How the Yamas and Niyamas Taught Me Self-Empowerment


Allow me to introduce myself: I am a mom, a wife, an entrepreneur, and a formerly powerless individual. While I may not actually have been powerless, I certainly felt that way for a lot of my life. I didn’t realize that constantly seeking validation from outside sources depleted my personal power.

I grew up in a small town outside of Toronto with black immigrant parents from the small Caribbean island of Barbados. I was a first generation Canadian, and growing up in a small town with very little diversity made me feel different from everyone else around me in every possible way. For most of my life I felt like an outsider, an ugly duckling, and simply just not “good enough” compared to all others in my small world. My small world in that small town consisted of mostly white culture. Everything about our family was exotic and strange to the people around us, and the images and conversations that bombarded my world reinforced my feelings of isolation and inferiority. As a result, I began to internalize every sentiment, living and building my life based upon these false ideals and emotional emptiness.

I realized that I have an extraordinary life and I can use it to change the world.

This scenario and way of living is what is called internalized oppression. My experience of internalized oppression encouraged me to develop feelings of negative self-worth, fear, hatred, jealousy, and self-loathing. It kept me from living to my fullest potential as a human spirit, as I was always afraid I wasn’t good enough. I was leary of trying anything new—what if I just didn’t have what it took to do it? There was a little voice in my head constantly chanting: You aren’t good enough, you aren’t smart enough, and you will never be able to do it. I went along believing all of this...until one day, I didn’t.

At some point, there has to be a moment when you say to yourself enough is enough. White supremacist culture is based on the idea that everything white is normal and anything that isn’t is different, exotic, or wrong. This way of thinking tells people of color that we are unworthy, which is reinforced through systemic racism (racism that is either implicitly or explicitly expressed in the context of our social and political institutions). We are constantly reminded of this through the injustices we see every day (the death of Tamir Rice being a recent example). How can an oppressed people ever stop believing we aren’t good enough? I learned that I have to create a sense of personal power through connecting with communities and speaking up for needed change. I realized that I have an extraordinary life and I can use it to change the world.   

So what was my game changer? What was the point at which I said enough is enough? For me, it came as I studied the philosophy of yoga. My evolution from powerless to powerful initially began through a study of the yamas and niyamas.

The yamas and niyamas are yoga’s roadmap or framework for unlocking your potential and discovering your true and higher self. They are the first two limbs of the eight-limbed path to understanding who you are, which intrinsically and inevitability describes the ways in which you are enough. This map is open to your interpretation and individual experiences of life. In fact, it operates as a guide that invites you to think deeply and without inhibitions, providing the courage and strength to be bold in your understanding of self. Through the gentle guidance of the yamas and niyamas, we each can find our personal power. 

The Yamas

The yamas define your interactions with the world at large. They start with ahimsa, or non-violence, which raises the question: How can I be kinder to myself and others? We start with empathy and compassion toward ourselves, and from this place of compassion, we naturally find ourselves being more generous and more compassionate toward others as well. And as we begin to see ourselves as worthy beings, we are asked to let go of self-hate and violence toward ourselves. Through ahimsa we are told: “You are worthy. You are enough.”

Satya, or truthfulness, invites us to open our eyes to the truth about the higher Self. Who are we, and what do we want to become? Truthfulness can be filled with loving kindness, and through that lens, we can begin to see the lies we have been told and those we continue to tell ourselves. In this way, satya puts an end to self-sabotage, while also inviting us to compassionately review whether or not the stories we tell ourselves are true. Through satya we are reminded: “Standing in your light requires your truthfulness.”

Asteya, or non-stealing, reminds us to stop picking up anything that is not ours. Through asteya, we are reminded that we are each responsible for our own choices and no one else’s. While we can teach those around us to be brave and strong, we cannot do it for them. Asteya tells us that if we are not careful, we can steal from others the ability and opportunities to be powerful in their own individual ways. When we impose our own sphere of influence on others, we can take away their ability to think for themselves and have their own experiences. Through asteya, we are reminded: “You steal from others when you don’t allow them to make their own mistakes and learn their own lessons.”

Brahmacharya, or non-excess, tells us that all things are done well in moderation. Excessive thinking, excessive control, and excessive anything will lead to our ultimate demise. Rather than attempting to do it all, we are invited to leave room for something yet to be learned and experienced. Through brahmacharya, we are encouraged to step back and not take on so much. Through brahmacharya, we are told: “You have enough. More won’t make you happy. Don’t take what you don’t need.”

Aparigraha, or non-possessiveness/non-greed, reminds us emphatically that greed leads to unhappiness. Through aparigraha, we are reminded: “One bite of something delicious is often enough if we take pure satisfaction in that bite." We need not take another bite to have the same experience of satisfaction. Aparigraha tells us enough is simply enough.

The Niyamas

The path to empowerment comes from within. The niyamas teach us how to relate to ourselves in order to become stronger, happier, and more powerful.

Saucha, or purity, instructs us to do things from a place of clarity. We are asked to do things because we want to and not because we feel obligated to do them. We are asked to be pure in our thoughts, to be happy for other people, and to be happy for ourselves. Saucha invites us to experience the pure joy of being alive, and to experience our thoughts without judgment or influence from others. From saucha we are reminded: “Be the purest form of you.”

Santosha, or contentment, is about wanting what we already have. The world wants us to believe that we need to buy something new or become something new before we can be content with our lives. Santosha tells us that this is simply not true. Rather, we are enlightened by the realization that there is extraordinary joy to be found in an ordinary moment. Santosha asks us to: “Just be—without expectations."

Tapas, or self-discipline, reveals that it takes a lot of discipline in order to change the negative conditioning that would have us believe we are not good enough and we need more. Through tapas we discover that we require a great deal of self-reflection and self-examination, and that the commitment to compassionate self-study is hard! We must be disciplined and open to the fire of transformation in order to become truly empowered individuals. Tapas tells us: “You must be open to examining all parts of who you are—the good, the bad, and the ugly are all necessary parts of your personality. Explore all of this through compassionate self-study and you will find growth and enlightenment.”

Svadhyaya, or self-study and inner exploration, is the ability to see ourselves as worthy and beautiful. Svadhyaya invites us to think critically about what we can contribute to humanity and to the evolution of consciousness worldwide. Perhaps it is simply the power of our compassion or a call to lead others. Whether big or small, we learn to be open to sharing all parts of ourselves. Through svadhyaya we are told: “You are a great being. You have been invited to be here.” And we are asked, “What is holding you back and why are you letting it?”

Ishvara Pranidhana, or the ultimate surrender to the divine energy that defines who we are, teaches us that surrender is not “giving up,” but rather letting go. Surrender is the action of contentment and gratitude, and knowing when to surrender creates peace, well-being, and a connection to the divine. Ishvara Pranidhana tells us: “Make room in order to allow your greatness to be seen. Connect with your highest Self and surrender to your own divinity.”

Surrender is not “giving up,” but rather letting go.

The path to empowerment is a personal experience that is guided by our ability to connect with ourselves, to let go of what no longer serves us well, and to create opportunities for empathy, compassion, and humanity. The embodiment and practice of the yamas and niyamas helps us to know our full potential. The yamas and niyamas teach us the tools of self-reflection and how to connect with our highest Self. It is that connection to source that leads us to our personal power. Empowerment comes from within, and each and every one of us is capable of a powerful existence. The potential for great personal power has been with us all along.

About the Teacher

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Dianne Bondy
Dianne Bondy is a social justice activist, author, accessible yoga teacher, and the leader of the Yoga... Read more