Yamas: New Year, New Intentions
If you are a student of yoga within Canada or other regions of the westernized world, you are likely to be most familiar with yoga as a physical practice-the shapes, the poses, the movement, the athletic feats our bodies perform when we come to our mats (especially within a studio setting).
But the physical practice, the asana, is only one aspect of yoga.
Patanjali, an Indian scholar and yoga guru, is thought to be the individual who translated yoga from the oral tradition to a document that informs yoga practices to this date. Patanjali transcribed the Yoga Sutras and they have been translated and re-translated to offer different interpretations of what yoga is.
Spoiler alert-yoga extends waaaayyyyyy beyond a handstand or downward dog.
Within the Yoga Sutras there are eight limbs of yoga identified, one of which is the physical yoga practice of asana. The eight limbs of yoga include the following:
Yamas: attitudinal guidelines for living and being a human within our world
Niyamas: attitudinal guidelines for how to care for yourself as a human
Asanas: the physical yoga postures and poses
Pranayma: breathwork and breathing
Pratyhara: turning yourself inwards
Dharana: concentration or holding focus on one thing
As the New Year is upon us and with it so are the energies of change and flurry of advertisements telling you that this "new year, new decade equals a new you". I am not raining on the parade of change and the desire to create goals and intentions for the upcoming new year (and decade) but I am challenging the idea that you need to change by buying a new supplement or starting a new exercise program or make some drastic lifestyle change. Instead, I invite you to consider the intentions suggested by the Yamas and how they can be incorporated into your life moving into this new year.
The Yamas offer guidelines for living and being human within our world and, because Patanjali existed in a world before Tinder and Hinge and smart phones and so much more of our reality that is composed of access to technology, some of the Yamas may not present as applying at service level. But I truly believe that there are some valuable intentions to consider within these teachings.
Consider the first Yama of ahimsa, which is known to translate as non-harming and non-violence. In our current world (which is literally and figuratively on fire), this teaching seems especially relevant. It can be used as a reminder to speak kindly and to be kind to others (because EVERYONE is struggling through something or somethings that we know nothing about). And maybe this is the intention you carry into this new year- speak kinder, be kinder, engage in more actions that exhibit understanding of the journeys that people are on.
Ahimsa can also be used as a reminder to do better for the earth we live on. There has been so much change within this past decade and so much more acknowledgment of the impact humans have on our beautiful Mother Earth. With this acknowledgment, comes space for change and space to do a little bit more. Maybe you already recycle like it is your personal religion, maybe you already do "Meatless Mondays", maybe you bring your re-usable bags to the grocery store and carry your re-usable water bottle. But maybe you can keep this intention as you move into this new year-you could stop buying single use coffee cups when you forget your re-usable one (guilty!), you could decrease your involvement with the fast fashion industry, you could try going primarily plant-based, you could give time or money to an organization that supports efforts for clean drinking water, re-forestation, or any other environmental cause that speaks to you.
Ahimsa is not only the intention to be a little kinder, to be a little bit more compassionate, but to also be kinder to yourself, to others, to the world we all live in.
Maybe you feel that ahimsa is something you already do well, an intention you have already accomplished and incorporate with ease on a daily basis (if so, AMAZING!). So what next in this new year? What other intention can you set for this year ahead? Consider the second Yama, satya.
Satya is known to translate as truthfulness or with more simplicity-do not lie. While in its simple form it seems straight-forward and easy enough to follow through with, as well as being something I was taught from a very young age-our current world offers some complexity in living with satya. Consider the imagery and words that you share on your social media. While there is more and more vulnerability shared within my social media feed (and hopefully yours as well), it is important to remember that this continues to be an extremely curated reality. We thoughtfully choose and filter the images we share. We thoughtfully write and re-write the words we share. We tend to choose the highlight moments to share and we tend to share our struggles after the fact. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with this strategy. You need to protect and care for yourself, I need to protect and care for myself. But what does satya look like within the realm of social media? Does it look like less filters? Does it look like less photo shoots? Does it look like more word vomit as a caption instead of a carefully chosen quote to express how you are feeling instead of saying how you are truly feeling in your own words? Maybe you have other ideas about how to create truthfulness within your relationships within the online world and with the online world. This could be the intention you carry into the new year-to be more honest about how you present yourself within the realm of social media or even to be more honest with yourself about how the realm of social media is affecting your well-being.
Satya can also be used as a reminder to be honest with yourself-to be truthful with yourself. Too often I find myself saying yes to something that is not a resounding yes and, actually, if I am being honest with myself (satya!) sounds more like a no. This is a journey I continue to embark on and maybe it is one that you wish to embark on within the new year. The idea of being honest with yourself about how much more you can take on. Being honest with yourself about what you will have to give up if you do or do not say yes to something. Being honest with yourself about the consequences of saying okay to something that feels like a no. And being really honest with yourself about how you are feeling. Paying attention to how you are feeling and then doing something about it. Paying attention to the little lies that you tell yourself on a daily basis that keep you stuck within your current patterns (we all have lies we tell ourselves). Maybe your intention is to incorporate satya into how you interact with the world around you and how you show up in your day to day by listening to your gut feelings, listening to what your heart wants and needs, and honoring the information that your body is sharing with you.
Satya is more than not lying to those around you, it is also about honoring who you are, who you want to be, how you want to show up in the world, how you are feeling, and how you interact with your world. Satya is about being who you truly are.
Maybe you feel that satya is something you already do well, an intention you have already accomplished and incorporate with ease on a daily basis (if so, FABULOUS!). So what next in this new year? What other intention can you set for this year ahead? Consider the third Yama, Asteya.
Asteya is translated to mean non-stealing, or not taking from others what is not yours. This is probably another value that you were taught as a child, at least I was. I knew that stealing from the corner store would get me in big trouble and that taking something that belonged to my sister and not me was also a recipe for a grounding. But how does non-stealing extend into our current lives-our adult lives in which are immersed with responsibilities and technology and a million different expectations that we impose on ourselves?
In her book, Do Your Om Thing, Rebecca Pacheco notes that one of the biggest ways that we steal from ourselves and each other in our daily life is through the stealing of time. This may seem silly because time is a construct and not a tangible item but think for a moment how many times you have been scrolling scrolling scrolling scrolling scrolling and an hour has passed? How many times have you picked up your phone and opened "just one email" while on your day off? How many times have you answered "just one text message" while spending time with someone else? I know that I am guilty of stealing time from others by engaging with technology while out face to face with someone else. I know that I am guilty of taking time away from myself by scrolling through Instagram (in search of who knows what-inspiration? Distraction? Connection? All of the above?) and suddenly I "don't have time" to meditate or practice on my mat or read the book I wanted to read (things that actually do offer me inspiration, distraction and connection).
The practice of asteya can extend beyond not stealing physical things to how you spend your time. Maybe it means that you make a conscious effort to put your phone away when you are out for dinner with your friends. Maybe it means that you do not allow your phone to enter into your bedroom and you invest in a real alarm clock. The practice of asteya might mean that you set timers and monitor your screen time. Maybe it means that you turn off your email notifications on your days off. Asteya means being intentional with how you spend your time and how you engage within your daily life.
Maybe you feel that asteya is something you already do well, an intention you have already accomplished and incorporate with ease on a daily basis (definitely not true for myself!). So what next in this new year? What other intention can you set for this year ahead? Consider the fourth Yama, brahmacharya.
Brahmacharya is translated to mean abstinence and it is talking directly about abstinence from sexual activities in the Patanjali translations. Now if celibacy is the intention you want to shift into your new year with, all the power to you! But the intention of brahmacharya can extend beyond celibacy to the potentially more relevant practice of abstinence from the habits that are causing you discomfort and challenge in your life. This intention feels the most consistent with traditional new years resolutions-the idea that you want to stop doing something and stop a certain activity. What habit, if any, do you have that probably creates more conflict and challenge in your life than good? Is there something that you would like to take intentional action to end?
Maybe your practice of brahmacharya extends to the realm of your financial well-being. Perhaps you need to abstain from engaging in online shopping and instead find a different strategy for coping with the reasons for why you feel drawn to consume and purchase things. This might mean that you create a budget that you follow or you intentionally engage with your money to know where you are spending, when you are spending, and why you are spending. Maybe your practice of brahmacharya is a 30 day no-spend challenge where you do not purchase anything but the necessities. Maybe you instead actively save 20% of your income. Maybe you donate 10% of your income to charity. Only you know how you need to engage with brahmacharya in your realm of financial well-being.
Your practice of brahmacharya could extend to your use of substances. Perhaps you feel the need to end your connection with smoking cigarettes or cannabis or consuming alcohol or caffeine. You can become curious about your relationship with your substance of choice and begin to notice why, when, and how you feel when you use. You can notice how you feel when you do not use. Maybe your practice of brahmacharya is a 14 day no-consume challenge where you do not have your morning coffee for two weeks. Only you know how you need to engage with brahmacharya, but perhaps this intention can assist you in reducing or eliminating a habit that you no longer wish to continue.
Maybe you feel that brahmacharya is something you already do well, an intention you have already accomplished and incorporate with ease on a daily basis (give yourself a round of applause if this is you!). So what next in this new year? What other intention can you set for this year ahead? Consider the final Yama, aparigraha.
Aparigraha can be translated to mean greedlessness or non-possessiveness. It can also be considered to be the practice of non-attachment and letting go of what no longer serves you (let it goooooooo, let it gooooooooo-picture yourself belting it out Elsa-style). Is there something or somethings in your life that you are holding on to a little too tightly? Are there expectations that you have of yourself that no longer serve you? Are there expectations that you have of yourself that have never served you? Are there people in your life that leave you feeling drained and worn out after you spend time with them? These are spaces for the practice of aparigraha.
Aparigraha is also the knowledge of and awareness of abundance. Do you find yourself feeling threatened when others show up in your community? Maybe they are sharing a similar message to yours, or maybe they offer the same services, or maybe you find yourself stuck in the waves of comparison noticing everything they do and the attention and validation they are receiving. Aparigraha can be practiced in these moments. Aparigraha teaches us to let go of the things that are harming us-whether these are physical things or thought patterns, expectations, and ideas we are clinging to. It also teaches us that there is enough for everyone, because nothing truly belongs to anyone. So if you want to see more success within this next year (however you define success), maybe you practice aparigraha by supporting others around you-going to their events, liking their Instagram posts, extending an invitation for tea to learn more. The practice of aparigraha creates space for everyone to have what they need and for you to let go of what you do not need.
As you lean into this new year, this new decade, take time to make space for yourself and truly settle into what you want moving forward. Become clear about who you want to be as you continue onward on your journey. Perhaps one of the yamas ( or all of them!) guide your intentions as you shift into this next chapter. But know this-regardless of what information you are being bombarded with at this time of year-you are enough exactly as you are. You deserve kindness. You deserve compassion. You deserve success (however you define it). You are worthy. And you are so loved.
In darkness and in light,