the yamas and niyamas of travel

There is so much talk about taking yoga off our mats, but it’s easy to forget. So we get road rage on the way to a yoga class, hold our breath the minute something irritates us, or run around like crazy as soon as we finish our meditation practice. But how do we integrate yoga into our daily lives? One of the ways that works for me is through travel. And that’s when the fun starts, when we take yoga off our mats and use it to affect positive change in the ‘real world’.

Taking yoga off your mat

The yamas and niyamas are ethical guidelines set out in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. In my mind they can be thought of as advice about how to be a good and happy person and how to have as much positive influence as possible on yourself, others and the world. There are five of each of them, but a few in particular come to mind when I am traveling:

Ahimsa (yama): Ahimsa is often defined as non-violence or non-harm – to yourself, to others and to your environment. When travelIng, this applies to you, your traveling companions, the locals, other travelers you meet along the way and whichever country you are visiting.

Think about how you are traveling. Are you taking care of yourself? Do you contact your family and friends enough to let them know you’re okay? Are you limiting your environmental impact as much as possible? For me non-harm is also about non-complacency – about making an effort to reduce or prevent harm. Are you looking out for your fellow travelers?

Asking the person crying in your dorm what is wrong? Inviting a lone traveler to join your group? Could you leave the country you are visiting a little better off than when you arrived? Perhaps undertake some voluntary work? Take a plastic bag with you when you go trekking and pick up litter? Try to make a difference in the countries that you visit.

Aparigraha (yama): Aparigraha can be translated as non-attachment. Even if you’e not absent-minded like me, chances are you will lose something during your travels. Lots of packing and unpacking plus rushing for early morning buses, trains and planes makes it almost inevitable.

This can be upsetting, especially when you have brought fewer possessions with you, so each loss feels bigger somehow. If or when this happens, remember that the worst thing you can ”˜losE’ is your health, perhaps followed by your passport. If you lose something, try thinking of another item it would have been worse to lose, remind yourself that you already have far more than you need, use your yoga practice to ‘let go’ of whatever it was, and try giving to someone with less than you.

Santosa (niyama): Santosa, or contentment, is a personal favorite of mine, which I like to think of as ”˜gratitude’. It’s easy to take for granted the fact that you have the funds, time, energy and health to travel. I often hear travelers describing one place as rubbish compared to another or as having been ”˜so much better’ five years ago.

Other complaints include that the locals aren’t friendly, the food is too spicy (or not spicy enough!) and things are just not like they are at home. Never forget that you are within the fortunate few who are lucky enough to travel. In many of the countries I visit, I know that few of the locals will ever be able to visit my country, simply because their currency is not sufficiently strong.

The generally friendly locals could be forgiven for resenting wealthy visitors. And besides, smile backpacker you’re on holiday! If you find yourself moaning about the food, the culture and the challenges, remember that you came away to experience these things, to experience something different. You have the luxury of choice and chose to experience another culture – so enjoy it!

Tapas (niyama): Tapas is generally defined as ”˜self-discipline’. When traveling, I think of tapas as the discipline to practiCe yoga in some way every day and the determination to make that happen – to find a space and the time to do it. But this doesn’t have to be grit-your-teeth determination.

It’s easy to take on the role of a child when it comes to the things that we do in our daily life, to act as if someone is making us study or work or practiCe yoga, when it is a choice to do something that we know is necessary or will develop us in a positive way.

So remember, act willingly and gladly. If you act as if someone is making you practise yoga or climb a mountain to see a temple, it will feel like a chore. If you remember that it is a choice, a luxury, your approach will be kinder and you are more likely to do it and enjoy it. 

Svadhyaya (niyama): Svadhyaya translates as self-study, enquiry or education. For me, so much of travel is about this.

I always enjoy the reflection that long bus and train rides afford. Use this time – don’t waste it. And there is something about being away, about stepping outside of the ”˜real world’ that allows a gentle, kind, less judgemental reflection – qualities that we want to develop in our yoga and meditation practices.

Dealing with the challenges of traveling in a different culture, generally with a different language, allows us to observe how we react to difficult or stressful situations.

Do you sit and sulk when you miss your bus, or do you play a game of cards with a stranger? How do you respond to poverty? By ignoring it and trying not to let it interfere with your holiday, or by facing it and giving money to a beggar or doing some voluntary work? Without travel I would not have undertaken the necessary reflection to find yoga. Without travel and yoga I would not be as happy as I am today nor as able to deal with whatever comes my way. Well, most of the time anyway.

About Yoga for Travelers and Jenny
Yoga for Travelers is a how to guide for anyone wanting to practiCe yoga on the road, both on and off the mat. Jenny has been backpacking since 1997 and teaching yoga since 2006. She loves yoga and traveling and hopes to pass these passions on to others. For more information please visit the Yoga for Travelers facebook page.

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