Yamas and Niyamas


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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.



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By Tammy Limbach

Recently, a few of us Yama-ites got together and were talking about Yama’s vision. What do we see Yama as? What does she offer her students? How do we see Yama, her, moving forward? If we could sum our sweet studio up in a few words, what would those words be?

One of the words that came up during our conversation was the word safe. It’s such an interesting word to me, and one I’ve been pondering quite a bit lately. Even notice right now how you have some idea, judgment maybe, about what safe is, what it means and how just that simple word makes you feel. It’s a completely loaded word, which is probably why I’m so enthralled with it right now. In one circumstance safe may be a good thing, in another it may be a huge limitation. Safe may make you feel good, comforted, supported, coddled. It may also make you feel weak, meager, small.

We are all organizing our lives, our thoughts, our relationships around creating safety. Some of this organization is conscious, such as living in a certain neighborhood, or choosing schools for our children, or even the types of people we spend our time with. Then there is the hidden underbelly of how we create safety, the unconscious stuff. Maintaining and ensuring safety is a survival skill learned at a very young age.

Somewhere along the long road that got you from point A, aka inception or birth (that’s a whole other discussion that I am not inclined to begin), to point B, aka here and now, a good number of small and large occurrences happened that made you feel not safe. Anything from falling down and skinning your knee, to being yelled at by your caretaker, and everything else you could imagine. Our smart little bodies and psyches figured out how to navigate these circumstances in smart ways (having a good cry and being supported by a loving bystander), to not so smart ways (shutting down or acting out). Either way that response and its outcome was imprinted. If we survived (in case you are wondering if you actually did survive, you did. I promise), that response was imprinted and was probably repeated again and again behind our own awareness. Unconscious safety-making. Yup, sir and ma’am, that’s how it happens.

So here we are at point B with all these unnecessary mechanisms in place that we are not even aware of. Great! Everything seems fine and then we start some sort of practice, a practice such as yoga or meditation for example. Suddenly we start to wake up to our own particular version of crazy. Example, why do I judge or put down anyone who (insert whatever you like here, your own particular thing). We do it, in case you didn’t know, to make ourselves feel better. To feel safe. This is all underneath our consciousness for the most part, until, of course, it isn’t anymore. Thank you very much yoga and meditation practice (maybe even some good therapy and spiritual assistance)! This is when safety can be a limitation. When we’re not aware at how it’s running the show. This kind of safety keeps us small. This kind of safety can be very convincing too. It originated as a survival skill so there is a part of us that still feels the urgency as if it’s life or death. And to be totally honest, it kinda is life or death. Life or death of that delicate piece of us that is held back and has been with us for a looooooong time. So long, it probably feels like it’s who we are. Think about it, start to notice it, because we are all playing this game in some way, I promise.

THEN, there is the whole other sphere of safety that creates possibility, invites bravery, and lovingly encourages risk. This safety is gentle and kind. This safety can also be firm and strict. Please don’t confuse it with overriding. Overriding fear or even judgment has a different voice. One that has been known to say, “no pain no gain,” “suck it up,” or “only positive thoughts should be thought.” It’s a voice that usually isn’t life-affirming. The safety I’m talking about has your best interest in mind. This kind of safety wants you to take risks… when you’re ready. It wants you to realize how innately awesome you are, how able, how brilliant, how powerful you are. These realizations don’t come by playing it safe. They come by noticing when you’re a little scared (or a lot scared for that matter) and letting that fear have a place. It is only when we bring the dark into the light that we can work with it. Once that fear is recognized, then we have a choice; To stay in the place of recognition of it or to move through it. Both are choices of growth. Both are conscious. I’ve found that it could take anywhere from one small moment to years of recognition before moving through. The growth and the courage is to choose consciously.

What does all of this have to do with Yama you may ask? (or at least that is the query I want to seed your brain with) Yama is a place where safety is a big deal. It’s a place where we want students and teachers to come and be smart, and be brave, and to work, and to really look at themselves deeply… in every way possible. Svadhyaya, the fourth niyama. It’s not for the faint of heart. To do that incredibly daring work of self-inquiry one needs resources. The best resource is a knowing that you are safe. Safe to screw up, safe to be ugly, even safe to play it safe.

The Second and Third Chakras

While out walking in the dampness the other day, I started to think of the chakras and it seemed to me that their function could be likened to that of a wood stove (did I mention it was damp?). When a stove is fed with dry wood and the chimney is clear, the stove functions well, providing heat and energy. But when the inputs are not optimal or the pipe becomes clogged with residue, the stove cannot function as intended.

We are provided with many clues when our chakras are not functioning optimally. For example, if we feel stuck or dull, that may be a cue from the second chakra. Going with the flow, discovering your well of creativity, embracing your sensuality – these are all in the domain of the second chakra, Svadhistana. Svadhistana means “one’s own place” or “dwelling place of the self” in Sanskrit. It is located below the navel and maps on to the sacral plexus.  The reproductive organs, lower back, bladder and kidneys are all associated with this chakra. Orange in color, Svadhistana’s seed sound is Vam (pronounced Vahm). The yogis would therefore say that if you’ve lost your groove, in addition to looking at the root issues, chanting Vam, envisioning orange and practicing hip-opening asanas such as baddha konasana (bound angle pose), upavista konasana (straddle pose) and reclining pigeon can provide fuel for your ho hum fire.

The next chakra, Manipura, is located in the area of the stomach and translates to “lustrous gem.” Manipura is our core of strength, our vitality and self-esteem. It’s color is yellow.  The organs of digestion are linked to this chakra which resonates with the sound Ram (pronounced Rahm). When we feel sure of ourselves, trust our instincts, know something to be true in our gut, Manipura is open.  We are grounded in our personal power. Conversely, if we are plagued by feelings of helplessness, lethargy or low self-esteem, this chakra is blocked. On the mat, we can bolster our strength through attention to core-focused asanas such as navasana (boat), twists, even warrior II where we harness the energy of the belly to find length and openness.

Though not physical structures themselves, the chakras reinforce the power of our physical selves to direct the mind, and vice versa. The next time you register a strong emotion, try to pinpoint where it’s landed in your body and listen to what it has to tell you. You might discover some insights your consciousness overlooked.

The Root Chakra: Muladhara

It’s funny how much the body registers before our mind even catches on. We’ve all had times when the lump in our throat or the emptiness in our chest or pain in our stomach belie our outward assertion that everything is fine. To begin to get beneath the surface, the yogis direct us to be attentive to the body and then to use it as a tool to realign. Our chakras, the energy centers located throughout the body but primarily up the spine, respond to our physical, mental and emotional energy waves. By bringing attention to them, we can affect our physical, mental and emotional reactions.

Because the chakras are energy whorls, each has an associated color that maps on to the light spectrum. Remember ROY G. BIV in school? The chakras follow that pattern, moving from red at the base of the spine, to violet or white (the integration of all colors and highest frequency) at the crown. Each chakra also has a sound or particular vibrational hum associated with it.

The chakra at the base of the spine near the coccyx is Muladhara or the root chakra. Its color is red and its sound is Lam (pronounced Lomb – with a silent b).  Muladhara is physically associated with our feet, legs, spine and large intestine. From an emotional perspective, it is connected with our sense of groundedness, survival and community/tribe.  When we experience layoffs or sudden health issues or the moving away of a loved one for example, it’s not uncommon to feel like the rug’s been pulled out from under us. In these instances, it’s often the root chakra that has become blocked, disallowing us from moving through the situation.

We can tell ourselves to “get over it,” or “chill out.” It can be more effective to work from the body up, or from the external to the internal. In the above circumstances, yoga advises us to get grounded, to reconnect our feet and legs to the earth, both literally and figuratively, to address the resulting chakra blockage. Asanas such as malasana (yogic squat), low lunge or even tadasana (mountain pose), done mindfully, can reconnect us to that sense of groundedness, better enabling us to deal with the situation at hand.  The yogis would also say that by meditating on that chakra, envisioning the color red and perhaps chanting or internally circulating the sound “Lam,” we can affect the openness of that chakra.

Asanas are tremendously helpful in bringing us more into awareness of our physical and mental selves. I was recently watching a PBS special with Peggy Cappy, a key figure in modern yoga.  Peggy has been practicing and teaching yoga and meditation for more than 40 years and is well known for her gentle approach and focus on bringing yoga to seniors. She asserts that by doing yoga and getting more in touch with the physical self, her students learn to read the cues from their bodies, both physical and mental, and can better recognize and so access what they need. By cuing in to which chakra is affected, we can bring appropriate focus and attention to rectifying that blockage, thus allowing us to be less stuck in fear or sadness. From an external perspective, our circumstances may remain the same, but the goal is to change our relationship to them.

So What’s a Chakra Anyway?

It’s not uncommon to hear the word “chakra” in yoga class. But what does it really mean?

Traditional yogic texts relay that we are more than our physical selves; we are also pure energy—an energy we share with all sentient beings. Many different cultures and peoples throughout history have recognized this energetic component and sought to tap into it for purposes of healing or development.

The yogis believe that we have thousands of energy channels or nadis that run throughout the body. Nadis are similar to meridians within Chinese medicine. There are three primary nadis – the Sushumna, which runs the length of the spine (but is not the physical spine), and the Ida and Pingala which run on opposite sides of the Sushumna in a double helix pattern – they cross and separate, cross and separate. At the points where they intersect, the primary chakras are found.

A chakra is an energy whorl (in Sanskrit, chakras means wheel or vortex).  Just as there are many different energy channels throughout the body, there are many different chakras, but seven primary ones (six in some texts) that run from coccyx to crown.  In the yogic description, it is the chakras that help to absorb, filter and distribute energy to the physical body and our larger selves. Chakras are thus associated with physical, mental and emotional health, as well as the development of our consciousness.

When the chakras are in balance and spinning freely, health and peace are said to result. Each chakra has a unique vibration, and when one is blocked, disease (or dis-ease) occurs.  Chakras are not physical structures, but they do map onto key neural plexes and endocrine glands, reinforcing their link with our physical and energetic selves.

We’ve recognized this connection before, even if we haven’t labeled it as such. For example, the Manipura chakra maps on to the solar plexus and pancreas, and is associated with, among other things, digestion. If something upsetting happens, or if we are tense or anxious (even if we don’t admit it to ourselves), we might feel sick to our stomachs or lethargic. From an energetic perspective, this chakra would be labeled as blocked.

The great part is, we aren’t simply at the mercy of our chakras. We have the ability to balance them through many different avenues (including asanas). One critical tool is the link to the nervous system. Just because our senses feed us information doesn’t mean it’s true or that the information requires a visceral reaction. In other words, perspective is critical. The eight-fold path helps us to cultivate fortitude, patience and compassion with ourselves and others and so decrease the negative energy we stir up and get stuck in. I’ll look more at the individual chakras next time.

The chakras are another reinforcement of the very thin lines that separate our different layers. The more we can bring our whole selves into alignment, the more we can effectively channel energy to our physical and our incorporeal selves.

More Than the Eye Can See

I had the great fortune to be able to participate in a yoga workshop a while back. The instructor relayed some wisdom from one of his teachers which in turn led me to search for a particular passage from one of my favorite yogic authors (below). Yoga reminds us to experience the meaning, the richness all around us. And what a gift that is.

I sat with the frogs for hours that day. I let them teach me nondoing. Because I was calmed down enough, and quiet enough just to sit with them, to breathe with them, I had epiphanies of insight. Just sitting there in the sunlight, I had insight into impermanence, into no-self, into suffering – the so-called three marks of existence. This is what I had been trying for in the meditation hall, but here it was, right here with the frogs.

The great Theravadan monk Ajahn Chah used to teach that the whole world is teaching the dharma to us all the time. “All times and all places become occasions for us to hear the dharma,” he said. The lesson is right here, but where are we? In order to hear the teaching, we must slow down, cultivate awareness and tune in. Most of all, we have to drop our hopes and dreams and preconceived notions of how it should be. We must look at how it is. We must look with a mind that lets go. Then we will see.

In the entire path of yoga, there is really only one lesson. It is the one lesson we have to learn over and over again. And each time, it arrives as an epiphany, as it did, again, to me that day with the frogs: Whenever we relinquish our craving, clinging, and grasping, whenever we stop the war with reality, whenever we are totally present and undivided, we are immediately in union with our true nature.

–Stephen Cope, The Wisdom of Yoga

The 8th Limb: Samadhi

In the eight fold path codified by Patanjali in the Sutras, the final limb is samadhi, a state of concentration in which one completely dissolves into the object of concentration. All separation is removed. The senses are hushed. In this effortless state, we connect with our inner light, finding awareness, peace and bliss. The earlier limbs assist in removing the obstacles that impede this connection.

We’ve all likely held such moments. Perhaps when lost in meditation or even staring off into a lake. But having these experiences of union doesn’t mean we’re “enlightened.”  By it’s definition, samadhi is fleeting. The experience, however, cues us into that alignment, much as when we turn a dial to find the right frequency for a radio station.  It feeds our fortitude and equiminity, and helps us to gradually remove the distance between those peace-filled moments until we can move in a seamless state of peace – even when moving through our everyday lives.

When our thoughts and actions are completely in alignment and done with the highest of intentions,  that is kaivalya. B.K.S Iyengar describes kaivalya in this way: “The realized yogi continues to function and act in the world, but in a way that is free. He is free from desires of motivation and free from the fruit or rewards of action. The yogi is utterly disinterested but paradoxically full of the engagement of compassion. He is in the world but of it.”

Our goal is to live in the present moment, and to live it fully. To get there, we use the tools before us. We apply the yamas and niyamas to decrease our distractions and hone in on what is truly important. We move through and extract the knowledge from our physical selves via the asanas. We tame our puppy minds with breathwork and deepening states of concentration and immersion. Applying these resources, we move toward the serene core that yogic wisdom says is with us even now.

The eight-fold path is the map, but it is the journey that drives us. It is the intent that defines us. It is the inner knowing that sustains us.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
–T.S. Eliot

To the Core: Pratyahara, Dharana and Dhyana

The Sutras outline successively deeper states of concentration or disassociation from the senses. These are pratyahara, dharana, and dhyana. There is a distinct quality to each and yet a very clear commonality—movement to the core.

The sages outlined that as the mind is controlled, so are the senses, thus removing the distractions they bring. And when we are able to allow the mind to settle, we can more readily access the tranquil core of our being.

We each have tens of thousands of thoughts every day and yet we are not our thoughts. Just because a thought passes through on the conveyer belt of our mind doesn’t mean it is true or defining or relevant or important. In fact, most things rolling by don’t fit any of those categories. To find space between that endless stream and what we truly know, the Sutras say we need to find stillness so that it can bubble up. We need to train our minds to rest in the still point.

It would be great if it could work simply by stating “I will not have thoughts” but we know what the mind’s response to that is. In fact, it’s amazing how quickly thoughts of stopping by the dry cleaner or having a bowl of cereal creep into our consciousness when we attempt to sit, breathe and release. It’s not surprising that this happens, that’s what the mind is wired to do. The a-ha is in finding ways not to attend to it. Bringing attention to the breath, repeating a manta, focusing on a candle, all these things can corral the thoughts, enabling the mind to be one-pointed and settle, which in turn opens the heart.

On the yoga mat, our dristi or held gaze can help us to focus the mind. In so doing, we calm the breathe, ease the opening of the body and allow our thoughts and senses to retreat. Or, in the words of B.K.S. Iyengar, we “make the mind shut up so we can concentrate.” I love that.

Again, this process of concentration and settling doesn’t just happen. We have to work at it. And it’s not easy. But in essence, the only way through is through. To get to that tranquil core, we have to chip away at the things that block our access. Like much of yoga, the more we discard, we more we discover.

The Fourth Branch: Pranayama

Breath will cut through thinking because you have to let go to breathe. The power of breath is beyond the discriminating mind…It is not depending on memory or consciousness. Even if it sounds linear, the repetition becomes mantric and in this way releases the sequential mind. Each time you exhale, the exhalation is compassion. It is the breath of giving or letting go. The inhalation is receiving.
– Jakusho Kwong, Zen in America

The fourth branch outlined in the Sutras is pranayama. Prana means breath/energy and ayama means to extend, expand, control. Learning to control the breath or bring attention to it is a very powerful tool. In fact, the body and the mind and linked by the breath. If you’ve ever tried to hold tree pose while your mind is racing, you know this to be true. It is the nature of the mind to flit. And those jumping thoughts impact the nervous system, making it more difficult to focus or balance. When we direct our “puppy mind” to the breath, we draw those energetic streams together and focus them. Thoughts settle and so does the nervous system and the body.

The impact of the breath is particularly clear when we’re stressed. In stressful circumstances, breathing often becomes more shallow and centered in the chest. The body takes this pattern as a cue that it may need to be ready for quick action and flips the switch from the parasympathic to the sympathetic nervous system (our “flight or fright” channel). Our muscles tense, cortisol levels rise and a host of other physiological reactions occur. Bringing conscious attention to the breath counters this.

There are many different breathing techniques that assist with regulation, inhalation, exhalation and retention. But the most important is simply awareness. Shifting awareness from the scattered external to the focused internal helps us to be more calm, open and compassionate. In short, by harnessing the breath, we consciously allow ourselves to let go as well as to receive.

The Third Limb: Asana

Following the yamas and niyamas is the third limb of yoga: the asanas or physical poses. At a foundational level, asanas were incorporated to enable practitioners to become more flexible and grounded before sitting in meditative states for long periods of time. But asanas hold much more.

The yogis describe one’s being as composed of five layers or kosas, the outermost of which is the physical (annamaya kosa). Moving inward, it is said one finds the energy body (pranamaya kosa), the mental body (manomaya kosa), the wisdom body (vijnanamaya kosa) and finally the bliss body (anandamaya kosa).  Each layer interfaces with the other and the goal is to have alignment among them all. The asanas, while cultivating strength and stability, allow us to begin that inward journey.

Our physical selves can serve as an impediment or a facilitator in our evolution. It’s amazing how often we feel as though we’re working against rather than in concert with our indigenous nature. If we listened, really listened to our physical selves, we might find that our diets, our sleep patterns, even our approaches to things might change. The asanas can help connect us to that inner wisdom.

On the mat, the more we meet the poses, the less mechanical they become. Sure, this happens in part because we know where to place our feet or how to inwardly rotate our legs. But there’s also something more expansive, more organic that unfolds. We’ve all had times when we’ve held a pose and were simply sustaining a shape. We’ve also all had times when we married technique with energy and passion and wisdom and found ourselves fully inhabiting the pose.

Yogi B.K.S. Iyengar would stand in tadasana or mountain pose and ask his students to observe the pose. He would then repeat it, but fully inhabit the pose and his students would see a palpable difference. Iyengar explains, “It must not be just your mind or even your body that is doing the asana. You must be in it. You must do the asana with your soul. How can you do an asana with your soul? We can only do it with the organ of the body that is closest to the soul – the heart. So a virtuous asana is done from the heart and not from the head.  Then you are not just doing it, but you are in it. Many people try to think their way into an asana, but you must instead feel your way into it through love and devotion.”

It goes back to intention, rather than outcome. The goal of yoga is not to assume a physically perfect Warrior III. The goal of yoga is to fully come into your version of the pose, to feel open and grounded and calm, even if it is a challenging pose. And then to take that off the mat.

After I’d been practicing for a while, I found myself in an uncomfortable situation at work. The person I was meeting with was becoming very agitated by something a third party had done and I remember feeling my adrenaline and discomfort rise. From somewhere, I became aware of the word “Namaste” floating in my head and I instantly began to feel more kindly toward but distanced from the person I was meeting with. I noticed my hands and my muscles relax and my breathing return to normal. I interpret that as a translation of my physical practice to an off-the-mat application.

Practicing asanas helps to keep us physically well, mentally grounded, energetically rich and connected to all parts of us. That alignment benefits us whether we take it to the mat, the meditation cushion or even into our next meeting.


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