Written by Abbe Ciulla
Understanding how to apply the yamas and niyamas to our daily lives can seem overwhelming. They require a commitment to personal transformation, and like any personal transformation, it is hard to know exactly where to begin. Since so many of us start cultivating our yoga practice solely with asana, learning to apply the yamas and niyamas to our asana practice first can help us learn how to integrate them into life beyond the classroom. So many of the lessons that we discover on our mats mimic the trials we face off the mat. If we choose to live the whole of yoga, the first two steps on the ladder of the eightfold path are the yamas and niyamas. These ethical and spiritual observances help us develop the more profound qualities of our humanity.
The name of the first limb of the eighfold path, yama, contains five restraints that we practice to align our efforts with our moral compass. In this sense, self-restraint can be a positive force in our lives, the necessary self-discipline that allows us to head toward the fulfillment and our life purpose. The five yamas--non-violence, honesty, non-stealing, non-promiscuity, and self-reliance—serve as a guide on how we handle our actions toward the world around us.
Ahimsa, the first of our five yamas, means non-harming. How can we apply this to our practice on the mat? Every so often during practice, I will find myself ignoring this first yama as my ego takes the wheel; Pushing when I should be pulling back, fighting when I need to surrender or forcing my body into a shape it's not ready for. It's so important to keep the practice of Ahimsa close by while on our mats. When we notice this behavior in our practice, take the time to meditate on where else we might be excluding Ahimsa.
I always say to my students that our yoga asana practice is an opportunity to be completely honest with ourselves. How are we arriving on our mats today? How is our body honestly feeling today? Can we let go of expectations of our body and instead recognize how it truly is right now? Always assess ourselves honestly. I always teach my students that a pose is too expensive if it is bought by selling ahimsa and satya.
We may not realize it, but we steal energetically from our asana practice all of the time. As I said earlier, we never want to push to hard or lie to ourselves by forcibly move deeper into a posture. But on the flip side, we don't want to cheat ourselves of effort either. We need the middle path between effort and surrender. When we hold back in a physically demanding practice, or when we don't work to our full potential, we may fear that there is not going to be enough energy to do the next pose. Teach yourself that each pose gives the energy required to do it. It is only when we persist in feeling a lack of abundance that we hold back and do not put our whole selves into every pose.
This yama teaches us non-excess. Take only what we need, not indulging in our desire or ego (which in our culture of constant over-stimulus can prove quite challenging). There are many ways we can be excessive or promiscuous with our practice. We practice too much, too hard and leaving no room for quite or rest. I see this happen often when studios offer "30 Day DETOX Challenges" (don't get me started on that bullsh*t) or when a student becomes too driven toward ascertaining a particular pose. Remember that our practice is sacred.
Aparigraha means not coveting what isn't ours. This coveting nature is a form of greed rooted in jealousy. Jealousy is fatal to a healthy asana practice. When it comes to our physical practice, our work is to simply keep our eyes on our own mats. It's so easy to compare ourselves to the other yogis in the room, but your mat is your own sacred space where you get to practice all on your own, regardless if you are in a full classroom.
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