yoga principles in action yoga therapy

Yoga Principles in Action

I find myself asking questions like: Where do my actions end? Do my intentions ripple through the world? Is my self-realization your self-realization and vice versa? Yamas are designed to open us up to those around us. The yamas are the antidote to the ambition that we have of trying to become something other than we are. Yamas are the restraints or moral discipline it is an outward spiritual practice performed to avoid unrighteous behavior and to model ethical engagement in everyday life. Niyamas are observances, self-restraint, and practices to follow in maintaining correct moral principles. Our moral codes are funneled through three modes of practices: body, speech, and mind. The yamas and niyamas loop back onto one another just as the body warps and weaves into itself. Ethics and psychology are bound together as psychological, social and environmental action. We must walk-the-walk and talk-the-talk meeting our circumstances and seeing them for what they are. I believe as a professional this is a commitment that we can help our peers do by modeling it and being a mirror at times for our peers when requested.

 My favorite yama and niyama book is The Yamas & Niyamas: Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice by Deborah Adele. I will use her spellings and definitions for the purpose of this paper. I like how Deborah refers to the yamas and niyamas “as jewels because they are rare gems of wisdom that give direction to a joyful well-lived life”. Often we see them mentioned as commandments, guidelines, and ethical disciplines, and I feel like these words turn people off to exploring them. But the words jewels, gems, wisdom, joyful are almost hypnotic and have a lighter feel to them giving us permission to explore them without judgment. 

Ahimsa/Nonviolence means non-stealing, doing no harm and practicing this through nonviolent words, deeds, and thought with ourselves and others. It also means the ability to listen.  Satya/Truthfulness means sincerity, integrity, honesty and the power of the word. To speak the truth and tell no lies, being honest with yourself and others, and the world will reflect that honesty back to you, providing you with all the support that you need. Asteya/Non-Stealing means does not take that which does not belong to you in a material, physical, spiritual, intellectual or emotional sense, also, to respect others boundaries and property. Brahmacharya/Non-Excess means moderation, self-control, the strength of will, sexual restraint. Being virtuous and loving in thought and action. Do not fall prey to lust, selfishness, over-indulgence, or ego trips. You cannot live one way on your mat and another way off the mat as this is a kind of double life. Aparigraha/Non-Possessiveness in contemporary terms this could mean to avoid greed and the acquisition of material goods, to avoid grasping for power and to simplify your life. Be content with what you have, do not hoard, share and share alike.

Saucha/Purity means purity of body and mind, by embracing purity in your body, environment, relationships, communications and actions by keeping yourself and your life bright and clean within and without. Santosha/Contentment mean equanimity, happiness, satisfaction, honoring all that you are and all that you have right now at this moment, knowing that the present moment is truly enough. Tapas/Self-Discipline means burning zeal; desire to achieve self-realization, purification. Practice discipline and cultivate a fiery spirit to burn through the ego. Svadhyaya/Self-Study means self-observation be rigorous in looking at yourself through practicing introspection. Know yourself deeply and authentically so you may fully know others. Ishvara Pranidhana/Surrender means to surrender to God or the divine, be devoted, let go of your small self and your ego, to throw away willfulness and competition.

Ahimsa/Non-Violence this yama has guided me over the last several years in finding my courage and self-love. Finding my courage has been about overcoming my fears. First, I have to be aware of my fear, name and then address it. I have discovered that fear is tissue paper thin, if I can muster the courage and lean into what frightens me I find on the other side a felt sense of peace, calm, and joy. I find smaller fears hold me back from being my best self; courage is not the absence of fear it is the ability to move through it. Self-love when I first started working on this it was a blow to my ego. I always thought I was compassionate and giving but if I was not truly compassionate, kind and giving to myself was I this way to others? I tend toward being hard-on and judgmental toward myself. I had to take a hard look at how I was parenting myself and how I was showing myself to others. I have been working on seeing the humor and lightness of imperfections in myself which has now led me to work on self-forgiveness this year. By not forgiving myself for my mistakes I have been carrying a big lock around my heart that is just too heavy to carry any longer. Not to mention it is taking up to much air space in my mind. In my professional life, it has helped me be less of a fixer. I learned this role early on in my family, as I have happily played it for decades and know it very well. I have been working on noticing the difference between help and support. Help is an example of sympathy which shows pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune. Help has an imbalance in the relationship that I do not want to have with others because it sets this precedent that I am more skilled in making life decisions and overcoming challenges. Support is an example of empathy the ability to understand and share feelings with another while I respect their process of living their path.  Whereas support has more of an equal playing field and allows you to be with someone else’s stuff holding space without being in their thing. Ahimsa will help me find balance as a yoga therapist (YT) by creating a boundary that upholds my self-care. By scheduling my self-care times for movement sessions, meditation, healthy meals, and bodywork and so on, I am valuing my time that is needed to listen to my inner wisdom for guidance. It gives me time and space to declutter my mind and body and to fill the bucket up in a spiritual sense. An example that I can share of how I would use this with a client is to guide them to seeing that there are always lots of options. Supporting them in the present moment, finding stability and creating a safe container then asking a curious question of “What do you need to do right now to feel competent to handle this situation?” Sometimes we fear our empowerment and then feel powerless and trapped by the boxes that the mind creates based on a past time from our childhood story where we felt powerless. Seeing mistakes as growth opportunities gives us more options to work. As for an example of my fellow YT community, I would lean toward one of supporting them to stay accountable to balance. We sit with a lot of our stuff and stuff of others. Setting boundaries that honor this is important so we do not burn out and our health remains high. Giving ourselves time to honor that we are enough and complete as we are. Maybe exploring a week where we do not criticize, judge or compete with ourselves and others. Noticing when we give ourselves patience, kindness, love and compassion how we feel and how our interactions throughout the week change.

Satya/Truthfulness this yama has guided me over the years to explore my belief system and to discover the lens in which I view the world. I have been studying limiting beliefs that do not serve my current life path and have been taking measures to learn new healthy ideas that do. As Carl Jung once made the statement “What is true at one time for us, at some point no longer serves us, and eventually becomes a lie.” In my professional life, I have been using this to speak my truth to speak self-expression and to show vulnerability because I believe it is a language that connects us because we can relate. A fine line I do not want to muddy the waters with my stuff as that is not my intention. I am working on not “should-ing” on people as this is a misdirection of energy. I seek to understand how I package myself; protect myself and how this may be dulling my energy because I have a desire to show up as a vibrant, joyful version of myself. Satya as a YT will help me slow down and to value clarity and to have the courage to face it head on. By slowing down and realizing that my choice of words has an impact on others. By trusting my gut and speaking from my heart, it can allow for fluidity in communication that makes truth interesting to explore and express. An example of how I can use satya with a client might be exploring the difference between being nice and being real. Nice tends to be this mask that we wear where our words and actions are based on doing what we think others think we should be or do. Nice people also seem to have outbursts because they have been holding their truth inside and not expressing it and then explode into inappropriate behavior. Real tends to be bold, unique and from our center. Real does not need to be defended or managed; there are no surprises, but it is trustworthy and authentic. An example of how I can use this in the YT community is to mind my need to belong vs. the need to grow. Groups are governed by rules, codes, and beliefs creating a team. Being mindful that this regulation of the organization, laws and beliefs do not conflict with your growth to be your full self is the harder aspect of managing. By helping each other we can listen and remind our YT community that truth is rarely the easier choice, there is no right or wrong. Instead, that quiet time, when we can listen to the softest voice inside us and then acting on it, will offer the growth we need to speak our truth.

 Asteya/Non-Stealing this yama has guided me by learning not to steal from myself. I would schedule myself fun time, down time, personal self-care time and then give it away. A friend needed this; a client needed to move to a different time, my family had a crisis, and so on. I would look up a week, month, and a year later wondering what happened. I was placing this expectation on myself that I was superwoman, and I was anything but a super hero. Now I model a life that allows for personal self-care time and fun time. I do have some critics out that there that challenge the fact that I schedule these items, and they feel as though I should be more spontaneous. For me, at this point in my life, I have found what gets scheduled gets accomplished, and I value my self-care and fun time with others, and it has helped me to be  mindful that I am not stealing this part of my life from myself. In my professional life, Asteya has helped me to set boundaries and to hold them without apology with my clients. At times I have had those that test my limits either by not respecting my time, payment arrangements, and inappropriate topics and so on. I have found that if in one conversation of explaining my boundary, how their crossing it makes me feel and then requesting they honor my boundary does not resolve the situation it is best to terminate the relationship. In holding onto the relationship and bending my boundaries always leaves me feeling drained and compromised which does not help either of us. It is best to let the relationship go and free up the energy to attract a client that is a better fit.  Asteya as a YT will help me build the competence to grow a YT career. We need to develop the competency required to reach our desire. When we try to manage something beyond our competency, we are stealing from others. So learning what we are good at and what we are not good at, then determining if we have the competency and if not, do we want to acquire the skill or to hire someone that does have the competency to guide us in this area of weakness? An example of how I can use this with clients is to shift their focus because when we are always comparing ourselves to others or viewing the grass is greener over there we are setting ourselves up for suffering. We are tempted by this when we do not have a clear understanding of who we are. If we are not engaged in learning about ourselves, then we are stealing from the world because our energy is not on living our purpose and each one of us has a unique gift to share with this world. Guiding them to shift their focus to themselves rather than others will serve the world.  An example in the YT community would be not to compare ourselves to other YT because this breeds lack, superiority, scarcity, shame, arrogance. When we try to compete, one up or discount them, it makes it about us, and we steal this person’s excitement. I like Yogi Bhajans saying “Be a forklift; you should always be lifting people up.” Also, when we allow others to take up more space and time than what is needed. For example, if our client is to have an hour session and we leave ourselves fifteen minutes in between customers and we allow the course to run over we are stealing our time, their time and the time of the next client in line because we did not adequately prepare ourselves to be centered around them. Just as if we see our peer in the hallway, we ask if this is the right time to talk, as we do not want to steal their downtime from them either.

 Brahmacharya/Non-Excess this yama has guided me to review my need to extend my workday. I became a workaholic as a form of self-protection trying to live the “those that work hard will be successful” and acquiring all of the material possessions that “should” go along with that. As with anything when we reach our excess it has the opposite effect of lethargy, brain fog, and self-destruction.  Learning to check in to view what is enough honors what I truly need vs. the story I am telling myself about my wants. In my professional life, it has taught me to be humble. With a grateful heart and the ability to realize that there is something higher than myself. I can honor all as sacred and see oneness with all. The work that I participate in as a YT makes me come alive, and I am amazed every day that I get to do this task. As a YT brahmacharya teaches me not to expect things or feel entitled to things because I worked hard. It reminds me to enter each day with a sense of gratitude, in a sense that the work I do is sacred and to not overindulge by scheduling myself more than I can handle.  With my clients, I can use an example of taming overindulgences. An insatiable desire intoxicates us and turns others into objects rather than a sacred part of life. Overindulgence robs us of joy at the moment and leaves us feeling miserable. For example, if we overeat we feel gas, bloating and lethargy. If we overwork, we feel apathy and burden from our list of overdoing. In the YT community being mindful that we are not living in fantasy as it often serves the ego function of the mind rather than the heart. Helping each other create a check-in to our spiritual body to ensure that we are taking adequate time off to be in nature to step outside of our habits, technology, and routines- to realize life does go on without us and to grow from the silence.

 Aparigraha/Non-Possessiveness this yama has been teaching me to pack lightly for my journey. I was first able to witness this by the many bags I would carry back and forth from home to work. Then my dad would point out the excess of luggage I would bring to visit. I was standing in the airport one day feeling beat up from my luggage and asked myself was this a direct reflection to the emotional baggage I was carrying through life? Traveling and the weight of my briefcase serve as a check-in reminder for me now. In my professional life, I learn from my breath. I feel my breath is the greatest teacher of trust there is and when my mind does not allow me the opportunity to view my emotions my breath will guide me to my feelings. Learning to trust the journey has been a hard lesson for me to let go and to flow. At times I get too attached to how something looks or my need to have it look a certain way just as we hold our breath too long it becomes toxic rather than nourishing. The Leo in me is still learning that I can let go of things without leaving claw marks behind. As a YT aparigraha can help me let go of the high that you feel in helping others. Sometimes I feel we become attached to this need to help others reach their full potential. We are mesmerized by the work that we do and become stale in our business, and we start to expect certain outcomes. By choosing attachments and expectations, we fail to look at the individual as unique or even realizing that as we saw them at our first session is different on the second session and so on which holds the process captive. Being mindful of aparigraha gives us freedom and creativity in the healing process. An example of how to use this with clients is to teach them not to become attached to their YT sessions and that there is a time limit to them. I want to create empowerment and self-efficacy for my clients, not dependency, which frees them and does not mean that I do not care. My ability to let go of owning the session and co-creating a session with them allows them to take ownership and be fully engaged in the healing process. An example of using this in the YT community is not to cling to clients or particular employment arrangements. When we think we can go it alone and not rely on our peers for help because we do not want to put ourselves in a vulnerable spot is an attachment to ourselves that will wreak havoc. At times we cannot serve a client, and we need to have the ability to refer them to a peer. We may need help covering our client load if we have a personal emergency that we must tend to. Reminding ourselves that when we cling to something it creates a maintenance problem further down the line. Just as a cluttered workspace blocks our minds from the freedom to expand it also blocks our ability to move around physically. What are we nailing ourselves to (feelings, roles, agendas) or whom (roles, identities) – it is like a human maze?

Saucha/Purity this niyama I have personally been working on forgiveness this year specifically self-forgiveness. I believe that forgiveness is a gift that I give to myself. I am spending time on journaling on seven critical traumas that seem to be stuck in my body using the P.E.R.T. method (positive, emotion, refocusing, technique) by Dr. Fred Luskin. While I can see how each of these experiences has been a growth experience for me and brought me more compassionately to who I am today, I still have work to be done on the grievance stories that victimize my mind. My intention in doing this is to lighten the load I am carrying. In my profession through my relational qualities, I have a chance to work on saucha. I do this by staying present, listening and being aware of my words. If I find myself trying to change something, checking out, or judging then I have failed. Purity is not about making something different rather it is to be at the moment as it is. I find it hard to not apply superiority in my thinking about what I can bring to the moment to make it better rather than giving the moment my full attention. As a YT I can enjoy the now, for example, experiencing, being satisfied with the process of being in school and being the learner rather than focused on what comes next after school. With a client, I can have them journal their food and exercise sessions giving them the opportunity to notice the pattern between their behaviors and sluggish feeling or a lighter feeling. Letting them feel the difference between the external and internal process of cleansing. In the YT community giving my peers my full attention during our time together, taking the time to catch up with ourselves, so we are not approaching a new day or new client with yesterday’s dirty dishes. By not multi-tasking and taking the time that each case demands and respecting those limits as a healthy choice. It is a reminder to care for our soul and our environment.

 Santosha/Contentment this niyama in my personal behavior I always reflect back to the disturbances, annoyance or frustration that comes up for me after the fact. I ask myself, what was it about the situation that triggered me? What is it in that person that is also in me that I do not want to see in myself that got me so upset? My ability to learn this skill has given me my power back because when we give our emotional state over to someone other than ourselves, it leaves us powerless. It has allowed me to evaluate how much time I have spent offended by someone else. In my profession, I do this dance between getting ready for what is next and then trying to live in the present moment. I can go back to the example of getting my masters I want to enjoy the process yet also want to be prepared for the next season of my life by creating clarity about a job opportunity that will create a sustainable lifestyle for my poodle and me. In taking up painting classes, I always liked other people’s pictures and would then judge my picture against my neighbors. Learning to look inside of my fence and be grateful for what I have rather than looking over the wall to some else’s highlight reel which is lack, is a lesson in contentment. As a YT welcoming in change and challenges and using our personal practice to help keep us centered. We think we want a flat line life, but we would not find ourselves in our flow state. We need a bit of challenge to keep us thriving. An example of using this with a client would be teaching them the difference between pleasure and avoidance. Living like this uses a lot of our energy. We are unhappy when we get what we want; we are unhappy when we do not get what we want. Learning to look inward for happiness, contentment, security and love will help us find true freedom. An example of using this in the YT community sending out gratitude reminders and wishes to our peers. When gratitude leaves our present moment, we get petty and small if we give ourselves and others the gift of gratitude we become centered in joy and abundance.

Tapas/Self-Discipline this niyama in my personal life thinking of this as staying present makes me angry. It is hard to stay in the fire, learn and then blessed by the growth of the experience. I do not enjoy the process of tapas but through my years I have become wise enough not to run from it. In my profession, it has always taught me to stay calm in the heat of a crisis. If you follow the process through, making the best choices that we can during that time with what we are given, we will be deposited on the other side blessed with a greater depth of self. As a YT reminding ourselves that practicing tapas brings us endurance, builds strength, stamina, wisdom and understanding that a discipline is a form of self-care, not self-deprivation. Sometimes we forget to ask ourselves why we are practicing. To become YT in the future takes effort now. In using this with a client, most of them do not come to see you in a happy state it is because they are in the midst of a storm. Holding a safe container and clearing some mud to shine a light on the other side called hope gives them the courage not to waste the crises and instead be shaped and molded into a new someone with greater depth. In our YT community, we can stand in the heat, showing up, paying attention, strengthening our profession creating more depth in our practice much like a controlled burn.

Svadhyaya/Self-Study this niyama personally in my forties I have been working on clearing out my emotional closets that I thought I had so neatly stored in boxes with bows on. I am learning that as I am brave enough to open a box check it out, learn about it, that it creates freedom within me. In my professional life, I am careful not to project my perceptions onto others. If I think I love this client and not so much that client well then there are parts of me that I love, and I do not love. The person in front of me is simply mirror showing what is in me. If the story I am telling myself is positive, then the world reflects that back to me in a positive way. Buddhists have a saying that when you die the universe dies with you because you created the reality of your world. As a YT staying mindful of the set of beliefs that we bring to the session is important. Tracing our beliefs back helps us unpack our “shoulds, could, musts, wrong, right, have to” Every client gives us a gift back by shining a light onto a box of our belief systems and conditioning presenting us with the opportunity to learn our truth. An example of using this with a client would be creating safety to open a crack wide enough in their heart that it gives them the courage to look at the ripple of disharmony that they are presently experiencing. Allow them to assess their thoughts and actions. Change what they don’t like; relinquish what does not serve them and to embrace what does. Anais Ni “We don’t see things as they are; we see things as we are.” An example in our YT community would be working on being the witness because this is how our belief systems begin to lose their power over us. There is power in the ability to distance ourselves for a moment so we can start to see how we have made up our realities. Rather than analyze, fix and control (Western take) we may instead witness the ego act, and respond (Eastern take) rather than identifying with the situation and this ability to watch where healing is.

 Isvara Pranidhana/Surrender this niyama I am learning to pay attention to what life is asking of me and to accept the needs of the moment. I think of this as a couple doing a Latin dance routine. I cannot force my dance partner around the floor in my tempo, and I also cannot be a limp noodle in which my partner drags tirelessly around. Instead, I must learn to be vulnerable, strong, flexible and present so that I can follow the next move adding just enough of my personal flavor wherever my partner leads me on the dance floor. In my professional life, it has taught me to engage with my clients and not to fight their belief systems. Pick when to plant seeds and when to hold them. Over the last ten years, I have learned to surrender my need for them and to instead maneuver skillfully through their flow of the process and to enjoy the process as they glide safely to their new depth of themselves. As a YT reminding myself of the divine and surrendering my work to a higher purpose, as I do this, my heart expands my ego works less, and I begin to notice the greatness of what guides, protects, nourishes and cares for us. Before every session, I say a prayer asking for guidance and wisdom that my words, deeds, and actions may be a healing vessel for the client that I am about to see. An example of how I might use this with a client is asking them to journal over the next week their attitudes and responses throughout the week to others. Are they fearful, trusting, fighting, judging, and annoyed and then ask if they noticed any patterns? An example in the YT community is reminding each other to continue to be the student to learn in the moment of what life presents to you. Rather than shrinking away trust that life is giving you a way to grow and support you. Accept the mystery and miracle of life; approach it with a sense of gratitude and wonder.

When you stop to think about the pancamaya model and the five sheaths of the koshas and what they represent. Then couple that with the fact that we have an ethical responsibility toward our clients our peers to openly demonstrate and uphold the eight limbs of the yoga lifestyle. It is overwhelming; I begin to shrink to my small self, and then reminded about the Patanjali ten clear precepts for rightful living and that they loop in on each other as a practice, not perfection. As I read Donna Farhi’s book Teaching Yoga: Exploring the teacher-student relationship I am reminded of the depth that boundaries create and how they allow us to be a more compassionate person. I would love a class just on creating and defending clear boundaries. Even though I know, I have a boundary, and I went to great lengths to create a boundary that honored all when I allow a limit to become leaky I always regret it later. Now if one of my boundaries’ does not work for a client, I part ways thankful that we found out we were not right for each other sooner rather than later. It seems as though we are always on this parallel surface with others moving in the direction of an internal reference point because ultimately the source of wisdom lies within each of us.


Adele, D. (2009). The yamas & niyamas: Exploring yoga’s ethical practice. Dulut, MN: On-Word Bound Books. 

Farhi, D. (2006). Teaching yoga: Exploring the teacher-student relationship. Berkeley, CA: Rodmell Press. 

Lowitz, Leza, and Reema Datta. Sacred Sanskrit Words: For Yoga, Chant, and Meditation. Berkeley: Stone Bridge, 2005. Print. 

Stone, Michael. The Inner Tradition of Yoga: A Guide to Yoga Philosophy for the Contemporary Practitioner. Boston: Shambhala, 2008. Print. 

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