Yamas and Niyamas: Get familiar with the 10 Commandments of Yoga
by Ashley Rideaux

When many of us think of yoga, we immediately jump to the physical practice, or asana. Asana is the third, and only one of eight limbs in the path of practice according to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Before we approach the poses, we must first learn how to interact with one another, and with ourselves. This is the basis of the first two limbs, the yamas and the niyamas, or the yogic equivalent of the 10 Commandments.

THE YAMAS

 How we interact with the world.

Ahimsa: Nonviolence

Though most commonly defined as nonviolence, I have always preferred Desikichar’s definition of ahimsa, “Consideration for all living things, especially those who are innocent, in difficulty, or worse off than we are.” As a yoga teacher I was trained to, and now teach my students, teach people what to do, as opposed to telling them what not to do. I feel as though this is what Desikachar has done. Instead of telling us, not to harm one another, he’s reminding us show compassion for one another. Be sure to start this practice with self in mind. The living creature we tend to show the most violence to is self, so remember, you are deserving of compassion as well.

Satya: Truthfullness

“If you tell the truth, you never have to remember anything.” This little offering from Mark Twain speaks volumes. Speaking the truth and living in your truth has an amazing way of uncomplicating things, the majority of the time. The times in life where we choose otherwise, are when the truth may cause harm to self, or others. For instance, gossip. Sharing information that is not yours to share (even if it’s true) may be damaging to others involved. Or, telling a friend the new rug they bought for their home is ugly even though they really love it.  Remember always that the yamas and niyamas were placed in a specific order intentionally. So first and foremost, we do no harm.

Asteya: Non-stealing

It’s sounds simple enough; don’t take what doesn’t belong to you. But what about spending an hour on facebook at work, or putting a few packets of sugar in your coffee at starbucks, and then a few in your purse for later, or being the only, or loudest voice when working on a group project? Be cautious of the ways we steal not only physical things, but also time and attention.

Brahmacharya: Continence

Often translated as celibacy. Obviously, if we were all celibate, the human race would cease to exist, so for those of us not planning on becoming monks or priests, this is simply an invitation to be aware of where you choose to spend your energy. There will be times in life where we all overexert ourselves, but if we make a habit of continually depleting ourselves, we are no longer able to support those around us or serve our ultimate purpose of moving toward liberation.

Aparigraha: Non-Grasping, Non-greed

The idea of grasping for something implies that it is out of reach, or in some way difficult to hold onto. To grasp, or covet things in life is a type of greed and/or a lack of trust. It is okay to desire things in life, but it is our attachment to objects or ideas that gets us into trouble. Getting that cute outfit might make you feel good for a day, but it ultimately has no bearing on true happiness. That is something that must come from within. Trust that you are enough, that the universe will provide you with all you need, if you let it.

 

THE NIYAMAS

How interact with ourselves.

Saucha: Cleanliness/Purity

Cleanliness, speaks not only to personal hygiene, but also to our mind and our environment. If I think back on anytime in my life when I’ve been depressed, frustrated, or felt out of control, 9 times out of 10, those are also the times when I’ve been putting the wrong kinds of food in my body, I haven’t been exercising, my home has been a mess, and/or the inside of my car appears as though I may live in it. Order within breads order without, and vice versa.

Santosha: Contentment

This does not mean settling in life, but instead coming to the realization that we are not defined by the things we possess, or the lack there of. Our joy in life comes from the realization that each of us is enough, just as we are, this very moment.

Tapas: Accepting Pain as a Means for Purification

Tapas is commonly translated as heat, accepting pain as help for purification, or as my teacher, Jeanne Heileman, offered me once, to illuminate or shine from within. This does not mean that we have to beat ourselves up to find peace, but it is a reminder that often peace is found on the other side of effort.  There is a certain level of discipline required to get on our mats when the couch is so inviting, to choose the green smoothie instead of the piece of cake today, to speak kind words to ourselves and others, when sometimes it would just be easier to kick, scream, and cry.  Tapas is choosing to invite in the fire to burn off that which is no longer serving us.

Svadhya: Self Study

This is self study, self reflection, or the study of spiritual books.  In essence, the study of anything that elevates, or gets us closer to, our higher Self (the permanent, infinite, divine within).  Gary Kraftskow speaks of this practice as polishing the mirror, so that one may see oneself more clearly.  He has this to say on the topic…

“Although the classical means of svadhyaya were mantras, texts, and masters, we can use our wives, husbands, lovers, friends, yoga students, or yoga teachers. Everybody. Everything. In fact, all of our activities can be an opportunity to see more deeply who we are and how we operate, and on that basis we can begin to refine ourselves and thus become clearer and more appropriate in our behavior.”

For me, personally, self study is about watching myself with an eye of interest, with a desire to learn and grow as opposed to judge and label.

 

Ishwara Pranidhanani: Surrender to the Divine

Isvara is another name for the Divine.  For some this is God, for others it is simply an acknowledgment of something greater than self.  Pranidhana is about surrendering, which initially, sounded so passive to me, but in practice has been quite challenging.  Here’s where the big work of letting go of attachment to the ego comes in to play.  At the end of the day, a pimple on my nose, a dimple in my thigh, are all impermanent, and yet, I can allow something this small to ruin a moment, or my whole day. Something so insignificant can pull me from my true center, and thus, my peace.  So, Isvara Pranidhana, surrendering to something greater than self, or offering the efforts of our practice (on and off our mats) to something other than self, can help us get out of our own way.  It invites us to let go of worry of the impermanent, so that we may come to know, love, and appreciate our higher Self.

 

As we find greater peace in our interactions with others and self through the practice of the yamas and niyamas we are then able to explore the next 6 limbs of practice (asana [posture], pranayama [breath control/extension of life force], pratyahara [sense withdrawal], dharana [concentration], dhyana [meditation], samadi [absorption]) with greater patience, more efficiency, and thus, getting us closer to liberation!

Enlighten on, sisters.

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Ashley Rideaux

Ashley is an LA based lover of life, professional giggler, philosopher, dreamer, lululemon ambassador, sister, daughter, aunt, artist, writer, yoga teacher, yogaworks teacher trainer, mentor and student, rockin' a contagious smile, big hair, and a huge heart.
  1. Serina says:

    It took me atleast 2 years to understand the yamas and niyamas and consciously practice each one in my everyday life. While I’m still not perfect I constantly try to remind myself of these limbs. This was a great summary; loved it and thank you.

    • Ashley Rideaux says:

      Serina! Thank you for the lovely comment and the sharing a little about your journey. No need to be perfect, just present with the practice. It sounds like you’re already doing a great job 🙂

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