Practicing Yoga on and Off the Mat
If you’ve been studying and practicing yoga, you may have heard another yogi say they were trying to “live their yoga”. But what does “living our yoga” mean? Is it practicing asana (poses) every day? Practicing pranayama (breathing)? Being mindful and present in our daily lives? Yes, “living our yoga” is all of these things, but so much more.
Yogic philosophy tells us that the practice has 8 limbs. These limbs are Yamas (moral restraints), Niyamas (moral observances), asana (postures), pranayama (breath control), pratyahara (sense withdrawal), dharana (concentration), dyhana (meditation) and Samadhi (Unity Consciousness). In the West, many practitioners of yoga may be completely unaware of this aspect of the practice. Many only know yoga as a physical practice. If it was a physical injury or limitation that brought someone to yoga, these concepts may never have been introduced. Relaxing, reducing stress and stretching may have been the total focus.
Hatha Yoga is a broad, general term for the physical practice, which consists of asanas and pranayama, the third and fourth limbs on the path. So, what about the first and second limbs, the Yamas and Niyamas? Practitioners who learn and apply the other limbs of yoga, in particular the Yamas and Niyamas are people who are “living their yoga”. They are practicing yoga “on and off the mat”.
In Patanjali’s day, around 200 B.C.E., it was expected that a student first practice the disciplines of the Yamas and Niyamas before practicing the other six limbs. Indeed, times were different then. But for us to “practice yoga” we musn’t disconnect from the true meaning behind it. The physical practice is wonderful. It makes us stronger, more vibrant. It makes us feel better. It allows us to open to things we may not otherwise be able to see or understand. Physically, it works on all of the systems within the body. However, we are much more than our physical bodies. Yoga teaches us that too. At the lowest vibrational level, we are our physical bodies, then our energetic, psycho-emotional, wisdom and bliss bodies. Learning about the Yamas and Niyamas, along with the other limbs of yoga allows us to tap into these deeper dimensions that exist within ourselves.
So, lets take a closer look at the Yamas and Niyamas. The Yamas can be defined as moral restraints, social behavior, or a “code of ethics”. The Yamas consist of Ahimsa (non-violence), Satya (truthfulness), Asteya (non-stealing), Brahmacharya (moderation) and Aparigraha (non-possessiveness). The Niyamas can be defined as moral observances or practices, personal disciplines, qualities to nourish or a “code for spiritual living”. The Niyamas consist of Saucha (purity), Santosha (contentment), Tapas (austerity), Swadhaya (self-study) and Ishwara-Pranidhana (devotion to God).
Ahimsa, traditionally translated to non-harming, is the first Yama. Vegetarianism is one lesson of Ahimsa. It teaches a very simple lesson, yet one that is so hard to live by if we are allowing our ego to be our primary responder to situations. Non-harming, non-violence extends to others, nature and ourselves. One may think of non-violence in a physical situation, but again, life is more than this. What about our actions, language, and even our thoughts? The mind is difficult to control. Thoughts of a violent nature, toward ourselves or others, can occur and spin out of control. An important lesson to learn here is to differentiate between truth and “chatter”. Truth tends to be penetrating, direct, and without a lot of words. Whereas chatter, the unconscious fears and patterns (samskaras) tends to be just the opposite. Consider self-defeating thoughts, “I’m not good enough. If only I was more like . . ., I am an awful person.” All of these thoughts are not Truth, but un-reality. As non-truth, they warrant questioning and examining. Luckily yoga practice allows us to develop witness consciousness, which helps us to examine these beliefs and to heal.
Satya, truthfulness, seems easy enough. But what about the “little white lies” we tell to avoid hurting someone’s feelings? This Yama is not always black and white. Georg Feuerstein, yogic scholar and practitioner, gives this advice for honesty: “Apply Ahimsa first and then Satya”. In other words, if honesty has a violent nature attached to it, it may be left unspoken. Satya, like Ahimsa must also be applied to the self. What lies are you telling yourself about yourself? A good place to examine these thoughts is during practice, on the mat. Look at the overall tone of the practice. Does it include all elements, or are some elements being avoided? This subtle dishonesty within ourselves can be a clue to our present emotional state. Every asana has an emotional energy, so questioning can be helpful. For example, “am I not honoring my woman energy and avoiding belly down postures?” or “am I feeling disempowered and avoiding backbends or feeling angry and only wanting to do backbends?” If this line of questioning speaks to you, a good resource is Hatha Yoga, the Hidden Language by Swami Sivananda Radha.
Asteya, traditionally translated to non-stealing, is more than that. It can also mean non-jealousy, acknowledging what is truly ours and being content with it. In this respect, it goes hand-in-hand with Santosha, contentment. In not practicing Asteya, we may begin to think “we’re not good enough”. “I need more of . . ., if I only had . . ., I would feel wonderful.” Thinking these thoughts “steals” time from ourselves and others. Going back to Truth connects us to our essence and allows us to live in the present. Remembering, “I am okay-just great, in fact-as I am” is practicing Asteya.
Moderation or Brahmacharya is the next Yama. It can also be thought of as responsible behavior with respect to our goal of moving toward the Truth. Honoring the life energy you’ve been given and directing it toward the highest good is practicing Brahmacharya. To address issues with this Yama, ask yourself, “how do I run away from my true Self, my divine nature?” Anytime you find a lack, you are depleting your energy and contributing to dis-ease within.
Aparigraha means non-greed, non-attachment or non-possessiveness. In simple terms, “following the beat the your own drummer” can be seen as practicing Aparigraha. Follow what you know is right and don’t worry about what anyone else has, does or says. Consider your needs versus your wants. Take only what is necessary. Don’t take advantage of situations. Getting stuck in the “Not Knowing Enough Syndrome” is an example of NOT practicing Aparigraha. “If I take one more workshop, read one more book, I will be ready.” There is always something to learn. Don’t get stuck in this syndrome. You are good enough exactly as you are right now.
Moving on to the Niyamas, the first is Saucha and relates to cleanliness or purity of the body, mind and spirit. Keeping yourself healthy by eating right, thinking positive thoughts and practicing asana and pranayama are all practices that support cultivating Saucha. If we can focus our primary intention on spiritual transformation by keeping our lives simple and uncluttered, we are practicing Saucha.
Contentment, Santosha, is the practice of realizing that all we need is who we already are. This corresponds with the very basic notion in our physical yoga practice that says, “be here now”. Be present in this moment. Show up for life right now. In practicing Santosha we accept what is, what happens, what we have (or don’t have) and how we feel about what God has given us. Surrendering in a forward bend with tight hamstrings, and being grateful that we can bend as far as we can, is a practice in Santosha!
Tapas refers to our discipline. More literally translated into “heat”, Tapas is the activity of heating the body through our regular physical practice. It is paying attention to our diet, our breathing. Practicing Tapas, we have a willingness to bring into the open and throw into the fire of examination all of our core beliefs. This involves sitting in the fire of the emotions associated with those beliefs.
Swadhyaya is the study of the self. It incorporates all of the other Yamas and Niyamas and their ability to allow ourselves to understand, integrate and transform all aspects of our being. Swadhyaya seeks the Truth. In performing this Niyama, it is important to look within and to seek other resources which help us get to the truth. Reading books, seeking out a teacher-or teachers, who help us to gain perspective and obtain the Truth about ourselves.
Ishwara-Pranidhana is surrender of the limited “self” in search of a greater “Self” leading to Union, which is the ultimate goal of yoga. It is the knowledge that we can only understand our human condition through spiritual means. This Niyama does not dictate who or what we believe, but suggests that through the cultivation of faith and the act of surrendering, the limiting box of the ego drops away and the grace of the Universe replaces it.
It is not enough to know the Yamas and Niyamas. Anyone can read about them and mentally understand, but only by practicing, questioning, can we truly understand our nature and move beyond the limited self, dominated by the ego, to the higher Self that is our true nature. The yoga mat can be the place to ask the questions and let the answers emerge in their own space and time. Pay attention while practicing asana. Where is there holding? Where is there fear? How do I want to move? What am I avoiding? What thoughts keep showing up? Go back to the breath. Go back to the silence within. Eventually, through asana practice on the mat, and meditation, the answers will emerge. Don’t force, don’t strive, just allow, and be present each day to the silence within. This is living your yoga.