and being.


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