The Yamas, Niyamas, and Ash Wednesday

I’m not sure who first told me yoga was evil, or bad, or at least suspect, but I remember that A) I had to be taught it and B) I internalized that belief for a long time. I never heard it directly from my parents, but it was always just known in my culture, the way my culture also knew recycling was stupid and Catholics and Democrats weren’t real Christians. Yoga got lumped into the evils of “New Age,” although we had no idea what that really was, except that all the vegetarianism and meditation might snatch your brain.

So it was with some surprise that after college, when I finally started experimenting with yoga classes (at gyms who insisted there would be no Eastern philosophy or religion in the class) I noticed that I actually felt more connected to God, perhaps even more faithful when I was taking yoga regularly. I suspected that it had something to do with why I also felt calmer after class, why I sometimes felt relief in pigeon pose, and why occasionally I cried in savasana, the final relaxation portion of class where everyone lies on his or her back, eyes shut, doing nothing but breathing.

Ten years later, I still feel calmer after class, relief in pigeon, and every so often, I’ll find surprise tears in my eyes in savasana or meditation. I’ve still been trying to understand why I’m better at loving God and my neighbor as myself when I’m doing yoga regularly, and this struggle to understand has led me to a yoga certification and helping other prospective teachers earn their certifications.

Right now I’m helping with a teacher training program, and we’ve just finished studying the yamas and niyamas—ten ethical guidelines that make up the foundation of yoga philosophy. This is the second time I’ve studied them this closely, and probably the fourth or fifth time I’ve heard a yoga instructor teach on them, but like the Scriptures I’ve read many times since childhood, they always seem to speak to my life. This time around, I’ve been thinking of them a lot.

Most of my study of the yamas and niyamas has come from the book The Yamas and Niyamas: Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice by Deborah Adele, a book I highly recommend. Yoga Journal has also been a big supplemental help, and additionally I’m reading The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, as translated by Swami Satchidananda, a yoga guru who emphasizes interfaith study and community. There are eight limbs, or guidelines to a purposeful life in yoga, and the yamas and niyamas are the first two. Asana, or the physical practice of yoga is the third, pranayama, or breathing is the fourth. Numbers five, six—pratayara (withdrawal of the senses), and dharana (concentration)—work together to enable number seven, dhyana, or mediation. When these seven things are working together, one can approach Samadhi, often translated “bliss” or “interconnectedness” or more simply, “the peace that passes all understanding.” Personally, I like thinking of Samadhi as peace, and I like thinking of it as a goal we move towards, but can’t struggle to achieve. Achievement has been a motivator my whole life, but it never brings the ease or calm I’m looking for. Meditation combined with yoga, treating other people well, and breathing deeply, however, have come the closest to bringing me peace, even if just for moments.

The yamas are restraints, or guidelines for our relationships with others. They are ahimsa (nonviolence), satya (truthfulness), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacharya (continence, non-excess), and aparigraha (non-covetuousness). Don’t be violent, whether to yourself or others. Don’t lie, or steal, or squander your sexual energy, or covet your neighbor’s belongings.

The niyamas are practices for ourselves, and are saucha (cleanliness, purity), santosha (contentment), tapas (heat, self-discipline), svadhyaya (self-study), and ishvara pranidhana (surrender). Be clean and content and disciplined. Pay attention to yourself, and surrender to God.

Knowing the yamas and niyamas and even being able to correctly pronounce the Sanskrit is one thing; applying them to my life, or even my yoga practice, is entirely another. But today is the second day of Lent (another thing my Christian culture definitely didn’t acknowledge), and Lent has always been a time for preparation and sacrifice in order to be a better person. In addition to giving up sugar during Lent, I try to add a good habit to my life, and this year, in addition to lemon juice water and early bed times, I think I’m going to pay extra attention to these disciplines. I’m terrible at Bible studies, but I love looking for connections between my faith and my yoga and my writing. So for the duration of Lent, I’ll be using this space to write about the yamas and niyamas, and where I see connections to life and faith. I’d love your thoughtful insights.

Deborah Adele acknowledges the struggle we feel to live according to rules. “Many guides to ethical conduct may leave us feeling overwhelmed with concepts, or boxed in by rule sets,” she says. Lent and our self-imposed restrictions can feel the same way. But I’ve been overwhelmed by no rules, by freedom to do whatever I want, which is usually not what I need. So I’m inclined to believe Adele when she adds, “Yoga’s guidelines do not limit us from living life, but rather they begin to open life up to us more and more fully.”

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