The Yamas and Niyamas of yoga were created to raise our individual and collective prana.
They are necessary limbs of the eight-limbed path of hatha yoga of Patanjali—described even as the “pinnacle of liberation” by Kripalu-trained teacher Danny Arguetty—and are the foundation of living a yogic lifestyle.
The Yamas and the Niyamas are useful both on and off the mat, and become an ancient set of instructions by which to live our lives. The Yamas are more externally-oriented, referring to how we interact in the world around us in a way that serves individual and collective liberation.
The Niyamas are more personally-oriented, inquiring into what daily practices sustain each of us and keep us on the path.
The Yamas and the Niyamas are also instructive in pursuing a life of justice and alliance to all people. If the 20 million yoga practitioners in the U.S. were to truly live the eight-limbs of yoga, our world could be inevitably transformed.
Some practitioners begin with asana, become interested in breath, and then move on to the deeper practices. Some practitioners come to yoga because of the depth of practice, and find a profound connection with their body.
Many of us bring experiences of acute and chronic trauma from the oppression in the world to our practice, and yoga can be a site of healing. However, a yoga class or training can also be a site of perpetuating and repeating that trauma if we only practice postures and breath.
With the mindfulness practices of the Yamas and Niyamas, we transform ourselves into allies, into stewards of all beings, into intentional, reflective leaders. Without this mindfulness of the Yamas of nonviolence, truth, non-stealing, non-attachment, and modification of our energy, we are likely to repeat the aggression, lies, stealing, greed, displacement of energy that pervades the world around us.
Without the attention and reflection of the Niyamas of purity, contentment, non-attachment, discipline, devotion, and surrender, we are likely, in our personal behavior and thought process, to be attached, unclear, discontent, undisciplined, and eager to control our lives and the world around us.
The Yamas and Niyamas are presented as practices, not as absolutes, not as commandments.
We are not sinning if we cross one of these practices-we are simply behaving in a way that the Ancients would describe as unskillful, and not useful to generating harmony in ourselves and society. This a crucial distinction-we are allowed to mess up-and we must! Our mistakes are fertile ground for growth. We are engaged in yoga practice, and we show up again and again, every moment a new opportunity to think, speak, and behave in alignment with the Yamas and Niyamas.
Dinabandhu Sarley, formerly of Kripalu says that “it’s not that yogis do not make mistakes. It’s that out of our mindfulness practice, we do not make the same mistake twice.”
It is also important to not get dogmatic or police the behavior of others on the path-they are also in their practice, in process, and inevitably if they do not behave in alignment with the Yamas and Niyamas, it will come to bite them in the ass. If not now, in the future. If not this lifetime, in their progeny’s lifetime.
Every single thing we do matters, and so how can we at once strive to be what Buddhist teacher Larry Yang calls “impeccable in our actions,” while remaining in connection with all of life around us?
In sangha, in spiritual community, we work with and alongside one another to live our lives in liberatory, energizing ways, and we must allow each other our humanity, to make mistakes and still be held in sangha. angel Kyodo williams offers, “the great gift of our practice to our work in the world is to not get caught in the dichotomies.” There is no one right way to be non-violent, no “right” approach to contentment.
Ahimsa: Beyond Nonviolence to Active Kindness
Ahimsa is regarded as the first Yama, and perhaps the most important and is often translated as non-violence. Before anything else, do no harm to neither ourselves nor any other living being.
This requires, often, more information about communities that we are not a part of-what does it take to treat Muslims with kindness in an age of surveillance for “terrorists?” I like to take this Yama a bit further-to not only “do no harm,” but to actually embody and create kindness in the world. Or perhaps, to be “harmless.”
Violence surfaces and resurfaces in every aspect of our lives; it surrounds us from how we eat, what we wear, where we live, what we do for our livelihood, how we interact with others through our thoughts, words and deeds.
“The endeavor to lead lives of nonviolence encourages us to simply become more attentive to, and conscious of, the full spectrum of our interactions with the world,” says Danny Arguetty in his book, Nourishing the Teacher. So on our mats, and in getting to our mats and putting our mats away, can we practice kindness to ourselves and others? Can we move through the asanas embodying kindness?
“Out of an awareness of the preciousness of life, we endeavor to be impeccable in our actions, not adding a single further drop of suffering to a world that already hurts so much,” suggests Buddhist teacher Larry Yang.
Satya: Living in Integrity
Satya is translated as truth, or honesty.
Satya involves living a life of integrity, where we strive to have no dirty secrets, where there is no part of ourselves that we are not in relationship with. This is a profound practice, to not even tell the smallest lie-to ourselves nor anyone else. It is important to note, that the first Yama is Ahimsa. So first, be harmless and kind, then, embody and speak the truth; it is advised to not speak truth that can be harmful-harmlessness is our priority. Integrity allows us to interact authentically and skillfully with the world.
This also requires an openness to many truths, that again, there is no “one right way”. What is true now may shift, and what was true yesterday may not be true today.
Showing up with integrity and honesty demands that we be real about the conditions of power and oppression in our world.
We recognize that black communities are policed more often and with greater brutality than white counterparts; that this land of the U.S. was stolen from indigenous people and built on the backs of black people stolen from Africa. We acknowledge that trans women of color are killed just for existing in the world. We witness that women still make less than men for the same work; that disabled people are chronically un- and under-employed, and are impoverished by the conditions of disability checks.
These are some truths about the world that we live in, and there are many more realities that many people are not exposed to or choose not to pay attention to. But it is imperative to our practice of Satya-so that we can start with the ground beneath our feet, and build changes from there.
Showing up with integrity also means scrutinizing our language and behavior for ways in which it may not be in alignment with the thriving and vitality of all beings.
This is a practice, and none of us have arrived—we are all learning every day how to be supportive and protective of each others’ lives! Satya then may incorporate the Buddhist values of Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Effort.
Asteya translates to non stealing-the non-stealing of time, of resources, of attention. Asteya is associated with consent—that we do not “take” anything not rightfully offered to us.
To live in accordance with Asteya, in association with Satya, means to recognize all that has been stolen from different communities. That men are not allowed to express their sensitivity or vulnerability without their very manhood being questioned. That the uteruses of countless women of color have been removed without their knowledge or consent. That homes are stolen by banks through “foreclosure.”
Asteya also involves cultivating a sense of enoughness. That I am enough, right now, in this moment, even without that degree, that house, that income. That regardless of the circumstances of my life, I am of value simply because I exist. I don’t have to prove anything for my humanity to be validated, to be deserving of basic rights and even happiness.
It is said that the opposite of greed, which lays behind stealing, is gratitude. The antidote to greed is gratitude. So we give thanks for all that has been given to us—including this world with its painful circumstances. That somehow, the conditions of this world are necessary for humanity to grow and evolve. The practice of Asteya then demands a sense of trust, that we each will be taken care of. And as we each practice the Yamas, there is a growing sense that indeed, we will be.
Aparigraha: Letting Go
Aparigraha is non-attachment, or not grasping onto. This is an interesting thing in our capitalist society, which is build upon grasping and desire, the notion that each of us will only be happy with the purchase of certain things or experiences. The Ancients tell us that happiness is available right now, regardless of the circumstances!
To engage Aparigraha in our modern world involves an attention to consumerism, which even involves the consumption of spiritual practice-of this retreat, or that training, or so and so teacher. This does not mean that we float and flit around the world without accountability or responsibility—for that would not be in alignment with Satya, but rather that our happiness and liberation, individually and collectively, is not determined by any external circumstances. It cannot be bought or obtained, but only developed from within.
Brahmacharya: Mindful Energy Investments
Brahmacharya translates as ‘walking in the way of Brahma’. Sometimes I think of it as, “what would the Buddha do?” This summons up our highest self with regards to where we put our energy, and challenges us, day in and day out, to truly show up as an embodiment of our commitments.
For monastics, Brahmacharya involves chastity. For all practitioners, it involves complete observation, responsibility, and care with regards to where one puts their energy in general, including sexual energy.
Do we invest our time, energy, and resources in that which promotes love, growth, and justice, or do we put our energy in that which depletes the planet or sectors of humanity in any way? Do we invest in paying domestic workers a living wage, or do we invest in whatever low amount we can pay and get away with it? Do we purchase food from farmers that enhance or degrade the soil? Do we interact with people of a different culture with respect and care, or distance and resentment?
Sexual energy is recognized as a particularly potent energy, which most marketing executives would agree with, as more and more, sex is used to sell deodorant, yoga clothing, cars, clothing, and really anything. So we are asked to act and speak with care in regards to how we manifest our sexual and intimate desires-can we do so in a way that is kind, honest, with non-attachment and non-greed?
This Yama claims that it’s possible to be sexual in a way that enhances humanity-our own and that of others. This practice directly addresses the high levels of sexual violence and childhood sexual abuse, as the behaviors that lead to those trends are counter to all of the Yamas.
The practice of Brahmacharya would demand that we are are honest about our sexual orientation, as soon as we can be, so as not to harm anyone as we engage, and to respect the orientation of others as their own truth.
Saucha: Clean It Up
Saucha is translated as purity or cleanliness. So the first personal practice then, is to clean our shit up. This involves our physical space and our bodies, and also follows on the Yamas with regards to our actions, words, and thoughts.
Danny Arguetty asks, “What do I need to clear out of the way so that I can focus on what I came here to do?” in Nourishing the Teacher. Our physical space inevitably affects our capacity to focus on our life’s purpose and daily priorities-the more clutter around us, the more clutter within us.
The cleaner and more organized we are in our environment, the same is reflected within.
As a justice practice, Saucha involves astute attention to the ways in which we internalize and perpetuate oppression and aggression-those nearly unconscious repetitions of racism, misogyny, transphobia, ableism, homophobia that we inflict upon ourselves or upon others if we are not careful. These are societal dynamics that we need to dehabitualize in order to truly connect to our whole selves and one another.
Santosha is the practice of contentment, a sense of being okay with the moment. This can be difficult when so much oppression, violence, and injustice exists in the world. Everyday, it can seem that the news gets worse, that there is more to pay attention to, that our actions matter more than ever.
Buddhist teacher Larry Yang says, “the scriptures say nothing about the next moment”, and that we must “do everything we can to not add another further drop of suffering to a world that already hurts so much.”
So we can accept this moment without condoning the pain and suffering that is being perpetuated in this moment, and while doing everything within our power to not cause further suffering in the next moment.
Santosha involves letting go of how we might like things to be, what we want to happen, and things that we want to control, but ultimately, cannot. History led to this moment; this moment is a product of our collective vision and karma. This does not mean ignoring or condoning injustice, but a recognition that patterns, actions, words, energy contributed to everything that we see in our world right now, the good, the bad, and the ugly.
If we can accept this moment, and not fight it, then we reserve our energy to contribute love and justice to the next moment. We see things as they are, and then do our best to add kindness, patience, fortitude, knowing that our actions, words, and thoughts right now will create the next moment.
Santosha creates sustainability in our justice movements—accepting this moment allows us to be in the movement for the long haul, to not burn ourselves out on this sit-in, this protest, this rally, this speech, but to recognize that this sit-in, protest, rally, and speech contribute to the collective good and will shift society over time.
Svadhyaya: Check Yourself
Svadhyaya is the practice of self study and reflection, noticing our patterns, and previously obscured aspects of our actions, thoughts, and words. Svadhyaya allows us to and be able to be so aware of these patterns and samskaras that we consciously choose how to show up.
We have patterns drawn in water, patterns drawn in sand, and patterns drawn in stone. Those drawn in stone are the oldest patterns to shift, and may include ways of being in the world that we inherited from our ancestors-historic tribal divisions, the residue of civil wars, the imprint of misogyny and homophobia, etc. We perpetuate these patterns without even noticing it, if we are not mindful.
We also have patterns drawn in sand, which are easier to shift, as the wind blows and the water impacts the imprint. These are patterns in our life from childhood or even much later, that are easier to shift than those in stone, but nevertheless necessitate effort. We also have patterns drawn in water, which are fleeting patterns that are easy to change-patterns from the last few months, or the last few relationships. We can shift all these patterns with mindfulness and astute awareness of our thoughts, words, and actions.
Svadhyaya can also involves remembering and being steeped in who we are in terms of our ancestral lineage and the healing each of our lives promise our ancestors, as well as what and whom we are committed to in this lifetime.
Dyron Holmes, a spiritual teacher in Brooklyn, says, “It’s work to access ancestral memory, remembering who you are. It’s hard to do that when external forces are compelling you to forget.” So knowing ourselves, our identities, our snags, our triggers, our privileges, our trauma, and being mindful of how all of that contributes to every given moment in our lives, is the practice of Svadhyaya.
Tapas: Building Power
Tapas is the practice of discipline and creating a container within which to build heat and intensity; tapas involves challenging our limits and building dedication to that which we value most in life. Tapas can also involve intentionally adopting limitations as a route to enhanced freedom, carefully observing where we put our energy, and committing to that which is life enhancing.
Danny Arguetty says that “The key to the practice of tapas is choosing self-imposed limits not as a form of punishment but rather one of inquiry.”
Tapas can involve abstaining from certain activities or practices that contribute to harm in the world. It must be understood that in a capitalist, racist economy, we are set up to support the system, so unless we intentionally behave otherwise, we unconsciously participate in a system that perpetuates harm for many individuals and groups of people.
Building upon our Svadhyaya practice of recognizing the privileges we are granted in this life, through tapas we can speak and act in solidarity with communities outside of our own. Through our commitment to the preciousness of all of life, can we commit to not supporting businesses that do not pay workers a living wage? Can we commit to hosting yoga retreats in a way that truly benefits the local economy where the retreat is held in a sustainable manner?
Tapas can also involve honestly and compassionately honing our personal practices, to practice that which is life-enhancing. This may involve giving up alcohol and other substances out of a recognition of the harm it has caused in many families and communities, perhaps even our own.
This could be to really pay attention to the foods that benefit our own body, and to not consume that which bogs us down or drains our energy. Tapas can also mean observing which relationships in our lives really feed us, and generate our life force, and which having a draining effect, and to pull back from relationships that do not serve us. Tapas thus builds lifeforce and vitality, both individually and collectively.
Ishvara Pranidhana: Bow Down
Ishvara Pranidhana is the practice of surrender and devotion.
What is most sacred to you in your life, and how do you honor that love, relationship, commitment in a daily way? How do you prioritize that which is holy in terms of your time, your resources. If we are committed to Metta, to lovingkindness for all, as a form of devotion to all living beings, how do we, day in and day out, moment to moment, return to this commitment, holding it as our guiding light?
Where we place our attention, energy follows. Where we place our energy, our attention follows, so we must be careful with both our energy and attention, with a recognition that they are finite resources that could be used for honoring humanity and all of life, or quite the opposite of that.
Surrender can mean opening to the circumstances of our lives, with its “ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrows,” as the Chinese Buddhist tradition states.
Whatever the circumstances, how can they be an opportunity to grow, to evolve, both individually, and collectively. This does not mean welcoming or condoning harm, but rather, given both harmful and difficult circumstances, how can that serve our liberation? How can opening to that reality open our hearts?
Surrender is opening to our whole selves, loving ourselves as we are, and in that love, expanding and evolving who we are to our highest potential. Ishvara Pranidhana is contagious-for when one lives in their light, they provide the opportunity and inspiration towards that for all beings.
The Yamas and the Niyamas have a radical, transformative potential if we, as yogis, fully engage the practice.
There are millions of us practicing yoga around the world-if we all embraced and embodied the depth and breadth of these practices, social justice would not just be possible, it would be inevitable, as Kerri Kelly from Off the Mat, Into the World often says.
Ultimately, yoga asks us to be fully united in all aspects of our being, and with all other beings, which is indeed a divine challenge. When we truly, deeply embrace our full selves, and transform our wounds, our trauma, and our fears into possibility, opportunity and connection, we shift the world around us, inclining all of us towards immense measures of love.
This article also appears here.