• Evan Leontis

The Yamas and Niyamas as Tools for Life


It seems like life is one long series of transitions. My own life has felt especially transitory in the last couple years as I have completed my doctoral degree, moved, done my yoga teacher training, gotten engaged, started new jobs, and begun applying for university positions. There are times when navigating the constant sea of changes feels so overwhelming that I find myself struggling to keep my head above water, struggling to stay afloat. My fellow singers and musicians often share these same concerns and maybe you have too. Where will I be living next year? What will I be doing? How can I pursue my dreams and still have enough money to eat? How can I provide for myself and my family while also finding artistic and personal fulfillment? These are the questions that whirl around in our heads late at night with no hope of being answered.

I have found that the one thing that is certain in life is that there will always be unknowns. It is impossible to predict what will happen to us in the future and fixating on the unknowns can often cause turmoil within us. However, the unknown is also what makes life exciting! It would would be boring if we always knew exactly what was going to happen ahead of time. Therefore, finding peace with the unknown has become my personal quest. Luckily, I have found some excellent tools within the world of yoga that are aiding me on this quest.

I first came across the yamas and niyamas almost a year ago as I began the required reading for my yoga teacher training. Deborah Adele’s book The Yamas & Niyamas, which thoroughly dissects and explores the ideas within each yama and niyama, was one of the books on my list and I was BLOWN away by the wealth of knowledge and wisdom contained in this short book. Over and over again while reading I found my understanding of myself and my relationships being stretched and challenged and expanded. I continue to go back to this book over and over again to dig deeper into the ideas presented and to figure out how to apply the principles to the challenges I face in life. These ideas have opened my mind and changed the way I approach life, helping me to reconnect again and again to what is important to me while I continue on my journey. From my experience, employing these principles to daily life is much easier said than done, however the yamas and niyamas have given me direction in times of struggle and I am noticing that in time it is becoming slightly easier to get back on track when I find my mind chatter has led me astray. Most importantly, they are helping me in my quest to find peace with the unknown.

The yamas and niyamas are the first two limbs of the 8-limbed path of yoga, known as Ashtanga, outlined by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. The yamas and niyamas can be seen as guidelines for how to conduct ourselves, a sort of roadmap for living a life that is honorable, ethical, and leads to contentment. As the first two limbs they function as the foundation for the 8-limbed path, a strong platform on which one can build not only a solid practice but a solid sense of self.

There are five yamas, which are the attitudes we have towards things and people outside of ourselves, and five niyamas, which are the ways we relate to ourselves inwardly. Although Patanjali outlined these guidelines centuries ago, I find their wisdom to be timeless, transcending any cultural and societal borders. Brief translations of the 5 yamas and 5 niyamas are:

Yamas:

Ahimsa - Non-violence

Satya - Truthfulness

Asteya - Nonstealing

Brahmacharya - Nonexcess

Aparigraha - Nonpossessiveness

Niyamas:

Saucha - Purity

Santosha - Contentment

Tapas - Self-Discipline

Svadhyaya - Self-Study

Ishvara Pranidhana - Surrender

I have been thinking about the yamas and niyamas a lot lately as I have been navigating my personal journey of job applications, auditions, teaching, and wedding preparations. When we are in the midst of facing challenges and pursuing growth the ways in which we treat ourselves and others become even more important. This week my fiance and I went on a quick getaway to Stowe, VT. While there, we decided to do a winter hike up Camel’s Hump, the third highest mountain in VT, using our newly purchased microspikes which we afixed to our snow boots. I had never done a serious winter hike before but this seemed like a great way to try out our new equipment. As we hiked I was struck by the similarities between the journey of ascending this mountain and the metaphorical journey of pursuing a career. We did not know exactly what challenges awaited us when we began that hike. We didn’t know that we would have to cross several icy waterfalls (check out the photo above!) or that a frigid rain would begin to fall when we had a mile to go from the top. However, using the microspikes, our hiking poles, and rain gear, we were able to put one foot in front of the other to climb up ice-covered rocks to the summit, a feat that would have been impossible without the use of these tools. The joy and sense of accomplishment I felt when we reached the windy, cold summit was palpable all through my body. Similarly, by employing the figurative “tools” the yamas and niyamas provide I am finding new courage and resolve to keep putting one foot in front of the other on my quest to find peace and contentment.

Over the next month I will be doing a series of posts dedicated to exploring the yamas and niyamas and how we might apply them to life as a singer/artist, so stay tuned!


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