Yoga City NYC: Yama

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The first of Patanjali's 8 limbs of yoga, the yama, are half of yoga's ethical and moral guide on how to live a better life. But many of us come to the mat without a lot of background in ancient texts and even less of an idea how to implement these seemingly arcane concepts into our practices and lives.

In the midst of trying to execute a perfect dropback into urdhva dhanurasana, it's easy to forget that asana is not our only tool for living a more connected and happy life. Ahimsa (non-violence), Satya (truthfulness), Asteya (non-stealing), Brahmacharya (continence or celibacy) and Aparigraha (nonhoarding or non-greed), the five yama or self-restraints, offer us another way to access the connection and peace that yoga offers. In this first of a two-part series on the ethics of yoga, Alex Phelan asks four NYC yogis, Swami Sadasivananda, Mark Wolz, Lesley Desaulniers and Nikki Costello (bios follow) about their own understanding of the yama in their lives and their classes.

What role do the yama play in your life?

SS: As the ethics, they are the foundation of spiritual life. While it can seem difficult to achieve other goals, like meditation, you can practice the yama all the time.

MW: They are a constant reminder that helps to keep me conscious because I need to be very alert to observe them.

LD: They are a foundation for the way that I relate to others, to myself, to the way I think, and to the world around me.

NC: They are always present. The challenge of yoga is that it is a living philosophy. The more we are able to see that it is alive, the greater our ability to embrace it and see it in every moment.

How do you bring them into classes?

SS: The yama have to find their expression in everyone's life in the form of self control. Not as suppression but by identifying the desires you have that curtail your freedom and removing those obstacles.

MW: I try to observe the yama as I teach. I remind people to be mindful of how they treat their own body and mind and how they treat the people around them.

LD: What I do matters and radiates outward, not only for me, but also for my students. The more that I practice the yama in the way that I live my life the more students pick up on it and start to ask questions.

NC: Organically. There are moments when teaching the yama and niyama become a natural extension of what is happening. By watching students practice and observing them closely, there is an opportunity in every class to draw a connection to the way we conduct ourselves.

Would you agree that ahimsa or non-violence is the primary yama or is there another that you think is central?

MW: When you look at a lot of statues in Asia, you often see a figure that has a number of arms, the limbs all operating simultaneously. I see the yama as operating that way and all being equally strong, equally important. We are meant to use them all at once.

LD: I think non-harming is the essence of the yama and encompasses all of the others. But it's not only in actions, it's also in a way of thinking and relating to the world. Ahimsa is in not judging others and respecting everyone's individual dharma. For example, if you are a vegetarian but are judging other people, are you really being non-harming? The practice of ahimsa is a means to perfect our actions in the world.

NC: It is possible that through one all the others can be illuminated, but it's not possible to say that one is most central. I think satya is an essential component because it involves being truthful to oneself. If we are truthful to ourselves we won't put ourselves into inappropriate or violent situations.

SS: Ahimsa is the highest expression of the divine laws that sustain creation. It is both about not hurting someone in thoughts, words and deeds and also promoting positive practices that eliminate suffering. All other yama and niyama are there to support ahimsa.

Some yama, like brahmacharya or celibacy, can be confusing. How do you interpret this particular yama in your own life?

SS: It really means the control of all senses and the mind in its totality, not just in regards to the sexual; any form of indulgence is a break in brahmacharya. You preserve your energy in order to use it for spiritual work.

LD: The second chakra is the center of sexuality, but it is also the center of creativity. I think we can use our sexuality in a way that increases our creative power, or we can use our sexuality in a way that abuses and manipulates others. Brahmacharya to me is using sexual energy as empowering and enlightening to connect you with others and yourself.

MW: Brahmacharya ultimately refers to the energy that all of us have, especially sexual energy. I think of it as a cosmic force; a very fundamental energy that wants to be expressed. What brahmacharya is guiding us to do, is to be aware when you are feeling that force and choose how you are going to use it.

NC: It's tricky if you read it as celibacy, but its not tricky if you read it as relationships with integrity, truthfulness and honesty. It's not saying everyone has to be a monk, it's about how you express moderation in everything that you do. It can be cultivated with self discipline, moderation and healthy relationships.

Aparigraha, non-hoarding, is another complex one. How do you relate to this concept?

SS: There are many desires and a few needs. Once you fulfill a need it subsides, whereas desires, once fulfilled, continue to grow. I have a problem with too many books, for example. Any kind of excessive accumulation is hoarding, so aparigraha means not being psychologically dependent on something that you have so that you always desire more.

MW: If you learn to appreciate things for their intrinsic qualities, then you develop a greater appreciation for them. So you're not driven to own it or control it, and you begin to realize that everything exists in its own right. If you're not trying to own or control something then there is no sense of greed toward it.

LD: It means that your relationship to the stuff you have is peaceful. It is about noticing if you are getting really caught in the externals of the world and, in so doing, releasing that me-first attitude that causes a lot of sadness. NC: Why covet what we think someone else has, when everything we could every truly want is already in us.

Any suggestions on how we can bring the yama more actively into our social lives?

SS: I think this is a matter of education. It is our responsibility to teach the idea that yoga is not just asana and pranayama, but that the yama are the foundation of the practice.

MW: We need to view them as choices and not be judgmental about them. Every day we make choices and need to observe the consequences. It's observing the consequences of my choices that teach me the yama.

LD: To have a daily spiritual practice; it can be meditation, asana, mantra. Whatever it is, do something everyday that connects you to your Self. If you really practice everyday, the yama will come naturally.

NC: Yes, cultivate them within ourselves and lead by example.


Swami Sadasivananda is the head of the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Center in New York City. As a renunciate or sanyasa, he has taken the vows to continue the teachings of Swami Sivananda and Swami Vishnu-devananda. He teaches hatha yoga classes as well as courses in meditation, philosophy and the practice of keeping a spiritual diary.

Mark Wolz holds a BS in Psychology and an MA in Anthropology. He is primarily trained through the Integral Yoga Institute, but also finds his influences ranging widely through the NYC yoga community. Mark is teaching two 5-week courses on the yama and niyama starting in January of 2012 at Integral Yoga, check out our YogaCityNYC events listing for more information!

Lesley Desaulniers has been studying yoga and meditation since 1996. In her early twenties, Lesley was a resident at Ananda Ashram in upstate New York, where she intensively studied Sanskrit, meditation, philosophy, and Hatha yoga. She was later certified by Sharon Gannon and David Life and went on to teach at the Jivamukti Yoga Center in downtown Manhattan. She teaches at Prema Yoga in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn.

Nikki Costello is a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher and has been teaching yoga for 18 years. She has studied with teachers such as Sharon Gannon, David Life, John Friend, Kevin Gardiner and Mary Dunn and in 1997, she became a student of the Siddha Yoga path. Nikki teaches at the Kula Yoga Project.

– Alex Phelan Alex Phelan ( teaches anatomically influenced and alignment conscious yoga in New York City. 

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