Structures of Sustenance
Yamas and Niyamas:
Yogic ways of wisdom for living freely!
Yamas and niyamas call us to wake up to life, everywhere;
the life of all that is visible and invisible…
of creatures and elements, of thoughts and energies…
Yamas and Niyamas are nourishment for your way of life. Even if we are already grounded in kindness, yamas and niyamas help us along the way. Sometimes we get a little lost in our lives and sometimes we have blind spots that benefit from a specific way of looking. Contemplating even one yama or niyama can help you to see clearly and make a real change of heart, thought or action. In life, one moment effects another moment. Over time we accumulate experiences and rules and ideas and we repeat ourselves. Yamas and niyamas can offer you new directions or show you ways to expand yourself. These teachings offer a consciousness to tune in to. They go far beyond right and wrong, black and white. They are thoughtful aspects of the sacred whole.
When considering yamas and niyamas, it is helpful to approach them one at a time. All the writings on this page are pieces of the experience and the discussion. This page is not and cannot be comprehensive; it’s more like dipping your toe into the ocean of awareness.
Yama in Sanskrit means ‘death.’ Yamas are practices that help the ego part of us to die to harms, (to stop participating in harm), that we can cause to ourselves and others. Remember that with death there is birth. Notice that when you choose not to do one thing it means you are creating space for something else. So as you read and contemplate, train your mind to look to the positive aspect. Notice how your ‘no’ makes space for ‘yes’ in some other part of your being, and consciously open yourself to sharing feelings of peace and love wherever you are, with anyone you’re with, including yourself :)
The yamas address our actions. There are 10 in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika by Gorakshanatha.
1. Ahimsa अहिंसा nonviolence. ..To be in a state of nonharming with your actions and thoughts; not harming any living creature nor the Earth. This means that you are actually absorbed by a state of Kindness in your thoughts, and feelings of kindliness in your heart… which then become a kindness and thoughtfulness in your actions. Sometimes when you have trouble feeling kindness and nonharming within yourself, you begin with acts of kindness. You allow your actions to change you from the outside in. Either way, you can find the field of harmony of Ahimsa by coming toward it through inward or outward passage. Ahimsa is the supreme yama. The other 9 support and illuminate Ahimsa within us.
2. Satya सत्य truthfulness. Your words, thoughts and implications in agreement to what is known or understood. Honor the spirit of the truth as much as, or more than, its literal form. To practice truthfulness is to be authentically yourself. A loving clarity with yourself helps you to find the quiet strength needed for satya. Learning to cultivate a relaxed friendliness and conversation with your own tendencies and challenges helps you to engage with the momentary truth of yourself without judgment, without fear. ..which is a powerful inner freedom! Personal truths change. They have to, because that’s growth, and growth is what we are here for. So though ‘truth’ is a tremendous word and idea, the practice of Satya is simply day to day, moment by moment. There may be some foundational truths that carry you through, and some truths that are for a time only. This is the nature of life.
3. Asteya अस्तेय non-stealing. Non-coveting. Non-entering into debt. This is a big one in our consumer culture right now. Owning things can be a way of filling up some kind of emptiness inside. Wanting things is an experience that bounces in and out of as humans, kind of like a Wham-O super ball. :) Satisfaction with having or achieving one goal or possession can quickly change into wanting something else. It’s what the media and the popular culture has become; a beguiling force for accumulating, even at the cost of trading personal freedom for massive amounts of shackling debt. Acquiring has become equated with ‘success’ and with ‘spiritual worthiness’ and with ‘rightness.’ It signifies the upper hand and cultural status. Yet owning in excess often becomes an enslavement to things, a distraction to your essential energy, and does not bring long term happiness.
So, the guiding light of Asteya helps us make a shift away from this kind of pressure and thinking… helps us to cast our eyes and hearts into the release of desires and then discover the beauty there. It’s interesting to let go of desiring things. Appreciating without needing to own. When we do this we begin to refine our self knowledge about our true desires.. soul desires.. the desires that lift you up and make your life shine brightly.
The energy of Asteya combined with Ahimsa can create a world where needs are met. This has the power to increase universal fulfillment. When basic needs are universally met, love and creativity grow.
To invite the practice of Asteya into your life you can:
*Examine your buying habits. Use your resources to decrease your debt while enjoying the free things in life… of which there are many marvels!
*Feel your hungers.. not just for food, but for love and connection. Get clear on what drives you to acquire. Is it your ego vying for attention? Is it a need? Is it a celebration of life? Are you really wanting what you think you want, or is the thing you want representing something intangible? … Try to see why you want what you want, and choose your wanting wisely.
*Offer thanks, heartfelt thanks and celebration, for all that you already own and all that you receive. …Offer thanks for being able to pay your bills. Offer thanks for quiet moments of satisfied contentment.
*Sometimes…simply let go of desiring. Walk away. Then see how you feel. Appreciate and bless without owning.
*Most importantly connect with what you truly desire that is aligned with your highest self – the growth of your love and your serene center . Your clarity will help your life to unfold in the best ways for you and will help you to live the yama of Asteya in a way that blesses.
4. Brahmacharya ब्रह्मचर्य following the divine (the sense of what is infinite within) Brahmacharya is a way of acting and thinking in the world on an everyday basis that comes from connecting with your experience of the Transcendent. It’s action and thought that originates from a sense of what is eternal, and your growing relationship to what that means to you. This is, in a strong sense, to be less influenced by ruminations on the past and future, and more influenced by what you sense as eternally, steadfastly important.. and alive in the present. The present moment is where eternity is found and for human beings it is a power source for transcendence.
For some, transcendent experience is felt in a religion or ritual practice. For some it is found in nature. Perhaps you do yoga, chant, meditate, or dance. Whatever your way, your prayer and heart life are important. Brahmacharya asks you to value your deep and sacred center as a guide for your actions, your words, and even your thoughts… and to actually spend time cultivating that connection. Prioritize the practices, spaces and relationships that draw you closer to a sacred experience of your life.
In a traditional yoga practice, Brahmacharya is linked to celibacy. Celibacy is not in itself of the divine. Whether sexually active or celibate, your intention and devotion truly lead the way. Celibacy is, at times, a form of boundary, to keep the compass true. When your sexuality is steeped in the divine, it too is a true, and shared, journey with the divine.
5. Kshama क्षमा patience, forbearance, letting go of time, living in the now, forgiveness and steadiness: these are all elements of Kshama. Kshama is a peaceful patience. Placing your attention on what is happening ‘now,’ you make space within yourself for people being people, and life being life.. as needed. This is a loving forbearance. You let life flow and sometimes you help life flow, with peaceful patience. This is easier when we have an attitude of forgiveness. What is forgiveness? In this case, it is the grace of a deep understanding. A deep understanding that life has mystery and there is much inside of each of us that cannot be known from an outside perspective. And so you regard life and people with patient, forgiving attention, deeply respectful, right now.
Letting life happen at a steady, gentle pace, reduces the demand for instant gratification. All enjoyments fully come at their own time, and there is no suffering for their arrival. Kshama helps you to value the process of becoming.
Living in a relaxed, present moment awareness way – without letting time bully you around – is a way of releasing yourself from the treadmill of time. Awareness in the now IS timelessness. When you are experiencing this timelessness feeling, you become steady and relaxed, not in a rush. And yet when the ‘rush’ of life comes around again, you can focus on the yama of kshama.. take a deep breath.. It is possible to patiently participate in the rushing that seems to need to happen sometimes. Outwardly you act fast while inwardly you are relaxing into the speedier flow. It’s more fun this way; gentler and steadier and sometimes funny!
6. Dhriti धृति from the verbal root dhri: to hold, be steady, preserve. Firmness, constancy, resolution, steadfastness, seeing tasks through to completion. This is a quality of will, applied consistently and responsively to a task or a commitment, or an intention. During the process of completing a task you apply a steadiness towards your purpose. You apply your constancy toward the essence of your work, and all participants… holding it all with a gracious, generous heart. In this way, you preserve ( you stay true to…) the action as well as the spirit of the task or commitment.
In order to see things through to completion it is most effective to connect to your inspiration for the task. When you do this you align yourself with the creative energies behind your work which is the best support available to you. Applying your will to a task or intention is natural and enjoyable when your inspiration is clear and connected.
7. Daya दया compassion; greater than sympathy. As you observe another’s pain, (or your own pain), you let yourself be touched enough that you are moved to respond mercifully, with kindness and forgiveness.
8. Arjava अर्जव honesty, straightforwardness. As you practice satya (truthfulness, see above) you take it to the next step, which is to express openly with sensitive candor, so as not to purposely, nor inadvertently deceive. This is that refreshing openness of self that brings people together. You share your real self, and so diminish the sense of separation so prevalent in our society – the feeling of “I’m the only one” or “I’m all alone in this.” You are straightforwardly genuine in your interactions.
9. Mitahara मितहार moderate appetite; not eating too much nor too little. Eating to about 2/3 full is particularly healthful for your body, because you are energized by your food, rather than weighed down. Your food is blessing you. Mitahara encourages you to enjoy each bite as you eat slowly. Serve yourself portions that you can finish without stuffing yourself, and do not waste. ** With mitahara, food is a sacred resource and your body is a sacred vessel.
In our world now, Mitahara goes a step further as we take on the responsibility of learning where our food comes from and the way in which the land and animals are treated. We are drawn into the full circle of giving nourishment to the earth as we receive nourishment from the earth by seeking out sustainable farming practices without chemicals that harm our ecosystem; choosing local foods whenever possible; choosing meat from free roaming animals on a green or organic diet without harmful antibiotics or hormones that poison our waters and destroy the wild; and giving thanks for animals and plants who sustain our bodies. We do this with respect, honoring life, learning and choosing. This is Ahimsa as it concerns the sustenance of our bodies and our planet.
The practice of not eating meat is a traditional yogic principle. The animals in factory farming suffer under terrible conditions. When animals who have suffered during their lives are eaten, it is felt in the subtle body, which is the energy body. Your energy body is what creates your physical body.
Anyone who is close to an animal comes to understand the intelligence and consciousness of that animal. We are separated from this knowledge when it comes to meat in our grocery stores. We are separated from the process of raising the animal and from the moment of death. Yoga is awareness. As your yoga deepens, your interconnectedness becomes an imperative. Eating and drinking becomes recognized as a physical, metaphysical, and spiritual act.
If you choose to eat meat, there are ways you can do this and still support your self-clarity and your loving presence in the world. The practice of mitahara encourages you to cultivate a relationship with local farmers who offer fresh air, free roaming land space, and natural foods to their animals. You can perhaps eat meat in moderation. As you sit for a meal, and as you prepare your food, you can acknowledge the life of each animal and give thanks for the flesh that sustains you. Acknowledge your part in the cycle of life, for you too will die someday, and your body will nourish new life. …Try thinking of animals as ‘thou’ rather than ‘it.’
If you want a website that shows you where to find consciously raised animals in the state of CT, here’s a website that I’ve found helpful: http://www.eatwild.com/products/connecticut.html
And if you’ve never tried to be a vegetarian, you can try it for a few days or longer in order to see how you feel. It can be a wonderful new experience. Your body just might thrive on it. But if you need meat for any reason at all, you can beautifully practice mitahara by embracing your need or choice for eating meat and coming to your food with loving, respectful, consciousness.
This is the call of mitahara.
10. Aparigraha अपरिग्रह absence of avarice, a quality of unworldliness. This yama is found in Patangali’s Yoga Sutras.
The absence of greed is found by living the fullness of kshama (peaceful patience), the freedom of asteya(non-stealing/non-coveting), the compassion of daya, the awareness that comes from mitahara(moderate appetite), the peace of ahimsa. With these attributes, greed cannot influence your choices because you feel fulfilled, so there is no lack within you, and so greed finds no foothold.
If you feel free of the pressures of the world… then you can participate in the world, without being ‘of the world.’ You can do and have whatever is yours, without being in the ‘wanting of more.’ ‘The world’ doesn’t have the same grasp on your energy and actions and thoughts.
One way to teach your mind about aparigraha is simply to focus on saying thank you to life, to people, to yourself… to earth, to food. To feel and live gratitude very strongly, (which is heartfelt enjoyment and appreciation), is to approach this yama from the positive. If your thankfulness is dominant, it’s harder to long for what you don’t have. Thankfulness is also a natural protector against hoarding and over-accumulating.
In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras there are 5 niyamas.
1 . Shaucha शौच purity. Cleanliness. (sometimes this is listed with the niyamas)
Shaucha, in the form of cleanliness, has a calming effect, a focusing influence on the mind, and helps your body to be healthy. It is practiced as an opportunity to grow in the practice of ahimsa. Natural, balanced cleanliness brings us into a loving care for our bodies and the objects and living spaces in our lives. It brings us into moderation and appreciation of owning and occupying. We can only clean so many things and so much space. Here we do it with loving, patient care; keeping only what we need and what we celebrate; letting go of the objects that feel like clutter in a way that cares for the earth. This is one way to purify your living, in body, mind and heart.
The cleanliness of your outer world can help to purify your inner world and the purity of your inner world can help to clarify your needs and loves.
Purity within has strength and courage. It is an absence of guile… it is not ignorance or naïveté. It comes from the wisdom that there are many forces at play for yourself and for others. So you take a generous stance: a willingness to see the good and empathize with the challenges. You ask questions when meanings are unclear, and come to understand others better. You stop creating or holding onto resentment, jealousy, fear or anxiety. You do not feed a busyness of mind, nor habits that cloud you. These are all aspects of shaucha.
2. Santosha संतोष contentment. Santosha is both… a choice to be focus on contentment even when things are difficult – AND a recognition of a deep contentment within that is not dependent upon outward circumstances.. (a contentment that is abiding in the quiet center of your being).
In order to learn about your ability to be content, notice the kind of happiness that is fleeting and is dependent on outward situations. This kind of fleeting happiness is not santosha and provides for us a contrast to the unchanging quality and presence of santosha when we come in contact with it. Contrast can helps us to notice something that we’re unfamiliar with.
For the practice of santosha, try to relax your body even when there is noise in your mind, or a storm in your heart, or chaos around you. Take several deep breaths and acknowledge that you are in a kind of turmoil or discomfort. Begin to allow the noise or the storm to be on the ‘outside,’ and feel yourself relaxing, and allowing, and going deeper to a quiet spacious place inside of yourself. This is where santosha is. If at first this is difficult to experience, keep trying. Breathe slowly and deeply.
Just staying open to the idea of santosha is very helpful. Eventually your intelligence will wake up to the experience of it and you will be able to differentiate your centered self that is peaceful and steady, from the stuff of life that comes and goes.
3. Tapas: heat. – the sensations of the process of purification and discipline.
Tapas is the medicine of standing in your own fire. Of staying with the heat, the pressure, the discomfort of staying true to yourself. It’s the pain of growth. It’s not the ideas of growth nor the ideas of what you’re growing toward, it’s how it feels. It’s the experience itself. As you feel it you can recognize it for what it is and then stay true to yourself; continue onward with your work, your intentions, your heartfelt guidance.
Yogic tapas is the flame that burns away your illusion, that dissolves the veil of the temporal field of attachment…
In yoga, tapas is experienced in pranayama(breath practice), in meditation, in asana (yoga postures), yamas and niyamas (spiritual practices), and in mudras (body gestures of specific intent). Bandhas (muscular contractions that harness energy) and kriyas (cleansing practices) also involve tapas. Yogic practices create heat and spiritual expansion through repetition and dedication. As you repeat your practices you travel from one field of being to another. Through concentration and dedication, you discover the hidden mysteries in each of the yogic practices. Tapas moves you toward the enlightened state. The human experience of enlightenment, for most, is a steady unfolding into a sudden revelation… and then experiences that come and go, and over time may increase in length and frequency.
Another way to practice tapas is to seek out the right remedy for whatever dis-ease there is. For example: for muscular weakness you would practice the heat of strengthening perhaps through a discipline of weight lifting,
for excess of stimulation you would practice simplicity of thought and action and perhaps simplify your home by giving things away,
for lack of generosity you would practice loving action and forgiveness perhaps through volunteer work and committing to a loving-kindness meditation for several weeks,
for a tendency to isolate yourself you would participate in community service and celebration and consciously build relationships that open your heart.
(These are just a few possible examples of finding the remedy of action that heals your wounds).
To practice tapas means you go willingly into whatever challenges you and feel the fire of the challenge. Sometimes this is very difficult and you may need counsel and companionship along the way.
4. Svadhyaya … self study and sacred writings. This is an essential and marvelous niyama, because it fills your mind with the thoughts, conversations and questions that matter most for living. Self study is a celebration of intimacy with your soul body. You can lighten and support your habits of thought by reading the writings of those who have come before you. Learn from the expression and knowledge of teachers, mystics, artists, visionaries.. in prose, poetry, books, articles, songs, lectures, and ancient texts. Observe. Learn. Reflect. Live. Explore the ideas and teachings. As you acquire perspectives, you become clearer.
Learn from everyone. Children are some of the best teachers. Elders have so much to share. People of different cultures from your own have a perspective and experience of great worth that you can learn from. Wisdom comes from great works and writers such as: the Upanishads, Rumi, The Bhagavad Gita, Zen meditations, Thich Nhat Hanh’s lectures, Joseph Campbell’s mythological study, Mary Oliver’s poetry, Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes, The Tao Te Ching, A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh… there are so many great works to inspire you and help your mind to move in the directions and habits of thought that lift you up.
Learn from watching yourself as you interact with people and life.. as you contemplate what you read and as you do different parts of your life.. as you live different roles and experience a variety of seasons and decades.
Knowledge is food for our souls when it is accompanied by the experience of living that knowledge. Otherwise, knowledge is just an idea with no substance, no influence.
One of the best practices of Svadhyaya is to have a small daily something that you read, or listen to, at the beginning of your day in order to focus your thoughts, your emotions and your deep intentions of the day. A daily support of this kind can make for a very beautiful experience of life! Plus you get to go on a journey with the choice of your literature. One year when I was about 22 and living in Brooklyn, NY, I had a daily, flip the page, calendar of Mahatma Gandhi quotes. Everyday a different quote. That was an incredible year of inner change and growth for me that I attribute mainly to the presence of Gandhi’s words in my thoughts, every day.
5. Ishvarapranidhana …surrender(ishvara) to a higher source, or to source (pranidhana). Ishvarapranidhana reminds you to explore your own experience of surrendering to something greater than you… your quiet center, your sense of the Source of life, divine Love, God by any name you use… perhaps the great force of every day kindness… Use whatever words or understanding you have. Ishvarapranidhana is the kind of surrender that nourishes your movements, your thoughts and your feelings… your small decisions that create the bulk of your life, and your pivotal moments. It is important that your surrender is not just as a last resort desperate act, but as a compelling, sustaining, everyday reality.