The Yamas and Happiness

When we think of yoga we usually think of poses like downward facing dog and warrior 2 or maybe a tightly packed heated room with everyone tying themselves in knots while dripping sweat all over the floor.  But the poses are only one small part of yoga and hot yoga makes up very, very small percentage of the types of yoga you can practice.

Yoga culture has changed quite a bit over the past decade, some of that is great because yoga is so much more approachable and some of it has taken away the roots of what yoga really is about (hint: it’s not about being able to twist into a pretzel).

I’ve always been very active and athletic, but there came a time when adding more intensity just wasn’t working. Heavier weights, longer runs, and more reps just didn’t seem appealing. It was about the same time that I picked up a surfboard and taught myself to surf that I also signed up for a yoga teacher training. I’d been taking occasional yoga classes and while I could barely touch my toes, I was really curious if there was more to yoga yoga than just attaining flexibility.

While going through the training certainly helped my tight muscles to soften a bit, it was the changes it made in my life when I was off my mat that really got me hooked on yoga.

If you know me, or have read a lot of my blogs, I’m sure it’s hard for you to believe, but I can be intense, high energy, and overly controlling 😂 All of a sudden I was doing yoga a few times a week and began softening. I’m not just talking physically, I mean emotionally too. I had so much more patience, more kindness, and more compassion which was great because a personality like mine needs all the help they can get when it comes to those three things!

Eight years later, I am a huge fan of yoga. My oldest three kids go to yoga with me three times a week and when we are traveling, we make sure to slow down and practice yoga on our own at least that often.

So I thought I’d share with you the fist limb of yoga, the Yamas, and give you some tips on how you too can use these principles to add more happiness to your life too.

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The Eight Limbs of Yoga

Yoga is made up of eight limbs. The first limb, Yamas, is what I focus on in this blog because it’s all about how you interact with the world today and that in itself is very complicated.

Yamas and Happiness: understanding what yoga is about
The 8 Limbs of Yoga
  • The one you are probably most familiar with is the third limb, the postures. You are probably also familiar with the fourth limb, which is Pranayama or breath work.
  • The second limb is the Niyamas, which focus on the attitude you have towards yourself and encompass things like cleanliness, contentment, self discipline, self study, and surrendering to a god.
  • When you sit down to meditate, you are focusing on the seventh branch, Dhyana.
  • And last, the eight limb is enlightenment, or Samadhi.

While Samadhi sound enticing, the “success” of your yoga practice is not tied to whether or not you attain this eighth limb. In fact, the beauty of yoga lies in the practice of the other 7 limbs in your every day life.

Yoga is who you are today.  It’s the awareness and acceptance of your thoughts, beliefs, actions, and habits today.  Enlightenment is not something you attain or achieve.  It’s how you live on an every day basis and the attitude you carry towards the world and to yourself and applying the first limb on an everyday basis is a very good, yet challenging, way to be a yogi.

The 1st Limb of Yoga – The Yamas

The Yamas are the attitude you carry toward the world and how you interact with others.  There are 5 parts to the yamas:

  1. Ahimsa: Non-harming
  2. Satay: Truthfulness 
  3. Astray: Non-stealing
  4. Brachmacharya: Abstinence
  5. Aparingraha: Greedlessness

At first glance, these seem like obvious values that we all strive for and things that we assume we do.  After all, it’s not like I robbed a bank or commited perjury in court.  

However, this one is one of the hardest parts of yoga for me.  And while I too struggle with all of this, I’ve also learned that the only way to improve is to start with awareness of the problem.

The 5 Yamas of Yoga and what they have to do with happiness

As you go through each yama, think about one small tangible way you can apply each of these to your daily life.

  • What emotion am I feeling in the current moment that could be harming me? What is it telling me that I need more or less of?
  • Am I being completely honest with myself or others?
  • Am I stealing energy from others or myself?
  • Would abstaining from something serve me better?
  • What’s the appropriate amount of desire this situation?

Yama 1: Cause No Harm

For some reason my brain always thinks of being vegan when I read this yama since not harming animals is the reason many yogis choose to not eat meat. Personally, I’m not vegan and don’t feel bad that I choose to eat meat. Instead, I like to use this yama to help me focus on my personal interactions with others and my relationship with myself.

Unfortunately, it’s just too easy to cause subtle harms, to say something out of anger that you can’t take back, to think jealous thoughts, to play the blame game, to compare what we lack instead of what we have.

It’s certainly not easy to truly want the best for someone else even if it causes us pain, suffering, and sadness.

If you want to be happier, consider your thoughts and behaviors.

You might not confront someone and cause them harm, but are you thinking it? Do emotions like anger, jealousy, and guilt serve you in a positive way and help you hone in on what you want to achieve in your own life or does it make you bitter or resentful and cause you to think harmful thoughts?

Yamas and Happiness: understanding what yoga is about
Ask yourself this to understand Ahimsa

Likewise, guilt can drive us to constantly harm ourselves.

Instead of politely declining or adamantly saying no, we bite off more than we can chew and disrupt our own inner peace. The concept of kindness is so simple, yet balancing internal and external kindness requires effort and practice.

Tips for Practicing Ahimsa

Stay present and keep your awareness on what you truly need at that moment. So much harm comes from projecting our fears or scenarios that may never happen. Trying to identify what emotion we are currently feeling will help you avoid harming others.

Be conscious of your emotions as you move through your day.

We have this gift of choice that tends to turn into a curse called a “schedule.” A little planning and organization can go a long way in not causing harm. When we are overextended, trying to cram in too much, or rushing around without regard to others, we do dumb things. We end up with road rage or make rash decisions.

Just slowing down, simplifying my life, and saying no on more occasions has helped me a lot in practicing Ahimsa more in my every day life.

A lot of being happy requires taking control of your days.

Script out what you want them to look and feel like. Then, create habits and boundaries to make that happen. Make sure your expectations are realistic and if they are, hold yourself accountable to them. Finally, practice gratitude toward yourself so that the light inside you shines brightly upon the people you interact with.

Yama 2: Truthfulness

Not telling blatant lies is fairly easy to do. It’s the subtle lies or avoiding the full truth that often gets us in trouble. It’s too easy to tell yourself lies that you need that new purse, you deserve a new car, you’ll always be fat, you’ll never get that promotion, etc.

When you practice ahimsa (yama 1), you get better at setting boundaries for yourself, but then you really need the second yama, Satay, to help you follow through.

It’s really hard to be honest with people and maintain your boundaries. There’s a lot of guilt and the shame that we have to battle with when we don’t live up to other’s expectations.

If you are trying to be happier, start with being true to yourself first.

It doesn’t mean you can’t make room for other’s in your life, it’s just a function of stripping down to the root of yourself first so you can approach the world with more clarity and understanding.

Tips for Practicing Satay

  • Grab a notebook and a piece of paper.
  • Sit in a comfortable position and close your eyes.
  • Slow down your breath.
  • Don’t worry if thoughts arise, just follow the rhythm of your inhale and exhale.  If you have trouble staying focused on the breath, try counting your inhale and exhale.
  • Don’t worry when you get distracted, thoughts are natural.  Just acknowledge the thought, let it go, and go back to the breath.
  • Set a timer so you don’t worry about falling asleep or staying in meditation too long.  Aim for 5 miniutes at first and then slowly build to 15 or even 20 minute sessions.
Yamas and Happiness: understanding what yoga is about
Practice truthfulness with oneself require honesty about all aspects of your being including the imperfections

When you finish, open your notebook and write in big letters I AM.  Circle it and draw lines out from it with all the things that make you who you are.  That is your truth today.  Tomorrow it may be different.

Surround yourself with people who accept your truth.  

Yama 3: Non-Stealing

This one has turned me into quite the introvert because the third yama is more about stealing resources.

In Do Your Om Thing by Rebecca Pacheco she helped me understand how so much of how I was reacting in the first yama (non-harming) came down to people stealing my time, my attention, my effort, my space, and my energy.

That’s not to say you need to avoid all human contact, it’s just that for me, I’m already around 6 people most of the day who need a lot of my resources.  I’m grateful for that because I love a big family, but that in itself pretty much depletes my resources.  On top of that, I want a lot of attention from my husband, but he is tapped out giving his his resources to others in order to make a living.  Somewhere in there is the balance we are all striving for.

Tips for Practicing Astray

Have awareness of your limits and know your expectations.

Visualize your resources as if they were being measured by a fuel guage.

Yamas and Happiness: understanding what yoga is about
Imagine your resources like a fuel gauge

Set up boundaries as if they were road signs that you’d obey when you are driving.  “Yield” mom is almost out of energy. “Stop” I can’t give you any more attention. “Speed Limit” I can only give you 15 minutes of my time today.

The more self care you can give yourself, the bigger your gas tank becomes.

Related Blog: Radical Self Care: 20 Products To Help You Be Your Badass Self

Yama 4: Abstinence

While this certainly could be taken in the literal sense of abstaining from sex, in the context of resetting your life and honoring your true self, maybe take it to look at sex in different lights.  In a healthy relationship, sex can be the highest form of connection.  But when we use it to manipulate, gain approval, or fulfill our self worth, then maybe it’s time to re-evaluate.  It’s important to feel sexy and attractive, but it’s more important to feel complete in your own skin without it too.  

In reinforcing the non-stealing theme, abstinence can purely refer to how we distribute our time, energy, and creativity.

Tips for Practicing Brachmacharya

To practice Brachmacharya, practice asking yourself this

What is something you can give up that you know isn’t serving you?

It could be a physical substance like sugar, alcohol, meat, processed foods, or caffeine temporarily (or permanently).  It could also serve you to abstain from emotions that aren’t serving you like anger, frustration, fear, or guilt.

When you catch yourself reacting from one of these emotions, try implementing a new habit or just focus on your breath until the emotion passes.  

Related Blog: Nutrition Habits For a Healthier Life

Yama 5: Greedlessness

My favorite yoga teacher reminded me of this one in a very relateable way.  We were in the middle of a myofacial release clinic, which basically is where you lay on a tennis ball to massage your muscles (it can be very intense, but also feel really good.)  She reminded us to practice aparigraha when doing these movements:

Sometimes the pain is so intense you flee from it and sometimes it feels so good that you force it further than your body is ready to receive.

In the emotional sense, we could all use a little less greed.  Those dirty emotions of fear, anger, and jealousy serve us well when they provide insight into our truest selves and our path to fulfillment.  When they become excessive or compulsive, we often find ourselves forgetting the previous four yamas.

Tips for Practicing Aparingraha

Yamas and Happiness: understanding what yoga is about
Practice Apringraha by learning to balance desire and gratitude

Learn to identify and ask for the appropriate amount whether it’s in a physical sense or emotional sense.

Start a gratitude journal and reflect on how much you have instead of noticing what you are without. Live by the rules of karma and focus on giving rather than receiving. 

Sharing the Yamas with Your Kids

If you’re a parent, I encourage you to share these teachings with your own kids. As my kids do more and more yoga, they start feeling better and have become more curious about the roots of yoga.

Remember, we aren’t talking about yoga here in a religious sense. You can still maintain your own religious beliefs while instilling these values. For me, it’s a natural byproduct when I step off my mat to feel kinder and more at peace with the world, but when I skip days, I notice bad habits tend to creep back into my thought patterns.

Since yoga brings out my better qualities, I choose to use yoga as way to help me achieve happiness and fulfillment. Plus, it literally makes my body feel amazing and that leads to all sorts of fun adventures.

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The Yamas and Happiness