The second limb of Patanjali's Eight Limbs of Yoga is Niyama. (Read Part 1, an introduction to the 8 Limbs and all about the Yamas here.) With this second layer, we dig a little deeper into ourselves.
The Niyamas are similar to the Yamas, but they're more personal. The word Niyama breaks down to Ni + Yama, and depending on your favorite translations, Ni can be in, into, within, back, down. I like to think of the Niyamas as the ME version of the yamas.
Like the Yamas, there are 5 Niyamas: Saucha = cleanliness or purification, Santosha = contentment, Tapas = internal fire, discipline, drive, or motivation, Svadhyaya = self-study or study of texts, and Isvara Pranidhana = surrender to the divine, or letting go of what you can't control. We can practice the Niyamas both on and off our mats, and like everything in life, some will come easier than others.
As a yoga teacher I always shower before I teach (and practice) so I'm clean for my students, but I'm terrible about dropping an occasional F-Bomb; I curse like a sailor. Language is one area in which I'm really working on saucha. I've learned to practice gratitude when I'm in a funk to find contentment, santosha, and constantly remind myself that I am exactly where I'm supposed to be. Each month I do a goal-setting check-in with one of my friends, Sheri Matthews, and we set reachable short and long-term goals; those sessions keep my tapas going! I'm constantly practicing svadhyaya, noticing what thoughts come up for me, reactions before they become actions, how my daily schedule and eating habits affect my energy level. And while isvara pranidhana is the hardest one for me to practice, I try to remind myself that the only person I can control is myself and that after I've done what I can do, I have to let go.
How do you practice the Niyamas?! Find your own versions with this Niyama Flow!
I just started a new series of free yoga classes on my YouTube channel that focuses on the seven chakras. These energetic centers of the body are situated along the spine, or sushumna nadi, and correspond to different physical, emotional, and mental qualities. The word chakra translates to wheel, and they can be imagined as vortexes or swirling balls of energy.
The idea of chakras can be super hippy dippy or way "out there" for some people. They're one of those concepts that some people LOVE and other people are skeptical about. It wasn't until I actually experienced the chakras that I was able to really embrace the idea of them, and I'm hoping through these classes that I can help others find some clarity. There are key organs and bundles of nerves situated around each of the chakras, so while science may not talk about them, there is anatomical proof of something going on there.
There are so many great resources on chakras available. If you're interested I definitely recommend reading more (email me for suggestions!), but practice along with the videos for a basic overview and chakra balancing!
1. Root Chakra - Muladhara. Located at the base of your spine, associated with the color red and survival: food, housing, safety.
2. Sacral Chakra - Svadhisthana. Located between your hips in the lower abdomen, associated with the color orange, creativity, emotions, and relationships.
3. Navel Chakra - Manipura. Located above your navel (also known as solar plexus chakra), associated with the color yellow, self-confidence, and personal drive.
4. Heart Chakra - Anahata. Located in your chest, associated with the color green or pink, love, and compassion.
5. Throat Chakra - Vishudda. Located in your throat and mouth, associated with the color turquoise and self expression.
6. Third Eye Chakra - Ajna. Located between your eyebrows, associated with the color indigo, intuition, imagination, and thinking.
7. Crown Chakra - Sahasrara. Located at the crown of your head, associated with the color white or gold, connection to a higher power, and bliss.
One of the first emails I send to my yoga teacher trainees before they join me for a training includes the question “What is yoga to you?” The common translation of yoga is “union,” or “to yoke.” Some people will tell you yoga is a union of body, mind, and spirit, others will tell you it’s a religion. For every 10 people you ask, you’ll get 10 different answers. I find yoga to be such a personal practice that I struggle defining it one way. For me yoga is a way of life; it’s self-discovery, exercise, therapy, meditation, and medicine. It’s a spiritual practice that connects me to something greater; it’s a physical practice that grounds me and makes me appreciate the strength and power of my body; it’s both challenging and fun. Yoga is what I turn to when I feel like my life is going to shit and it’s how I celebrate beautiful highs and magical moments. My yoga practice varies from day to day.
Yoga has been around for more than 5,000 years, but ancient yoga looked quite a bit different from what most people consider yoga today. Yoga’s goal throughout the years has been to answer life’s tough questions – Who am I? What is my purpose? How do I connect to something greater? - and it’s evolved greatly through time and location as our lifestyles have evolved. I find it totally normal and expected that we practice yoga in a very different way than our yogi ancestors did. Because most of us lead relatively sedentary lifestyles (working on computers, driving to get where we need to go), it makes sense that we are drawn to the physical aspect of yoga, the postures or asanas. But as most of us discover when we start to delve a bit deeper, yoga is much more than just poses.
One of my favorite sessions of teacher training (each time I discover something new for my own life and practice), is our discussion of The Eight Limbs of Yoga. Patanjali, the “father of yoga” and one of the leading sages associated with yoga, defined these guidelines for living in the Yoga Sutras as follows:Yama. Yama is often explained as restraint or control, and there are 5 Yamas that can be characterized as ways of controlling yourself or behaving in relation to the outside world. They are: Ahimsa = non-violence; Satya = truthfulness; Asteya = non-stealing; Bramacharya = self control over physical impulses of excess; and Aparigraha = non-hoarding.
I’m adding a series of classes to my YouTube channel that explores each of these limbs, or layers of yoga, in detail through a guided practice. Follow along each week, leave comments and thoughts, and find your own connections and examples in your life. This week we dig into the Yamas!
You know those days when you wake up thinking about everything you need to get done but can’t find the energy to drag yourself out of bed? Or maybe you’re up but the coffee’s just not working fast enough. In our world of to-do lists and endless projects, those days are all too familiar and they’re the reason I designed this 5 minute Get Up & Go yoga flow for my friends at Sweaty Betty.
The next time you need an instant boost of energy or a little break from your day, instead of stressed-out social media scrolling, try taking some deep breaths and practice these energizing and empowering poses. Your body and mind will thank you.
Follow along with the below photos or watch the video. Feel free to take it at your own pace or modify the poses to make them fit your body and what you need today. Most days I do the flow twice – moving slowly the first time and faster the second – for an extra pep in my step.
Come to a standing position and notice how you feel. Acknowledge your energy level, any physical aches or pains, and where your mind wants to go. Turn your attention to your breath. Take slow, steady inhales and exhales through your nose.
Inhale and reach your arms over your head. Exhale, interlace your fingers and stretch your arms as far as you can up and out to your right. Imagine stretching taller as you inhale, and reach further to the side as you exhale.
Inhale come back to center and exhale repeat to the other side. Feel the sides of your body grow long, and notice how your ribs expand in all directions with each breath in.
I have to say, I’ve been riding high on a wave of inspiration these past few days. I usually find that I feel more inspired when I’m in nature away from from electronics (thus the sailing life), but I’m always drawn back to Facebook to see what my friends are up to. I love how social media has the ability to connect us, humanize us, and inspire us.
I think more than anything our world needs inspiration, and I truly believe there’s no limit to what we can achieve if we’re able to positively motivate each other. In a world full of frustration and negativity, we need more light and more love to keep us going.
I love that you stand up for what you believe in. To those of you who marched around the world: thank you for peacefully representing and improving our world.
I love seeing photos of your cute kids, hearing how you balance career and home life and still have time to pursue passions, adventures, and community involvement. I love getting a glimpse into the future of our world.
I love learning about the world through your travels and adventures.
I love how you support your friends and community, and how you give so much of yourself unconditionally.
I love that you’re building sustainable, positive businesses that impact so many people.
I love how you hold space for others and are able to share your opinions so eloquently while fostering respectful discussions and discourse.
And I love the day-to-day realness, the permission to just tell it like it is.
My biggest goal is to inspire others to live a life they love. (And that’s been a hard one for me to put out there because it feels like I’m saying “I want this to go viral” – and I know that’s not how it works ) I came out of 2014 completely worn out. Everything in my life was turned upside down. After a really painful divorce, a hard look at who I was and how I was living, I decided that I needed something different and I basically started over. It took two years of work, big decisions and even bigger changes, and I know the work is far from done, but I finally feel inspired again. If I can do it, you can do it.
I’d love for you to share my journey. Watch the videos and share with anyone you think they may resonate with. I won’t refuse financial support (boat life isn’t cheap!), but more than anything I’d appreciate if you’d help me share my Patreon page. https://www.patreon.com/FloatingYogaSchool
Share it with someone in your life who needs a little inspiration. Share it with someone who wants to travel. Share it with someone who loves to sail (or who needs a reminder that even if you don’t sail well you can still buy a boat – I did!). Share it with young women and men who have big dreams. And share it with someone who needs a reminder that even when things seem really bad, you can reinvent yourself and create a life you love.
When I was planning my road trip, I made sure that Santa Fe was on my list of stops so I could spend a day with my Reiki teacher, Sharna Langlais. She's a wealth of knowledge, a humble and beautiful soul, and an incredibly gifted healer.
Before I met Sharna, I had heard a lot about Reiki and experienced it a bit in yoga classes. There were moments in my life when I felt someone's energy, whether good or bad, and couldn't explain the gut feeling I had. I believed in something greater, a universal spirit or energy flowing through all living beings, but wasn't sure about "channeling" energy for healing.
And maybe it's cliche, but there's a saying "when the student is ready the teacher will appear" and that certainly felt true for me. I was going through big life changes, and preparing for even more when a friend suggested I reach out to Sharna as a potential teacher. I instantly felt a connection, and completed my level 1 and 2 certifications and attunements with her earlier this spring. Every time I talk with Sharna I gain new nuggets of wisdom, and I know I'll continue to learn from her.
Sharna and I sat down and filmed a 65 minute discussion on Reiki, energy, healing, lifestyle, and more. The condensed version is below, but if you have the time definitely check out the full interview. She explains things way more eloquently than I can. :)
So...what is Reiki?
"Reiki is a form of energy medicine, energy healing. It's a Japanese methodology that's existed for centuries in Japan. The word Rei-ki is actually two words in Japanese. [Rei] means god, goddess, universe, spirit, our connection to a higher plane, and Ki or chi is life force. So Reiki is that universally directed life force energy that comes through all of us. It's a form of hands-on healing touch in which we take that energy, direct it through our bodies, and put our hands on other people to help clear blockages."
To book a session, or learn more, go to Sharna's website - SeekSparkShine.
This may seem totally counterintuitive for a yoga teacher to say but I’ve found the secret for keeping my sometimes-problematic-back from flaring up. And it’s not yoga. In fact it’s less yoga, and more pilates.
Don’t get me wrong, yoga is definitely great for back issues. With a consistent and smart yoga practice you can improve flexibility and strengthen muscles in all the right places. Depending on what your back is like, and how physically active you are, you might find that a gentle restorative practice alleviates pressure and slowly opens you up. Or try hatha or yin to get more stretching and strengthening without overdoing it. I also love a super hot class when I’m just feeling tight (using lots of props and modifications).
But if you’re anything like me, sometimes you push it a little too hard in yoga. Especially in vinyasa or power classes that include creative and dynamic flows and transitions. And I’m not saying all vinyasa or power classes are no good, but you may find yourself transitioning without engaging your core, moving from open hip to closed hip poses, and going too deep into poses, especially backbends (they feel sooo good in the moment, and sooo bad the next morning). All that can wreck havoc on your already sensitive back.
I learned the hard way. During my yoga teacher training I was practicing a ton of vinyasa yoga. I was getting into a lot of advanced variations of poses and loved to push myself. I took a mini retreat in LA with my teacher training class and we took classes with some of the best: Steven Earth, Bryan Kest, and Andrea Marcum. I noticed on the last day that my back wasn’t feeling great - I couldn’t engage my core enough to step from downdog to a low lunge, something normally super easy for me. Two days later I had to call in sick to work because I could barely walk.
I slowly got my mobility back. Heat pads and rest definitely helped. A year later I threw my back into spasm when I was adjusting a student in a backbend. It was worse than the previous year; I literally couldn’t walk for 3 days, straightening my low back and putting weight on my legs shot pain up my spine and caused loud, terrifying sounds to come from my mouth. I had to be carried to the bathroom and crawled around the house until I could get a doctor’s appointment. Western medicine prescribed muscle relaxers and anti-inflammatories. Beau Casey of Chiropractique gave me an adjustment, and prescribed ice and pilates when the spasms stopped (thank you, Beau!).
My personal preference is to go as natural as possible when treating an injury or illness, and to find out the root cause so I can avoid or change my habits, so I super appreciated Dr. Casey’s advice. He’s also a former dancer and understood where my flexible back came from, and what core muscle strength was lacking in my body. He practiced pilates and knew that the systematic movements would strengthen my back and core, and help protect me from future injuries. In fact, pilates was first started as rehabilitation for injured patients in hospital beds by Joseph Pilates in England, and became popular with dancers when Pilates moved to New York in the 1920s. So it makes sense.
Since then I’ve tried (sometimes more successfully than others) to go to a pilates class at least once a week. I feel the best when I do pilates 2 – 3 times per week and yoga 2 – 3 times, and then either paddleboard, bike, hike, or swim for a little cardio.
And when I practice yoga, I check my ego at the door and do a more mellow, gentle flow if my back is feeling a bit sketchy.
Below is a 5 minute stretch sequence I like to do condensed into 15 seconds. A few of my favorite back-stretching poses are:
Psoas Release - supine with feet apart and knees together
Happy Baby – Ananda Balasana
Squat - Malasana
Ragdoll – Wide Leg Uttanasana
Pigeon or Reclined Pigeon
Cobbler’s Pose - Baddha Konasana
Child’s Pose (embryo) – Balasana
Bridge Pose Rolls Downs
Seated Rolls Downs and Roll Ups
So my advice is this: do your yoga, but watch your back!
Helen's Adventures as a Traveling Yogi
Follow my adventures on social media!