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8 Limbs of Yoga

How Living The Yamas and Niyamas Brought Me Happiness and Love

When she embraced yoga's ethical limbs, Susanna Barkataki's life changed in surprising ways—and for the better.

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I grew up in yogic culture, and now I’m a devoted student of yoga. But my life wasn’t always full of the joy and peace that comes with practice. For many years, I was living the life of a young, professional woman in L.A.—busy, independent, working, dating…and terrifically unhappy. I’d rejected a lot of the yogic teachings from my childhood and I was feeling no peace. But I was about to discover the living power of the first two ethical limbs of yoga, the yamas and niyamas

What are the yamas and niyamas?

The yamas and niyamas are a series of ethical principles described in many yogic texts. You can find different versions, but the most well known are in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. The yamas are out-facing ethical codes and can guide us in how we relate to others. They include:

  • Ahimsa, practicing non-violence and non-harming
  • Satya practicing honesty in thought, word or deed
  • Asteya practicing the awareness that you have everything you need
  • Brahmacharya practicing to respect all life energy
  • Aparigraha practicing non-grasping

The niyamas are inward-facing yogic codes that one follows on a path of deepening their practice:

  • Saucha: maintaining a clear and pure mind, body and surroundings
  • Santosha: cultivating happiness and contentment
  • Tapas: committing to your practice with focus and discipline
  • Svadhyaya: self exploration and self study
  • Isvara-pranidhana: dedication to divine text and practices 

These ethical principles evolved in a context of yoga practice some 5000 years ago in the Indus and Saraswati River Valley, but they aren’t simply ancient words for ancient times. They are completely relevant to life right now.

How the yamas and niyamas helped me like being with myself

One Spring, feeling exceptionally down, I went on retreat to see if I could find some relief from my suffering. The retreat participants were required to live by yogic ethics—telling the truth, acting with kindness, not causing grief or harm. These guidelines felt supportive, like a blanket of care wrapped around my personal and spiritual life. As I lived like this, I started to notice that being with myself felt better. And silent meditation felt good too. 

I started to enjoy this space so much that I soon began to toy with the idea of giving up the trappings of the world, shaving my head, and becoming a spiritual renunciate. (Dating had been going so dismally anyway.) 

Around this time of intense commitment to yogic ethics and practice, I met another devoted young person who was planning to give away all their worldly possessions, too. We connected over our deep passion for spiritual growth. Together we attended yoga courses and meditation trainings; we went together to see the Dalai Lama speak.

The yamas and niyamas even shaped my relationship

Then, on one practice day, as I sat deep in the woods, meditating in noble silence, I felt sparks fly. I realized that what I was feeling wasn’t just spiritual intensity. My body felt a connection to my meditation partner across the forest. Throughout our time at the retreat, the connection persisted, despite the fact that we rarely spoke. Wherever we were, even when we were apart, I always knew exactly where he was. 

There was something else going on here, we realized. Eventually we decided that we would renounce our plans to become renunciates, and forgo the sannyasis saffron robes. Though we didn’t want to jump into the same kind of relationship messes we both were used to, we decided to try the grihasta path, or householder’s way, and cultivate a path of spiritual love. We were clear that our relationship would be a spiritual one, established on ethical principles of the yamas, or precepts. 

See also: Find Your True Self in Rishikesh

Now you might wonder how my partner and I fell in love since we were barely talking to each other. We had committed to practicing satya, or loving speech and deep listening. Though we didn’t talk much, when we did, our words were thoughtfully considered. We’d both been hurt and had hurt others before, and wanted to try something kinder and better by building a relationship founded on ahimsa, or non-harm. We began to understand our practice through learning to relate to ourselves and each other in a new way. 

At first I didn’t want children or marriage. I think part of me didn’t feel I could be myself within those structures or that I deserved those things. It’s through deep practice of the yamas that these ethical principles changed me. Over time and with practice, I began to trust in the relationship. But more than that, practicing with the yamas showed me that I could trust myself. I could be myself, fully—and even grow and be better. Instead of fighting, I could be myself within the relationship. I was ready to give myself to the experience, and didn’t need to lose a thing. 

Ultimately, practicing the yamas gave me some of the greatest joys of my life beyond spiritual practice: a marriage, a child, a home. The practice of the niyamas, the inner yogic codes, supported me in deepening a spiritual life while completely engaged with my family and in the world. 

Living yoga beyond asana

As you practice yoga beyond just asana, you will recognize the invitation into a more ethical life. So, in addition to whatever values and ethics you already live by, you can begin to add in a practice of the traditional ethics outlined in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

In practicing the yamas and niyamas, you’ll learn to follow your inner guidance to personal, emotional, physical and spiritual growth; you will cultivate a life of truth, compassion, generosity, and peace. In turn, living by these principles can create transformation, healing, and happiness for yourself and for the world.

Practicing the ethical foundations of yoga is a lifelong journey—and a rewarding one. Now, I’m not guaranteeing you love, but you may end up happily surprised, as I was—and still am. You never know what you might create in your life with the supportive value of yogic ethics.

 

Susanna Barkataki in a deep pink kurta, with her dark hair over one shoulder, against a saffron colored background with hands in lotus mudra
(: Eran James)

This is the first in a series of essays by Susanna Barkataki that take a deep dive into the yamas and niyamas.  Barkataki is the founder of the Ignite Yoga and Wellness Institute and the author of Embrace Yoga’s Roots: Courageous Ways to Deepen Your Practice.