Taking Our Yoga Practice Off The Mat: Exploring the Yamas & Niyamas

Exploring the Yamas & Niyamas with Joanne Hudspith

The Yamas & Niyamas are Sanskrit words that translate as ‘restraints’ and ‘observances’ and are described in the yoga tradition as ethical practices that offer guidelines for our behavior in relationship to others, the world, and ourselves. Learn how your approach to movement can inform other aspects of your life as described below. Enjoy!

Ahimsa: Practicing Non-Violence (‘Do No Harm’)
Satya: Practicing Truthfulness (‘Getting Real’)
Asteya: Practising Non-Stealing (‘Don’t Rain on My Parade!’)
Brahmacharya: Practicing Non-Excess (‘Just Enough’)
Aparigraha: Practicing Non-Attachment (‘The Journey is the Destination’)
Reviewing the Yamas

Ahimsa: Practicing Non-Violence (‘Do No Harm’)

The first of the five Yamas (the Sanskrit word for restraint) is Ahimsa, which translates as non-violence or non-harming. This seems at first like a very simple concept, which we often understand as instruction not to harm others – non-violence means not killing or hurting, right? Yes, and so much more…

We far too often overlook the more subtle forms of violence or harming in our lives, the ways we harm others and ourselves emotionally – by our need to be right, our need for control, or by not seeing the goodness in ourselves or in others. I could go on, but I encourage you to explore these on your own – ‘The Yamas and Niyamas’ by Deborah Adele is an excellent guide.

Ahimsa can be considered in relation to movement practice or asana. A huge challenge for me has been (and continues to be) practicing non-harming within my yoga practice. When my practice was about doing really cool yoga poses – trying to look like the person on the cover of the yoga magazines, trying to impress my students – I was hurting myself on a regular basis, and was basically in constant pain for a couple of years.

When you can listen to your body whisper, you don’t have to hear it scream.

I knew something had to shift, and it was hard to let go of this image of myself that I had constructed, but as soon as I started to listen to the whispers of my body, to understand what they were telling me, and to move in a way that was respecting what was appropriate for me – practicing Ahimsa - my pain started to go away. And my yoga practice became about supporting my life, rather than sacrificing my life for my practice. The really cool thing about all of this is that I’m now moving back toward practicing the challenging poses – not because I need to prove anything to myself or to others, but because I’m being brought there by my practice of non-harming, and I’m able to challenge myself without losing ease, and then can build strength that is grounded in that foundation of ease.

Still, every now and then, I’ll think to myself – just a bit further, just a little more – and then I’ll feel that twinge, or pull, or strain that is telling me I’m moving away from Ahimsa. And, instead of making myself wrong, I am able to chuckle at my human-ness, and come back to practicing with ease.

Bringing it home:

The simplest way to bring Ahimsa into your movement practice is to start with a basic movement, and then add to the work by increasing strength, time spent and/or number of repetitions, as is appropriate. Wall-sits are an ideal way to play with this:

  • Stand with your back to the wall (make sure your feet won’t slide on the carpet or floor) and step your feet about a foot length or so away from the wall, letting the wall support the back of your pelvis, back ribs and shoulder blades.
  • Then crease at your hips and bend your knees to slide your pelvis down the wall an inch or two. Make sure your ankles are forward of your knees, to keep from compressing knees. Let your head be wherever it is most comfortable, and remember that the natural curves of your spine should be in the same shape as they were when you started.
  • Feel the center of each heel and the width of the ball of each foot on the ground. If you need to change where your feet are in order to feel this connection a little more completely, then do so. Take a few easy breaths here with soft knees and a supple strength in the legs. Let your body rest into the wall and into the ground under your feet. Stay here for a few easy breaths, feeling your feet. If your face is soft, your breath is easy, your knees, back and neck are comfortable and there is no strain anywhere, you can move another inch or two down the wall.
  • Each time you add difficulty to the movement by sliding further down the wall, check into the whispers of your body – what’s happening with your breath? How do your knees feel? Your back? Your neck? Can you feel the movement of your breath in your belly, or is it clenching? By listening to these whispers, you can discern whether or not your current position is appropriate, or if you need to back up and work where there is ease.
  • To come away press down in both feet and feel your legs working to push you back up the wall. Take a step or two back towards the wall with your feet and come away from the wall using your hands. It would be really interesting to try this practice several times over the course of a week or two, and to notice how things are changing for you. As always, I would love to hear about your experience with this practice of non-violence!


Satya: Practicing Truthfulness (‘Getting Real’)

The second Yama is Satya, or truthfulness. We have such an interesting relationship with truth. We place a high value on it, while at the same time denying it or ignoring it. We know how essential it is, and how difficult it can be to face at times. I think that’s why it’s so important for us to include the practice of non-violence in our practice of truthfulness. When we describe this practice as “being real”, it becomes a little more involved than simply not telling lies. It becomes about acknowledging reality, acting in accordance with that, and doing so in a way that is respectful and loving to ourselves and to others. And when we are being real, we are more authentic in our experiences and interactions, and there is freedom and richness gained from that authenticity.

Bringing the practice of Satya into our movement practice is also about being real - acknowledging the reality of our current abilities and limitations, and moving within that range. In the context of the therapeutic yoga I teach and practice, truthfulness and non-violence undergird the principle of moving in a pain-free range of motion. When we do so, our movements are grounded in the firmness of reality instead of the unsteadiness of “should” and “ought”. And we end up with more support and more freedom.

How can you bring truthfulness into your movement practice? It happens the same way as bringing non-violence into practice – by taking the time to notice what you’re feeling, acknowledging the messages your body is giving you about the movements you’re doing. If you’re feeling strain or pain, or noticing funny noises or weird sensations, put less effort into what you’re doing, or reduce the duration or complexity of the movement, and see what happens. Notice if you’re working from a place of curiosity or of expectation – can it be interesting for you to get to know what is appropriate for the current reality of your body, rather than overdoing it because you think you ought to be at a certain level of fitness?

It doesn’t mean you stop setting goals, or give up in resignation to whatever issues are limiting you. You set your goals, and then use your current reality to move toward them. Look at what is working well, and improve that. Support what isn’t working well by being gentle with it, moving in a range that is free of pain or strain, or isn’t increasing pain that is present. It really is that simple.

Asteya: Practising Non-Stealing (‘Don’t Rain on My Parade!’)

The third Yama is Asteya, or non-stealing. Very few of us steal in obvious ways. We’ve known since early childhood that taking what doesn’t belong to us is bad. Yet there are much more subtle ways of stealing that have crept into our way of being. We may not steal others’ belongings, yet we often steal their time, their experiences, their peace of mind and their future. We interrupt and take over a conversation, wanting our experiences to shine a little brighter than those of our companion. We continue to consume precious resources, knowing we are impacting future generations, and somehow are unable to stop. When we compare ourselves to others and see ourselves as less, we also steal from ourselves.

Why do we steal? Often because we don’t recognize or are not grateful for what we have, and we try to get more. More money, more success, more toys, more praise, more attention, more love, more ________ ...

When we don’t recognize the abundance around us and within us, we are never satisfied, and we keep grasping for more. When we are able to recognize, with gratitude, the many gifts that are present in our lives, we are able to become less selfish. Our grasping turns itself inside out and becomes giving, because we have more than enough.

Here is a way you can explore the practice of Asteya in your life. It would be really interesting to set aside 5 minutes each day over the coming week to work with the following suggestion:

On day 1 - or right now – reflect on the past few days, and notice if there have been occasions when you have stolen from yourself or others in any of these ways:

...by being resentful or jealous of someone else’s success;
...by making someone wrong so you can be right;
...by talking yourself out of something you wanted to do;
...by not listening or interrupting when someone is talking to you;
...by telling yourself you’re not good/smart/talented/attractive/loveable/_______ ...

As you reflect on these times, acknowledge them without judging yourself – step back from yourself and simply observe.

Now, every morning for the next week or so, in your journal or a scrap of paper, write out 5 things that you’re grateful for. Don’t think about it too much, just let them flow from your mind onto the page. Next, write out 3 things that are good about you. (Notice if being asked to acknowledge the good in you makes you uncomfortable!) You don’t need to keep these lists, but it might be interesting to notice what changes over the course of the week.

At the end of the week, look back and observe your interactions with others, and the conversations you have had with yourself, and notice if anything is shifting. Look at the lists if you've saved them, or simply reflect on your experience of gratitude and self-worth - has it shifted?

One of the things I love about writing these posts is that I have such interesting conversations with people in response to them. So please, do let me know how this practice was for you, and share any other thoughts you have about the post with me.

Brahmacharya: Practicing Non-Excess (‘Just Enough’)

The fourth Yama is Brahmaharaya, or non-excess. It is often translated as chastity, fidelity or austerity, but the idea of non-excess captures more completely the all-encompassing sense of the practice.

Brahmacharya invites us to be purely in each moment. The excesses we are asked to restrain are the habits, thoughts and patterns that get in the way of being truly present to the experiences in our lives. When we are truly present, we can re-gain a sense of awe and wonder that we're unable to receive when our thoughts and hearts are clouded. In order to practice non-excess, to become present, we need to become aware of the things that dull our experience and our ability to be present. And when we become aware, then we can take steps to change the behaviour. We can’t change anything that we’re not aware of, and in order to become aware, we simply need to start noticing.

Let’s start with something easy, and take a walk.

Set aside 30 minutes one day this week for a walk.

Put on comfortable shoes and leave your phone and wallet/bag at home so you can walk unencumbered and free of distractions.

As you walk:
Let your ears open to the sounds of birds singing, of lawnmowers and leaf blowers, of children playing, of cars passing, of people talking.

Let your eyes open to new green poking out of the ground, cracks in pavement, the variety of colours in each garden, the faces of the people you pass, the buds and leaves on trees and shrubs, parked cars, flitting birds.

Let your nose take in the smell of the air, of exhaust, of flowers and trees, of the earth.

Let your face and hands feel the warmth of the sun, the cool of the wind or the warmth of the breeze; let your skin feel the fabric of your clothing; let your feet feel the smooth and uneven parts of the sidewalk and road; feel the way each footstep lands and connects with the earth, without needing to fix or change that. Feel your ankle, knee and hip joints moving; feel your arms swinging, the subtle involvement of your spine and shoulders.

As you walk, your busy mind will try to pull you away – by thinking of an addition to your to-do list, re-playing an old conversation or anticipating a new one, or a thousand other things. When it does this, don’t make yourself wrong, but welcome the noticing as an invitation to become present once again.

The wonderful thing about these practices is that when we practice them in one area of our life, they will spill over into the other areas. If we can become more present to one experience, we can learn from that how to be more present to other experiences.

Aparigraha: Practicing Non-Attachment (‘The Journey is the Destination’)

The fifth Yama is Aparigraha. It is most often translated as non-attachment, and can also be interpreted as non-clinging, non-coveting, non-greed and non-possessiveness.

I think we have all had the experience of working toward a goal – wanting so badly to make it happen, pinning our hopes and even sometimes our own self-worth on the outcome, that we end up missing the scenery along the way. The practice of Aparigraha is an opportunity to keep our eyes, ears and hearts open to the experiences that present themselves as we journey through life.

I know that when I am attached to a situation happening in a certain way, I close my mind to alternate ways and close my ears to different voices. And I lose so much – I lose the ability see that life has presented me with choices, and I diminish my connection with the people who are offering me awareness of these choices.

The practice of non-attachment doesn’t mean we stop making goals – it actually asks us to become clearer about our goals and to move toward them intentionally and attentively, with open hearts and minds, and letting go of the beliefs, behaviours and things that are distracting and diverting us.

Both my teaching and personal yoga practice continue to be a rich learning ground for the Yamas and Niyamas. Here are some questions I regularly ask myself that you may find helpful as you consider bringing the practice of non-attachment to your physical activities.

  1. Why am I doing this? What is the reason for my practice?
  2. Does the specific goal I am working toward align with my larger, long-term goals?
  3. As I move my body, can I do so with a sense of curiosity, rather than expectation?
  4. Am I willing to listen to what my body is telling me? If not, why? What do I need to let go of in order to listen to my body? My ego? Pride? Expectations of others, of myself?
  5. When I am able to listen to what my body is telling me, what do I need to do within my practice to continue to progress forward?

Enjoy the journey with these questions, and remember that life, like yoga, is a practice, not a perfect!

Reviewing the Yamas

Although I have written separately about Non-Violence, Truthfulness, Non-Stealing, Non-Excess and Non-Possessiveness, I am learning that they are not rules that are independent of each other, but a set of lenses through which we can examine our behaviour, to give us a more complete picture of our actions, their effects on others, and on ourselves. When we see more clearly we can make better choices.

My work as a yoga teacher and movement therapist is about helping my students and clients see their bodies and movement patterns through these lenses and helping them to make choices that are appropriate for their unique situations. Non-violence helps you to prevent injury. Truth-telling, or being real, gives you clarity about your abilities and limitations. Non-stealing helps you to recognize your gifts and the value of your practice. Non-excess keeps you focused on what is necessary and helps you to filter out distractions. Non-possessiveness helps you to remain clear about your goals and discern what is needed to move toward them.

We get good at whatever it is that we practice. If you want to get good at moving well without pain, practice moving well without pain. If you want to improve your mind-body connection, practice mindful movement and breath awareness. If you practice seeing your actions through these lenses, you’ll get good at it.

What do you want to get good at?
What are you practicing?



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