The Yamas or ‘laws of life’ as Alistair Shearer translates them, are ahimsa: non-violence, satya: truthfulness, asteya: non-stealing and integrity, brahmacharya: right use of energy, and aparigraha: non-hoarding and non-attachment. Non-violence can be understood as ensuring kind thoughts, words and actions towards oneself and others. This could be in the form of practicing positive self-talk, a daily Loving Kindness meditation whereupon the practitioner intentionally sends out loving thoughts to people they both like and dislike, acting with kindness towards the environment, and simply abstaining from any violent or unkind behaviour.
Satya or ‘truthfulness’ can be understood as being honest with oneself and others, and remaining authentic in all situations. If the goal of yoga is to unify with the truth and reality of life, then it makes sense that being honest and truthful each day allows for the experience of life in its real, truest and most honest form. Whilst journaling or meditating, perhaps reflect upon any areas of life you find it difficult to be honest with. How could you begin bringing more honesty into everyday life? Asteya or ‘non-stealing’ of course refers to not taking others’ possessions, but it also speaks of being content with oneself and not needing to take ideas, time or happiness from others. With life lived so much on screen and social media, it can be difficult not to want what others have, whether it’s a lifestyle, physical appearance, social status or success. Very often the need to ‘steal’ something from another arises due to a feeling of ‘lack’ within oneself, so perhaps reflect upon any areas of life where you feel discontent. How can you start to recognise abundance in your life and yourself? Brahmacharya is considered by many to mean ‘right use of energy’, and can be practiced daily by observing how the mind’s energy is used. Worry, anger and anxiety tend to use up a lot of energy, and usually that energy becomes wasted. Directing energy towards more positive uses therefore, can bring about profound effects. Each time you feel a sense of irritability jealousy or anger arise, practice the yogic method of pratipaksha or ‘opposite thoughts’. Can irritability be transformed into an opportunity to understand someone’s behaviour better? Can jealousy become an opportunity to be happy for someone else? And could anger be transformed into the ability to honestly express how you feel in a constructive and compassionate way?
The last of the yamas, aparigraha or ‘non-hoarding’ could present itself as getting rid of clutter, and setting an intention to be mindful of buying unnecessary material possessions. This isn’t to say living a completely minimalist lifestyle is the key to enlightenment, but that hoarding possessions simply creates not only physical clutter, but mental and emotional clutter ‘baggage’ too. The more time we have to spend rooting through material possessions, and the more we feel we ‘need’ that new dress, car, pair of shoes or phone, the less time we have to simply enjoy life unobstructed.
The Niyamas or ‘rules for living’, are saucha: purity, santosha: contentment, tapas: discipline, svadhyaya: self study, isvarapranidhana: surrender and the ability to let go of control. ‘Purity’ can of course be understood as living a life free from physical toxins and adopting a healthy diet, but it also refers to refraining from toxic relationships and environments, and instead spending time with those who make you feel good in places you feel safe and well in. Santosha or ‘contentment’ refers not only to being content and grateful for what you may already have in life, but also means reacting to each situation from a contented and balanced place – being ok even when things aren’t ok. Whilst traditional western perception sees life as a linear progression, Eastern traditions tend to view life as a cycle, and know that each ‘bad’ situation is soon followed by something good, that all ‘downs’ come with their respective ‘ups’. Remembering this can help contentment seem far more possible when challenging situations arise. Discipline or tapas helps build inner strength, and is a necessary component when it comes to those beneficial but sometimes difficult to do tasks like early morning meditations, jogging and running, eating healthily and going to bed at a reasonable hour. These things all require an amount of discipline, but they help cultivate a balanced, healthier and more enjoyable life overall. The concept of svadhyaya or ‘self study’ often refers to observing the mind through meditation and daily mindfulness, being aware of thoughts and discerning as to whether they’re beneficial or a simple waste of energy.
The final Niyama is the ability to surrender and recognise that controlling the outcome of every situation is virtually impossible. This ‘rule for living’ is reflected in the writing of the Bhagavad Gita, as true and useful back then as it is today, and something everyone can practice daily: ‘The wise man lets go of all results, whether good or bad, and is focused on the action alone’.