By Cristie Newhart
Yama and Niyama offer an opportunity for rich exploration. There are many ways to think about any one Yama or Niyama. The beauty of these principles is that we gain further insight as we encounter life experience.
The first time I seriously explored Satya (Truth) was a couple of years after my Kripalu Yoga Teacher Training. I was living at Kripalu, and I wanted the senior yoga teachers to like me. When we would all be talking about yoga, I exaggerated my experience and pretended to know things I didn’t know. I said I practiced longer than I really practiced, read books I didn’t read, that kind of thing. I didn’t tell bold face lies; I alluded, hinted at or implied. It took a long time for me to see what I was doing, even though I was very much aware of the concept of Satya. This kind of lying is a defense, and I’m sure it started long before I came to Kripalu.
When I clearly saw myself engaging in this behavior, my first reaction was to deny it. In other words, lie to myself. I told myself it was no big deal, and it didn’t matter because no one knew. Secrecy was a sort of absolution. Deep down I knew this wasn’t the case. I could feel it in my body, subtly at first. My chest and belly would tighten when I would exaggerate or make a false claim. I ignored these feelings as long as I could.
But the wonderful thing was, I kept practicing. I did asana, pranayama and I kept meditating. I’d inquire-why does truth telling matter? What does honesty feel like? As my awareness grew, and the container of myself strengthened, it became much more difficult to ignore what was happening. The cat was out of the bag, so to speak. As uncomfortable as it was, I needed to face this part of myself. At first, I couldn’t get past feeling guilty. I went from puffing myself up, to dragging myself very far down. Both sides of this coin were lies.
Although my behavior needed to change, when I began to peel back the layers of my tendency to exaggerate, that behavior wasn’t the heart of the matter. The heart or the root of the matter rarely is what troubles us. What was at the root, was getting real about my feelings of insecurity and not good enoughness. That was the honest conversation I needed to have with myself. I was afraid I wouldn’t measure up, that I didn’t belong.
Although my behavior needed to change, when I began to peel back the layers of my tendency to exaggerate, that behavior wasn’t the heart of the matter. The heart or the root of the matter rarely is what troubles us. What was at the root, was getting real about my feelings of insecurity and not good enoughness. That was the honest conversation I needed to have with myself. I was afraid I wouldn’t measure up, that I didn’t belong. These were feelings I had been carrying around for a long, long time. I needed to look myself square in the face and own this piece of my humanity. I needed to be vulnerable with myself, and acknowledge that I felt bad about who I was.
It wasn’t easy. But when I accepted that these feelings were really happening, something deep inside softened. I felt connected. I gained more dimension, I felt more real. Soon, I was willing to show others this part of myself. When I did, I discovered another truth; feelings of inadequacy and not enoughness weren’t unique to me. Many people, even the most confident and well-practiced, experience them.
My feelings of inadequacy hadn’t dissolved, but they mattered less. Healing had begun. I had melted a barrier that I held within myself. That’s what lying does; it creates false walls that keep our inner landscapes fragmented. Honesty liberates. Now my relationships with the other teachers could have a different tone. Length of practice, understanding complex philosophies and books read took a back seat. I was equal in Being.
I heard it said that practicing one Yama or Niyama is practicing them all. I believe that’s true. In my practice of Satya, I also needed to practice Ahimsa. I think it’s wise to pair any Yama or Niyama with the Ahimsa. Traditionally, Ahimsa is defined as non-violence. I like to think of Ahimsa as non-harming, compassion. It was the concept of non-harming and compassion that allowed me to explore Satya to its fullest. Without remembering to be kind and patient with myself, the guilt and “bad person” voice would have paralyzed me.
There are infinite ways to explore the Yama and Niyama. You could:
Pick one to muse upon. Say the word in Sanskrit as a mantra. Notice what sensations, thoughts and emotions arise? Keep with it for a few weeks. What stories do you tell yourself?
It can be fun to call up a Yama or Niyama in a situation where it’s needed. For example, when waiting in a long line and you feel yourself becoming impatient. What happens when you call up Santosha (contentment)? A friend of mine had to travel with her mom, who could be difficult. My friend made a commitment to Santosha for the entire 3-hour flight. For my friend, this meant not reacting to her mother, remaining relaxed, pleasant and positive. As the flight progressed something unexpected happened. My friend’s mom began to open; she talked about her childhood and relayed stories my friend had never heard. My friend commented she felt closer to her mother in those 3 hours than she had in a lifetime. Of course, there were still issues that need to be addressed. But now my friend saw her mother differently, and that new way of seeing let her feel more spacious in the relationship.
Write about Yama and Niyama. Let your thoughts stream to the page. What have your experiences been? Look at what you write from the place of witness. No need to judge. Remember that our behaviors stem from an ideas and thoughts we have about ourselves, thoughts and ideas that may not be true. Noticing this can be powerful.
That’s what the practice of Yama or Niyama is all about. It’s not to improve ourselves, or to root out any defects. This practice is about strengthening our relationship to who we are. To embrace ourselves and recognize, no matter our experience, we are profoundly human. And being human is all we ever need to be. Satya comes from the root word as, which means, “to be”. I find that comforting; Truth just is. It’s not necessary to struggle, to search or to shout. No matter what, Truth will find me.
Cristie's favorite resources
Patanjali's Yoga Sutras | “Enlightened Living: a new interpretative translation of the Yoga Sutra” by Swami Venkatesananda
Yamas and Niyamas | The Yamas & Niyamas: Exploring Yoga's Ethical Practice by Debra Adele
Cristie Newhart is a Writer, Thread Teacher and Mentor, Kripalu Yoga Teacher and Trainer, and former Dean of the Kripalu School of Yoga.