International Yoga Day - Yamas and Niyamas - a whole approach to life
Here at Ancient + Brave we love embracing natural ways of living and incorporating ancient rituals into our lives. So for us, Summer Solstice, the day when we get more sun and light than on any other day, feels something to celebrate – potent with life force and energy.
It is no coincidence that this special day marks the International Day of Yoga. The United Nations proclaimed 21st June as International Yoga Day in December 2014, with the first one being celebrated in June 2015. The aim was to raise awareness of the many benefits of Yoga to people around the world. Yogis have long honoured the sun – many of us will have heard of, or practiced, sun salutations at the beginning of a Yoga class – and what better day to celebrate all Yoga has to offer, than the longest, lightest day of the year?
At Ancient + Brave we are celebrating this year’s International Yoga Day by diving into some Yoga philosophy. Because while many people might think of Yoga as just a series of poses, but the real roots of Yoga go back thousands of years. This was a time when Yogis spent their time sitting in deep contemplation and meditation, rather than performing crazy arm balances with their legs knotted behind their heads as you might see at #yoga on Instagram today (very impressive flexibility).
One of the key Yogic scriptures are the Yoga Sutras, a collection of guidelines about the intention, practices and ultimate goal of Yoga. Included in this are the Yamas and Niyamas, which to this day many Yoga teachers and practitioners around the world see as the foundation of the Yogic path. These ten guidelines are not Yoga poses that we practice on a mat, but a whole approach to life – almost like a Yoga version of the Ten Commandments, but less about strict instruction and more about encouraging us to live with awareness. And they are just the kind of ancient wisdom that we love to explore at Ancient + Brave. We think that those Yogis might have known a thing or two about leading happy and healthy lives that might work wonders for our wellbeing if we apply them today.
The Yamas – translated from Sanskrit as Restraints
First comes Ahimsa, which translates from Sanskrit as ‘Nonviolence’. This applies to all aspects of life, from the obvious to the subtle. So, as well as not harming others with our actions and words, it also means protecting nature, and being kind to ourselves too, by purposefully cultivating tenderness, compassion and positive thoughts.
Today there is evidence that people with depression and anxiety think about themselves and their situation in biased and unhelpful ways, which is why methods such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy aim at recognising and overcoming these thinking styles. Even thousands of years ago, those Yogis could see that negative thoughts breed uncomfortable emotions that ultimately bring hurt and violence onto ourselves.
Next comes Satya, or ‘Truthfulness’. This is about practicing honesty and integrity, not only with others, but also with ourselves. Something to bear in mind here is that like building blocks, each Yama rests upon the foundations that the ones before it create. Truthfulness follows Non-violence, the first and arguably most important Yama. This means that the Yogis believed that we should practice truthfulness only after considering the principle of non-harming. So, in telling the truth we should always be aware of the potential effects of our words and aim to cause the least harm possible.
The third Yama is Asteya, or ‘non-stealing’. Again, we can interpret this far beyond the obvious: ‘Do not steal things!’ A more nuanced interpretation is not to feel dissatisfied with the things we have and not to covet the things we don’t have. In our modern, consumerist world there are evermore material goods to desire: new clothes, jewellery, a bigger house, a more luxurious sofa. But really, we know that material things are not what is precious or what brings us happiness. The Yogis knew that this comes from love and connection with ourselves, with others and with nature.
Next comes Bramacharya, which we can translate as ‘Non-excess’. Similarly to Asteya, we understand that we do not need very much of anything. Instead we are encouraged to delight in what is freely available to us – family, friends, the ocean and the forest, for example. As author and lecturer on Yoga philosophy Deborah Adele explains in her book The Yamas and Niyamas, Bramacharya is an invitation into an awareness of the sacredness of all life. She writes: “This guideline is a call to leave greed and excess behind and walk in this world with awe and wonder and attending to each moment as holy.”
The final Yama is Aparigraha or ‘Non-attachment’. The nature of this Yama is impermanence. Knowing that nothing lasts forever can be a tremendous comfort for our mental health during times of stress and even trauma. The Yogis knew that no matter what we are facing, there is always hope. We can move on from whatever difficult emotional state we are experiencing and find light once again.
The Niyamas – translated as ‘Observances’
The first of the Niyamas is Saucha, which translates as ‘Purity’. This includes physical practices to cleanse the body, but also extends to our mind, spirit, words and thoughts. An important concept here is an acceptance of what is. So we are not looking to make things, situations, people or even ourselves, different to how they are. Rather we are encouraged to be in pure relationship with it, as it is in that moment. We could see this as mindfulness, a living in the purity of the present moment as it unfolds.
Next comes Santosha or ‘Contentment’. A simple, yet powerful tool here is gratitude. Neuroscience reveals that cultivating gratitude is hugely beneficial for the brain. It is associated with dopamine and serotonin production, two important neurotransmitters for good mental health. Moreover, Hebb’s Law says that “neurons that fire together, wire together” meaning that when we start to focus on the things we already have in our lives that are good, the brain becomes better at discovering similar things.
The third Niyama is Tapas or ‘Self-Discipline’. The Yogis knew that determination, courage, patience, and conviction move us ever closer to our goals. For them this was enlightenment, for us it might be acing a tough project at work or sticking to an earlier bedtime routine and healthier diet for a greater sense of wellbeing. Either way, self-discipline is where it’s at if we want to progress.
Swadhyaya or ‘Self-Study’ is the penultimate Niyama. This is about becoming witness to ourselves so that we become aware of our thoughts, feelings, emotions and responses. Again, this method is reflected in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy today – where the aim is for the individual to become aware of negative thought patterns in order to bring about positive changes in their behaviour. Cultivating mindfulness of thoughts, noticing dreams, drawing, painting and journaling are all brilliant ways to get to know ourselves better and improve our wellbeing.
The final Niyama is Ishwara Pranidhana or ‘Surrender’. Ishwara Pranidhana is an acceptance that we can never be fully in control and the courage to embrace this wholeheartedly. As Deborah Adele writes: “Surrender invites us to be active participants in our life, totally present and fluid with each moment, appreciating the magnitude and mystery of what we are participating in.” This may be one of the hardest Niyamas to embrace, especially for those of us prone to perfectionism or anxiety. But finding that space inside of us that trusts that we can ‘ride the wave’, and more than that, enjoy the ride no matter what comes, can be incredibly freeing.
Enjoy June 21st!
Whatever you choose to do this Summer Solstice, whether it’s to get out in nature and soak up the sunshine, roll out your Yoga mat for some sun salutations in honour of International Yoga Day, or something else entirely, perhaps bear in mind the Yamas and Niyamas, and see if they help you find some Yogic peace and wellbeing.