I had been scaling the wall of a sloppy mountain of books in my local bookstore when I found Deborah’s book The Yamas and Niyamas: Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice. Of course this wasn’t really the case(just sounds fun), but within all the yoga books written about asana, Deborah’s was like a gleaming golden nugget that once grasped, helped me to exhale and breathe again. Deborah has such a graceful way of reminding us of our own wisdom; helping to connect the dots that were perhaps already beginning to form. Her knowledge and deep understanding of the Yamas and Niyamas are her way of accessing this ability; almost as though their universal nature accesses what we all know if we just give ourselves the chance.

The Yamas and Niyamas are, ironically, a much unexplored aspect of yoga in the West; we tend to side-step them. But, as Deborah says, “they are the beginning of the 8-limbed path; they invite us into understanding that yoga is much more than asana.” How many of us know this? How many are putting this into practice? The Yamas and Niyamas invite us to understand yoga as a “24hour (per day) deal. In Patanjali’s time they were considered universal vows, and that in itself is profound. Yoga is a total denaturing of what we know ourselves to be… we’re not meant to become better egos, we are meant to be something else entirely. Yoga is not self-help; it is a total makeover. “

These guidelines offer the opportunity to be in a place of “confoundment (a word Deborah uses to help her practice the beginner’s mind)) if we have the willingness to not know. The Yamas and Niyamas are not an answer…they are a process of engagement with what is happening in the moment, in a way that is non-violent, truthful, etc.“

Deborah began yoga thinking that yoga was asana and that those little anecdotal insertions on the Yamas and Niyamas confirmed that she was a good person ready for more advanced practices. It wasn’t until a workshop with Yogiraj Achala many years later, that the Yamas and Niyamas “came alive for me and I realized that paying attention to them was a life changing practice. Yogiraj made them real for me.” First she learned the concept of the Yamas…in a nutshell, “stop making things worse”; then, graduated to the Niyamas (she said with a laugh). They meet her with an understanding with every step and she hasn’t found this clarity before, “it’s the most compassionate practice”.

Practically applying the Yamas and Niyamas in her life has been (and continues to be) a humbling experience for Deborah. She says “we’re used to how we see morality so we fall into the same right and wrong traps. For example (in regard to Ahimsa), witnessing obvious violence makes it so easy to tell ourselves that we aren’t violent …until we walk into the more subtle places within ourselves and really pay attention. Then it becomes more about seeing all the ways that I truly am a violent person. After all, Patanjali wouldn’t have told us to be non-violent if we weren’t violent! Furthermore, with all the violence in the world, what does the yoga community have to say about it? We need to be asking ourselves this question and reflecting on it personally and communally.”

The yogic journey can’t be understood “with fear in our hearts.” The Yamas and Niyamas helped Deborah to look at her own fear and brought a humility to her life and her practice. One of the biggest challenges she faced in the beginning was feeling that she knew what was supposed to happen…that she knew the way her life was meant to unfold (her ego’s idea of spirituality). The Yamas and Niyamas are structured in a way that doesn’t allow this ego superiority to happen, “they’re like the watchful angel on the shoulder.” If we consider that the biggest part of our life is relational then we need to feel into the question, how do I create harmony? “So that nothing is more important than the harmony in my relationships and in my mind.”

During our conversation, a true “a-ha moment” came for me when Deborah referred to the fact that the skeleton of a butterfly is already within the caterpillar. The process of change can’t be rushed nor avoided. Deborah speaks of our challenges, saying: “Transformation of the ego is tough stuff, especially in the western world…where we have all of our ideas of what things should be. So we’ve got real tough stuff to break through and we can’t be rushed through it. In the western practice of yoga I think that’s a hard place to go”. Here Deborah paused and was reminded of the quote by Ram Dass, that it’s not about becoming flying caterpillars: “It’s only when caterpillarness is done that one becomes a butterfly. The whole trip occurs in an unfolding process of which we have no control.”

In Deborah’s own words: “The Yamas and Niyamas meet us where we are and will walk us into as far as we want to go, and that’s pure Grace…if we’re willing to surrender.”

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Letters in Yoga