Taking the Yama-s and Niyama-s out of the Bathroom
By Kristine Kaoverii Weber | July 4, 2020
Often, when I visit yoga studios, I see yama and niyama posters on the walls – particularly, for some reason, in the bathroom. One time, when I was out of town, I found a class I wanted to take at a studio I’d never been to. When I walked in, the receptionist didn’t look up. I stood at the desk waiting for a while and when she finally acknowledged me there was very little eye contact and definitely no smile. However, a curt, “Can I help you” managed to eject itself through her teeth.
She silently took my payment for the class. I asked for a mat. That was another $2. She gave me a flaky, smelly, orange piece of something that may have once passed for a yoga mat. I should’ve asked for a different one but I felt intimidated. (Although, I really regretted that because it made me feel a bit queasy during Cobra).
I don’t take interactions like that personally; she was probably just having a bad day (although I have to say that I’m grateful the trend of snobby front desk yoga studio personnel seems to have abated somewhat over the past decade – probably because of the trauma sensitive/trauma informed and body positive movements…but I digress).
Anyway, after class, I went to the bathroom and there it was, a yamas and niyamas poster, stuck to the inside of the toilet stall door, with 10 tips on how to be better yogi.
While the bathroom is a lovely place to contemplate the meaning of Śauca (and, admittedly, pondering the meaning of life in general), sometimes it can be helpful to reflect on these principles in other aspects of our lives as well. 😸
They make nice wall art, but it’s when we practice and experience the principles, when we shift our understanding of the yamas and niyamas from concept to embodied understanding, that they then begin to actually have a transformational impact on our character.
These days the yamas and niyamas are especially relevant in the context of finding balance, meaning and purpose during difficult times, and in the context of operationalizing anti-racism.
Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, fighting for the freedom of BIPOC from attitudes, cultures, and systems of oppression, made the first principle of non-harming, or ahiṃsā, the central theme of their liberation movements.
Typically, in traditional yoga texts, when the author is listing something, the principle that comes first is the most important – which doesn’t mean the others are negligible of course, just that the first is the foundation.
Patanjali listed ahiṃsā or non-harming first because it forms the base for the other principles. First, get established in non-harming – then look at the other 9 principles. How does non-harming support them? How do all the principles interweave and support each other?
(credit: Mado Biddle)
Ahiṃsā, framed in positive psychology terms, could be seen as the practice of recognizing the interconnectedness and interdependence of everything, and then responding from an empathic, caring place to every situation, encounter, or relationship. There’s a significant body of research on the personal and social health benefits of empathy. And empathy is an important antidote to harm and violence.
And, as my colleague and friend Kiesha Battles likes to ask, “How does ahiṃsā show up in your life? How much violence are you willing to accept?” Ahiṃsā never means “Be a doormat.” Unfortunately, there are times when force is necessary to overcome injustice – to prevent further harm. It’s the contemplation, the embodiment and the operationalizing of the yamas and niyamas that make them so relevant and potent. They are definitely the juice of this practice.
When we take Yama and Niyama off of the bathroom wall and into our hearts, they can begin to come alive in us. And this is exactly what the world needs at this moment.
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When I bought my studio the first thing I did was stencil the Yamas and Niyams on the wall. Now that we are still practicing Virtual Yoga because my studio is too small for social distancing, I am using them as my theme each week. The students are enjoying learning about the words on the wall and how they can take them off the mat after the practice. Thank you for all you do and bring to us. You inspire me!
I love that you use the Yamas and Niyamas as class themes Brenda. I think they offer so much to explore.
Hi Kristine and friends. You talk the talk, you walk the walk. Words can be empty, actions speak louder. Retail and service industries are wonderful testing grounds for your practice…can you actually connect and live up to the intention and live the embodied meaning of the yama and niyama? It makes sense that ahimsa is first on the list; it’s interesting how ahimsa is often used as a replacement for professional standards. Just in general I sometimes wonder if you come to yoga with a set of guiding ethical and moral principles to what extent they can ‘replace’ the yama and niyama and still keep the integrity of the 8 limbs?
Yeah Chris, great questions “can you actually live up to the intention and live the embodied meaning of the yama and niyama?” Probably not. They are ideals! Which is one thing I love about them. I like to remind folks that it’s not about being perfect or living up – it’s about making the effort. And I totally agree about how ahimsa gets used to replace professional standards. I also like to remind, hey it’s not okay as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone – there are 9 more principles! Of course everyone has some kind of intrinsic moral compass (unless you are a sociopath) and in that case I think the yamas adn niyamas can enhance it. I also think they ARE the internal moral compass and practice is a matter of revealing rather thank internalizing them.
It’s a great post, Kristine. As Chris says above, can we actually live the embodied meaning of the yamas and niyamas? Hard task at times, especially when I see how insidious self-criticism and self-judgment are. I often teach about the nourishing opposite (Patanjali wrote about opposites — i realized I needed to add a big dose of nourishment). Your post has me inquire — what’s the embodied nourishing of ahimsa? How might I make that so granular it more easily becomes embodied? That’s my inquiry for the weekend! Thanks for that.
You are so sweet to comment here! Yes, vitarka-bādhane pratiprakṣa-bhāvanam one of my faves! I love the idea of ahimsa being embodied nourishment as an antidote to self-criticism and self-judgment. That’s lovely. And also I think it can be a relational balm as well – with my mental health peeps, I often teach the yamas as the ethics of co-regulation, and the niyamas as the ethics of self-regulation.
Hi! Nonviolence starts with finding love for ourselves. It starts there, and if one does not have that, it will turn into violence towards others. For example, many people who have fears, insecurities and doubts for themselves will put that on others. It will come out in forms of jealousy or a sense they have to prove they are better than others. Meddling in other people’s lives is a form of violence. Worry is also a form of violence as it tells the person you don’t trust them to live their own lives. Supporting and trusting is non violence. If we love ourselves, we can love others❤️🙏
I often ponder Ahimsa in the yoga world- how many yoga teachers and students practice this when it comes to their food- not many are vegan or even vegetarian and even come up with excuses – surely reflection upon why we think we have to even defend or excuse this oversight would be the first thing and then it would become quickly apparent why eating meat and animal products is the very opposite of Ahimsa
This is a tricky one Zareen. People are attached to food based on very intrinsic patterning often established pre-verbally. I personally can’t stomach a flesh food diet, I look into the eyes of creatures and I can’t fathom killing them. But I have found that I need to navigate the terrain of food very carefully with folks because it is so triggering. What I am very comfortable saying is try to eat less meat and try to preserve consciousness. What can you do to help increase the amount of consciousness on this planet? That I think is a very important question when contemplating ahimsa.
I often practice Ahimsa daily by pairing it with The 4 Agreements, especially the 1st agreement which is to “be impeccable with your word”. Speaking kindly to yourself and others helps spread much needed love in the world. Also, I took it one step further 5 years ago and stopped contributing to the harming of our fellow earthlings by practicing a vegan lifestyle. to me, Ahimsa and veganism go hand in hand. Thank you for this reminder. Namaste.