The New Year
January 3, 2018
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January 3, 2018
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Practical Patanjali: Yamas & Niyamas

Ahhhh… the beginning of a new year… Some see it as a great time to party while others dread it because it reminds them of how fast time flies or of those loved ones no longer with us… Many welcome it as a new beginning and a great opportunity to take stock of the accomplishments of the year ending as well as set goals or resolutions for the year starting…

But New Year’s resolutions tend to have a major built-in flaw which lies in their “all or nothing” nature and how we tend to treat them as offering a single choice between success or failure… For instance: say you decide to quit smoking or go vegan… the instant you take a puff or indulge in a little cheese: BAM! Failure! That resolution was not kept and is discarded shamefully as yet another futile attempt to stick with something…

The problem may rest in the difference between expectations and goals… If your goal was to improve your health by quitting smoking and you end up smoking 1 instead of 20 cigarettes in 3 days you may not have met your expectation of not smoking at all but you certainly made some progress toward the goal of improving your health… and eating some foie-gras after jumping to the conclusion you failed to go vegan because you had a single slice of cheese as animal-based food in a week, is certainly not going to contribute to your goal of doing your share to help the environment while reducing the suffering of all beings…

The “all or nothing” nature of such resolutions is also giving us an easy way out of the challenging process of building new and better habits to replace old and damaging ones… you know, the point where you chastise yourself for good measure, saying to yourself that you suck, you are no good, and you failed, and might as well just move on since this clearly did not work… “I tried, I failed, I will be a smoker, meat eater, overweight, out of shape, insert your “bad habit” here, for the rest of my life… “

Don’t get me wrong…. Taking up a resolution can be a very good tool, but it so often results in disappointment that it is probably useful to look for other ways to pursue growth, evolution, improved wellbeing and quality of life…

And I think the Yamas and Niyamas that form the first 2 limbs of Patanjali’s 8-limb approach to practice in his Yoga Sutras are just what we need!
(note: more to come on the other 6 limbs in future columns)

The Yamas form a moral code proposing five social behaviors to adhere to. They are:

  1. Ahimsa or Non-violence
  2. Satya or Truth
  3. Asteya or Non-stealing
  4. Brahmacharya or Non-excess (sometimes narrowly translated as celibacy or abstinence)
  5. Aparigraha or Non-coveting / Non-possessiveness

And the Niyamas propose 5 personal observances to help us grow and evolve. They are:

  1. Saucha or Purity
  2. Santosha or Contentment
  3. Tapas or Self-Discipline
  4. Svadhyaya or Self-study
  5. Ishvara Pranidhana or Surrender

OK, now I will give you a moment to get over how some of them (Purity? Surrender? Non-excess? Celibacy?) sound ancient or something your grand-mother’s childhood preacher would have lectured about on a cold rainy Sunday, decades ago…

Ready to continue?

Basically, the Yamas aim to guide our attitude toward our environment while the Niyamas aim to guide our attitude toward our self…Or, in the more concise and direct words of my very wise and awesome teacher Lauren Toolin, the Yamas are all about cleaning up our act while the Niyamas are all about getting over our self.

So, reflecting upon truth, non-violence, self-study and non-excess, for instance, you may realize and accept that you are not quite ready to go full-on vegan yet, but may start making changes such as introducing a few vegetarian or vegan meals each week and getting your animal meat protein from a small local farmer/butcher who does not use industrial and often cruel farming techniques… The idea being that the Yamas and Niyamas serve as guides when making decisions and choosing our actions; guides which bring wisdom and clarity to our everyday lives; guides that keep us better aligned with our overall goals; guides we can keep turning to for direction and support throughout our entire lifetime…

Therefore, I believe the potential impact of committing to keeping these simple yet demanding principles at the forefront of our minds daily, in all our actions and decisions, is far more beneficial than any New Year’s resolution can ever be… Of course, you may retort that the commitment to keeping the Yamas and Niyamas at the forefront of our mind can be a New Year’s resolution in itself; and I guess that’s true, however, considering how there is no end to how applicable these principles are, I prefer to look at this commitment as a great foundation for continuous improvement throughout our whole life and an investment in our own wellbeing, growth and evolution…

Please feel free to comment on your own views and experiences with the Yamas and Niyamas and let’s continue the conversation in March when we resume the Lilananda Yoga Sutras Study Group and tackle the second chapter entitled “Sadhana Pada”. Details coming soon.

Until then, I wish you and all your loved ones much success, health and happiness in this New Year!

With much love and gratitude,
Anne-Marie Serre