The Grace of Yoga: Yamas and Niyamas

Photo of smoke from incense stick, by Susie.

Reflecting on Change

One year ago today, I left my hometown, the place where I learned to let go of limited self-belief and heavy judgement. We all have to deal with our stuff at some point, and the last year has been that time for me. The significance of a date is a good time to reflect on where you have come, emotionally, mentally, and how your world views and ideas about your self and of others might have morphed. It’s a profound opportunity to take a moment to reflect on who you are, who you were, and who you will be. It’s a chance for finding inspiration from your past to project into your future self, the person whose path you want to take. And a time for finding gratitude for the people and places that have graced your life and been your teachers.

The work I have done (with help from an amazing counsellor, an incredible brother, a dedicated yoga practice, and a pile of great books) in the space of a year has released me from those burdens of judgemental agony. I’d like to honour that space with this post.

Judgement is a poison

Change in the past year has been substantial.

  • I said my farewells to a very strong drinking routine,
  • I left behind negative attitudes by addressing their roots in trauma,
  • I said goodbye to accepting abusive and disrespectful behaviour from others that violated my values, and
  • I developed positive strategies for dealing with, well, life.

If I would have known that my future self was talking about gratitude, then I might have given this page a major eye-roll, an audible “pfff” in holier-than-thou judgement. I would have told this person that they are a loser, being abusive to myself.

Judgement is a poison. It sits in your intestines, keeps your chest in tight shallow breaths, and imprisons the mind in its hatred. It becomes a little demon, and you do what you can to relieve it. The demon likes to put others down, so you feed it that. It likes when you hate yourself, so you do that, a lot. It likes when you take your anger and misery out on yourself in self-destructive ways, so you let it happen. Inside you is the real you, covered over by a false you, and it’s desperate for release.

Yoga and Recovery

I have practiced Hatha, Vinyasa, and Ashtanga yoga for over 12 years, but perhaps I was finally at a place where I was ready to really connect with what the practice is about. Under the guidance of a handful of remarkable yoga teachers, I rediscovered a disciplined yoga practice in my hometown. From morning to night, I practiced. I fought the whining critic inside and practiced two or three times a day. Power yoga, Bikram, Baptiste, beautiful Hatha and Vinyasa flows, Kriya, Yin, Restorative.

For the first few weeks, I encountered and dealt with that little judgement demon. She was a tough critic to silence. She judged me, the teacher, and students around me. It told me I sucked and this was stupid. It knew that it was about to die and I was about to come to life.

As the body became stronger, the breath became deeper. The posture became taller, and the mind more expansive. I felt even that my forehead and the eyes became more spacious. I was practicing yoga not just physically but through letting other aspects of yoga into my life, namely the yamas and niyamas. I was opening and healing.

Yamas & Niyamas: Back to the Basics

The yamas and niyamas were the bright rays of saving grace that started my year of change. Practicing poses for years was one thing, but connecting my practice with my inner life unveiled the cold hard truth: I was in a sorry state and needed to find space for compassion toward myself. And this idea of practicing is important, because we can never know when we will be in a new open state to receive new lessons, and so we must keep coming back to it.

There are teachers and schools that exclude the yamas and niyamas from their discourse. I believe that by doing so, they are allowing their arrogance of their ego to limit the true extent of the practice of liberation through self-awareness, as these are fundamental behaviours and attitudes that are easy to ignore. It is easy to think that we have mastered them, that we are better than them. If that’s the case, I can guarantee you that it’s time for you to take another close look at them and your behaviours and attitudes about yourself, others, and the world around you.

The five yamas, self-regulating behaviors involving our interactions with other people and the world at large, include the following (with some examples):

  • Ahimsa: nonviolence (patience through dialogue to ensure our words are not harming another person)
  • Satya: truthfulness (ensuring that our thoughts and attitudes about ourselves and others are true and not simply projections)
  • Asteya: non-stealing (not taking energy from others for the sake of your ego)
  • Brahmacharya: non-excess (or a right use of energy)
  • Aparigraha: non-possessiveness, non-greed (non-jealousy, honouring the liberty of all things and beings)

The five niyamas, personal practices that relate to our inner world, include:

  • Saucha: purity (eating and drinking elements that are most respectful to the body)
  • Santosha: contentment (honouring the present moment by not desiring what you do not have, being grateful for this moment)
  • Tapas: self-discipline, training your senses (developing discipline and heat to bear the weight of these austere spiritual practices)
  • Svadhyaya: self-study, inner exploration (developing mental attitudes that allow you to see past the conditioned ego to a more liberated awareness of the unconditioned Self)
  • Ishvara Pranidhana: surrender (to God)

(credit to Kripalu and EkhartYoga – though the examples are mine – crediting others as a form of Asteya and Satya)

Clearly by making fun of everyone in the room (including myself), not only was I so estranged from my natural state of divine loving awareness, but I was also in desperate need to deal with first and foremost the first step: Ahimsa. I believe that we can all benefit from a long study of how we are violent towards ourselves on and off the yoga mat. Sure, she had also received more than her share of violence from others (if you don’t know by now that I am an advocate for women who have been victimized by domestic violence then you do now!) but man my poor self had been the victim of self-violence for years, putting me down in countless ways.

Over the next few months I would work to deal with the root of this violence-toward-the-self through a disciplined practice, or tapas.

Tapas is derived from the root Sanskrit verb ‘tap’ which means ‘to burn’, and evokes a sense of ‘fiery discipline’ or ‘passion’. In this sense, Tapas can mean cultivating a sense of self-discipline, passion and courage in order to burn away ‘impurities’ physically, mentally and emotionally, and paving the way to our true greatness.

Emma Newlyn

In starting my daily practice I was also practicing Tapas, a healing medicine of discipline to shake off and wring out those narratives of judgement and hate that were really rooted in grief, abuse, and trauma. I started along the path to loving my Self, my divine nature, my eternal spirit and my blessed form. Recognizing my worth, I found the sweet release of forgiveness to some of those who hurt me. I try to always invite this into my personal practice and sequences.

The Ashtanga studio here in Victoria has a great slogan that encompasses what Tapas is about: “Stronger Every Day”.

Book Recommendations for Freedom and Compassion

Among a multitude of books I’ve read in the past year (which I will post in a future update), two wonderful books that accompanied me for part of the journey was Thich Nhat Hanh’s Breathe, You Are Alive! and Pema Chodron’s Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears.

Each book talks about breath, and allowing space in the body for breath. They talk about finding compassion for one’s suffering. Pema addresses the idea of shenpa: gripping that takes hold of us. It prevents compassion and breath while perpetuating anger, blame, and destruction.

When we feel something, when we are triggered by something someone said or did, we can move through a whole range of responses. The best is to see the feeling of responding, before we bite the hook of our desire to win, etc. But we’re human, sometimes we do. So we forgive ourselves, as for forgiveness from others if that is safe to do so, and we try again.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s book outlines clear methods that our thinking mind can navigate when we want to bite the hook of suffering. It is a wonderful resource.

Breathing Space

In the space of a year (2017-18) I have learned to breathe, to be compassionate to the self, and to find self-worth that is not influenced or effected by others. I’ve learned to forgive and let go (at least starting to), to feel peace, and to find gratitude. Now the present feels abundant, limitless, and delicious. I love that Alcoholics Anonymous makes gratitude such a central aspect of recovery, as it truly helps you create more space around a suffering ego.

Pema’s book talks about “the spaciousness of our sky-like mind“. This is a beautiful image to remember and aim for. Our negative inner dialogues block our real selves from flourishing freely. By using our breath and approaching ourselves with compassion the way we would to a suffering friend, then we can rise above the poison of judgement that keeps us tight, blocked, and smaller than who we really are.

A year later I am sharing the messages of compassion and spaciousness through my own teaching, messages of believing in yourself, loving yourself, recovering from years of abuse and trauma, empowering women, and helping hosts of students yearning to find strength and peace from the narrator of self-doubt.

I will always remember where I was, I will always remember the experiences of harm that I encountered from others and myself through my own self-ignorance. I continue to reflect on what yoga has done for me (in all its disciplines) by finding creativity in intuitive sequences. Each class is a moment in time, where perhaps the ideas of the yamas and niyamas can spark in my students the same kind of inspiring self-love and letting-go that freed me.

Photo taken by me. 

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