Yoga On & Off the Mat: The Yamas – refining our attitude and energy

Part 1: non-violence and truthfulness

When I first started practising yoga nearly twenty years ago, I could immediately feel that the physical aspects of the practice were what my body deeply needed. I was very disconnected with my being neck down, living up in my head and crumbling in that vessel so often viewed as just ‘housing the mind’. Working with an emphasis on being guided by the breath and really beginning to listen was a revelation and not always easy!

What really helped this budding sense of connection grow with supportive guiding roots was learning about the yamas; codes of self-regulation laid out by the sage Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras several millennia ago. These are often discussed in yoga philosophy as ways of living, but my teacher always taught them woven in to a physical practice so they were continually applied and experienced.

The five yamas are precepts for building relationships with the world around us in action, speech and thought. This includes everything that we meet in our postural (asana) practice – including our inner voices, often so critical and comparative. Holding the intentions below whilst moving, holding and exploring our bodies helps open us up to possibilities of change and new ways of operating, on and off the mat. We have the opportunity to fulfil what we truly need, not just what we are used to wanting.

Here we explore the first two – non-violence and truthfulness – to give us the grounding of awareness of how we approach our practice. Letting the breath guide and truly listening to each moment can help us cultivate kindness, compassion and space in our practice and our lives.

ahimsâ = not harming, non-violence, harmlessness, non-injury

Ahimsa is a way to remove actions and practices that work against the idea of peace and goodwill, within and without us.

When I was younger and definitely more self-punishing, ahimsa was a revelation. I could see that my relationship with my body was not kind or connected and yoga helped me notice when I tended to create even the smallest types of aggression.

On the mat: By feeling movement, attention and decisions moment-to-moment guided by non-violence, we can see where we might push into postures against readiness, acceptance or intuition. Practically this might be how we push past tight feelings in the lower back to get further into that forward bend. On some level we might recognise that this is driven by ambition not true listening, but we just want to get there.

Ahimsa yoga enquiry: exploring the subtleties of where we might push, hold or grit our teeth to be in a pose can be seen well in those that require strength. Plank pose is a good example as we are holding our weight sideways to gravity, so there is a big pull downward to lift up from. This means if our technique to draw up the breastbone and press-lift up from the hands as we engage the belly isn’t quite there, then we can easily hang weight off our shoulders and over-pressure the wrists. Practising with knees down at the beginning of a practice, whilst learning and if tired can help us grow into it without harm.

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satya = truthfulness, truth, sincerity, genuineness, honesty

Satya frees us from the artifice that confuses our actions, thoughts and decisions away from the truth at any given time.

Being truly honest with ourselves can mean the difference between recovery and injury in a yoga class. In self-practice we can really examine how this open view can make yoga more of a dance than a regime.

On the mat: Being truthful with ourselves is a moment-to-moment enquiry and in asanas we use the breath to ‘read’ the reality of what is true right now. From there, we can begin to really see what is happening beneath the surface, so we don’t just follow the same, automated responses. This means we can more accurately gauge our energy, openness, physical ability, emotional resonance in each posture and so move in, pull back, use a prop or change our sequencing to fit our needs as we go along. This is where yoga – and our minds – can become creative, adaptable and helps us practice from ahimsa.

Satya yoga enquiry: we can use satya to feel our way into variations of poses, so we don’t just head blindly to an ideal end point, but move in as the pose unfolds – or not. Supta padangustasana is a good way to explore this as our hamstrings can feel quite different depending on their use during the day and any tensions we’re holding. Starting with the first variation with lower leg bent allows us to give space to open and evaluate from a sense perspective whether lengthening out to deepen comes from space offered or is imposing our will upon the pose.

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In part 2 we explore the energetic subtleties that can be felt from the last three yamas: not stealing, right effort and non-grasping.

This article was first published in Om Magazine. You can see the pdf here.

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