When you think of yoga, what comes to mind? For many in the West, yoga is now synonymous with the physical practice, but it can be so much more than that. When we look beyond the asanas and take our yoga off the mat and into our daily lives, we can open ourselves up to a more fulfilling life.
Surprisingly, one of the most useful toolkits yoga gives us is an ancient yoga text written over 1,700 years ago.
If you’ve been practicing yoga for a while, you might have heard of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras*, often referred to as one of the classical texts on yoga. In it, very little reference is made to the physical practice of yoga, which probably bore little resemblance to yoga as we now know it!
In the second chapter or Pada, Patanjali describes Ashtanga Yoga – The Eight Limbs of Yoga, which are guidelines for spiritual growth through right living. Sometimes seen as a ladder or path, the first two rungs or limbs are the Yamas and Niyamas.
The Yamas and Niyamas were written as ethical and moral guidelines for yogis, but the more I delve into them, the more I think they can act as an inspiring guide for us to live a more compelling, fruitful and engaged life.
Are the Yamas and Niyamas still relevant today?
Since they were written centuries ago, how relevant are they today? How do they provide insight and a moral guide to help us face the complexities of modern life?
Until fairly recently, we in the West relied on Christianity to provide our moral compass but now with almost 50% of the population in the UK claiming to have no faith* and people feeling increasingly disillusioned with churches and religion, where are we to turn?
Well surprisingly, even though Patanjali’s text was written so long ago and Patanjali’s outer world certainly looked nothing like ours,
our inner landscape is still the same. We all have the same emotions; we all feel love, fear, anger, and jealousy.
Of course, we face different challenges from the ones around in Patanjali’s day, but we can learn so much about ourselves by taking the time to reflect regularly on the Yamas and Niyamas, which in her book of the same name, Deborah Adele refers to as ‘jewels’:
“I often think of them as jewels, because they are the rare gems of wisdom that give direction to a well-lived and joyful life.”**
When I read this description of them, it really helped me to see them as beautiful things to explore, rather than seeing them as ‘restraints’ or ‘observances’, which are things we can’t do, or things we have to do (which can be like a red rag to a bull to me!).
Shedding light on how we are currently living our lives and becoming more aware of how we would like to live enables us to become more present and live more consciously.
Applying the Yamas and Niyamas to modern life
Over the next month, in this three-part series, we’re going to explore the philosophy behind the Yamas and Niyamas. I’ll provide some examples of how we can apply this ancient wisdom to our modern lives, both on and off our mats.
In part two, we’ll delve into the Yamas, which are literally translated as ‘restraints’. They focus on how we conduct ourselves in society and our personal ethics.
In part three, we’ll look at the Niyamas, which are observances or internal practices that relate to self-discipline. I’ve listed them below.
The Yamas of yoga
1. Ahimsa – Non-violence
2. Sayta – Truthfulness
3. Asteya – Non-stealing
4. Brahmacharya – Non-excess
5. Aparigraha – Non-possessiveness
The Niyamas of yoga
1. Saucha – Purity
2. Santosha – Contentment
3. Tapas – Self-Discipline
4. Svadhyaya – Self-Study
5. Ishvara Pranidhana – Surrender
Steps to a more peaceful life
Don’t be scared off! Remember, don’t think of the Yamas and Niyamas as rules but rather as a foundation or themes to explore in your life and your yoga practice, in order to live a more peaceful and harmonious life.
Take one step, one Yama or Niyama at a time, and proceed with compassion and without worry of perfection. As Swami Sri Kripalvanandaji said: “When you pick one petal from the garland of yamas and niyamas, the entire garland will follow.” ****
* The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: Commentary on the Raja Yoga Sutras by Sri Swami Satchidananda
*** The Yamas and Niyamas by Deborah Adele
About the author
Jess qualified as a yoga teacher over 8 years ago and is now a 500 hr ISHTA certified teacher. She was originally drawn to yoga for its physical benefits but continues to be fascinated by the many deeper layers yoga has to offer such as Eastern philosophy, Ayurveda, Breath work and Meditation.
Jess skillfully provides space in her classes where everyone feels comfortable and can challenge them selves safely. She hopes her classes encourage more awareness, so people can connect more mindfully with themselves, each other and our environment.
Jess teaches in London and Hertfordshire, Workshops and Worldwide Retreats. She has been featured in Yoga Magazine and is co-founder of award winning retreat company Inspiration Space.