Yamas and Niyamas
By Tammy Limbach
The teacher training is about to start. The first assignment we give the trainees is a study of a Yama or Niyama. Just one. We have them pick one of the 5 Yamas and 5 Niyamas out of a hat. With excited little paws, they reach in and grab the perfect word for them. Seriously, it never fails, each neophyte trainee gets the word that they need to get, we’ve seen it happen again and again. Magic in action, I swear it. As if the yoga gods and goddesses just hand them their first lesson.
Their job is to learn about their word in order to educate the other trainees. We ask them to please make the lesson meaningful, personal, and intentional. The last thing we’re looking to do is to make these potential teachers into robots or carbon copies of ourselves or anyone else. This is the very first time they will be teaching and we want to hear their voice and their personal experience.
The Yamas and Niyamas are the perfect medium to begin this process. They are described as the ethical precepts of yoga. Contrary to western belief, these aren’t strict rules on how to live life. I don’t see them as a guide or a template either for that matter. I believe it is simply (and not so simply) holding these precepts in our consciousness and use them as a gauge in our own transformative process. It would be so easy for any of us who know these precepts to hold them dogmatically tight. Sometimes I think it’s in our freaking DNA to do this. “Oh goody! Another thing I can judge myself by! Another way to feel like I’ve failed!”
Nope, that’s not how I roll or how I want to usher my trainees into the process they are embarking on. Let’s approach these “10 commandments of yoga” from the crazy notion that you are already loved. Let’s assume you are already worthy just because you’re alive. With that lens, the interaction or exchange with these ancient and brilliant precepts is completely different. Rather than approaching them from a forced, obligatory view, they can become talisman on the path.
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. Let’s say I’m working with bramacharya in a very householder way, I’m not talking about celibacy here, peeps, I’m talking about restraint. Plain old I-don’t-need-that-fourth-piece-of-pizza kind of restraint. If I approach the pizza with the energy of rigidity (i.e. I HAVE TO NOT eat that because I’m practicing bramacharya and if I eat the pizza it means I’m a failure) I can guarantee you will think about that pizza as if it’s your personal seductress (“pssst, I even have fresh basil on top!”). You may win the pizza battle or you may fail, but either way, you have not won the battle inside.
On the other hand, let’s say you’re practicing kindness and self-love. You get to that fourth piece of cheesy yumm and you pause. You reflect on your practice of self-care and realize you’re full. You really listen to your stomach and even acknowledging your desire for more. Every part of you and the experience has a seat at this table. Maybe you indulge, maybe you don’t. In this case, however, the exchange is completely different. If restraint happens, it is a result of conscious living. Not a dogmatic rule to abide by. Bramacharya in this case is a gauge of sorts. How am I doing? Where am I on the path of my own truth? The energy in which we approach our practice is the energy we will get back. What we put in is what we get out.
I believe that is why the Yamas and Niyamas are the first two limbs Patanjali mentions on the 8-limbed path of Raja Yoga. Begin with these in mind. Asana, the action of the aforementioned path, is the third limb. We can use our practice to refine and remember who we really are. We are not the one who swears at the driver who cuts us off, we are not the one who pouts or fusses when life doesn’t go our way. We may act out of line with our “higher self” at times (maybe a lot of the time, no judgment here on that), that’s a-okay, it’s about the process of returning to that Self, remembering her/him. That’s what the practice is about. The Yamas and Niyamas are like ten sweet friends to cheer you on when mindlessly, seamlessly, you act in your highest.