The Mamas & the Niyamas: A Playbook for Motherhood

By our own Libby Scanlan

Job description: Mother, Mom, Momma, Mommy

Long term, team player needed for challenging, permanent work in an often chaotic environment.  Candidates must possess excellent communication and organizational skills and be willing to work variable hours, which will include evenings and weekends and frequent 24 hour shifts on call. 

Responsibilities: The rest of your life. Must be willing to be hated, at least temporarily, until someone needs $5.00.

Previous experience: Virtually none. On the job training offered on a continually exhausting basis.

Wages and Compensation: Get this…you pay them!
Benefits: While there is no health nor dental insurance, no pension, no tuition reimbursement, and no paid holidays, this job offers limitless opportunities for personal growth and free hugs for life.

The Yamas and Niyamas

When I became a mom 30 years ago I had no idea what I was doing. When I was a girl I didn’t play with baby dolls, didn’t babysit, and as the youngest of 4, didn’t have to look after younger siblings. I was clueless.   What I would have loved was a guide book, a road map of how to do it-how to be a great mom.  Oh, I know, there are plenty of how to books out there explaining in great detail how to be an amazing mom. What I longed for was something different, something simple, concise, profound and applicable to all aspects of my life. 

Enter yoga, and specifically the yamas and niyamas.  

The first two limbs of the 8 limbed path of yoga, the yamas and niyamas, can be thought of as guidelines to living your best life. One of my teachers refers to them as the Don’ts (the yamas) and the Dos (the niyamas.) 

While at first glance they may seems a little austere, the yamas and niyamas don’t limit us from living life fully. They are simple, practical, and easy to understand and implement.

As Deborah Adele puts it in her book, The Yamas and Niyamas, “These ten guidelines sit as both a vision of the possibilities of human existence as well as providing the practical guidance to make skillful moment to moment choices in our daily life.”

So to celebrate Mother’s Day 2020, I offer to all of the mothers out there, seasoned and rookie moms alike, a yoga playbook for mothering. Keeping in mind, mothering comes in many shapes and forms, aunts, extended family, nurturing friends, and neighbors, all contributing to the collective mothering that is required to raise our children to be fully formed happy adults.  

The Yamas (The Don’ts)

1. Ahimsa—Non-harming in speech, thought, and action. This yama stands at the very core of yoga philosophy and it’s not accidental that it’s first.  Applying ahimsa to being a mom seems simple at first glance. Don’t hurt your children. Easy enough—or is it? Sometimes it’s the subtle stuff that over time causes the most harm, the impatient tone, negative energy, and the disapproving look.  

What does it look like to live ahimsa as a mom? Perhaps it’s the well-timed deep breath, the pause before reacting, preventing an overreaction. It’s also being mindful and purposeful of the words we choose and how we speak them when we talk to our children.  

The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.

—Peggy O’Mara

It’s inevitable that sometimes we will say and do things that we regret.  Applying ahimsa to yourself, allowing yourself to be human and fallible, and keeping your self-talk positive and loving is another way to live this yama.  

If your compassion doesn’t include yourself, it is incomplete.

—Buddha

2. Satya—Truthfulness. When it comes to this yama, to make an impact on your children, you’ve got to walk the walk.  Our children are constantly watching us; and the best way to teach honesty and truthfulness is to live it.  Do as I say, not as I do will only get you so far. 

Children learn more from what you are than what you teach.

—W.E. DuBois

3. Asteya—Nonstealing. Stealing from your children is keeping from them what they most want from you, your love and attention. Being present in the moment with your children, and with anyone that you love, is the best gift you could possibly give. 

Realize deeply that the present moment is all you ever have.

—Eckhart Tolle

4. Brahmacharya—Non-Excess.  This fourth yama literally means walking in God, consciousness and can be a little confusing for some of us.  I like Rolf Sovik’s take on it from Yoga International, “Brhamacharya turns the mind inward, balances the senses and leads to freedom from dependencies and cravings. When the mind is freed from domination by the senses, sensory pleasures are replaced by inner joy. “  

How does this apply to motherhood? Motherhood oftentimes means putting other’s needs ahead of our own. We are the last to sleep, to eat, to play, so when we do have a chance to see to our own needs, it’s a short trip to excess. Applying Brahmacharya helps us find balance, the place where we have enough and need no more.

Seeing with the eyes of holiness shifts how we act as well as how we see.  When gratitude and wonder sit in the heart, there is no need for excess.

—Deborah Adele

5. Aparigraha—Non-possessiveness, non-hoarding, letting-go.  Applying aparigraha to motherhood can be as practical as avoiding the accumulation of too much stuff (clothes, toys, activities).  

Perhaps a more challenging application is letting go of the notion of who you thought your children were supposed to be in order to make room for the acceptance and appreciation of who they actually are.

You only lose what you cling to.

—Buddha

The Niyamas (The Dos)

1. Saucha—Purity of mind, body, and speech. Keeping our inner and outer worlds clean and pure helps us to create space to parent in the best possible way. When our internal and external environment is clean and uncluttered, there is a sense of peace and calm. Feeding our families and ourselves clean, pure foods helps to create an inner space that more readily allows for the free flow of energy.

Our body is the home of our spirit.  It is the means by which we enact our beliefs.  Therefore, the maintenance of the body is a spiritual duty, an act of love not only toward ourselves but toward all humanity.

—Rolf Gates

2. Santosha—Contentment.  This niyama teaches us to embrace what we have with gratitude. It is a shift of focus from seeking contentment from outside of ourselves to finding contentment within, unconditionally.

How does Santosha apply to mothering? It invites us to be content with our life, our family, and our children as is, even when it’s not easy or pleasant.  It guides us to find the blessing in the moment, to feel gratitude for what is, instead of resenting what isn’t. 

We can easily practice Sentosa in the beautiful moments and joyous experiences of our lives. But Patanjali asks us to be equally willing to embrace the difficult moments.

—Judith Lasater

3. Tapas— Burning zeal in practice.  Literally tapas means “heat” and can be translated as discipline, spiritual effort, transformation, and austerities. I like to think of tapas as being all-in. It’s jumping in with both feet and doing whatever it takes with commitment and focus.

Motherhood and tapas go hand in hand. As my late father, a WW2 Marine veteran used to say, being a parent is like being in the Marines, you can’t one foot it. You can’t effectively just sort of be a parent—and there’s no such thing as a part time Marine. It’s all or nothing. 

Employing tapas, we meet the challenges of motherhood by jumping in with love, and both feet.

Life without tapas is like a heart without love.

—BKS Iyengar

4. Svadhyaya—Self Study. Sva=self, adhyaya=a lesson. This literally means education of the self. This calls all of us to continually seek out and read sacred scriptures and illuminating wisdom from credible and inspiring sources. 

Another aspect of self-study is introspection and having the willingness to take a good honest look at ourselves. As we start to connect to our authentic self we begin to shed the layers of pretense, the layers of armor that we put up to protect ourselves eventually allowing us to see our true identity as divine. 

What’s the best way to raise and nurture fully formed, self-aware, and loving humans? Be one yourself.

Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.

—Aristotle

5. Ishvara Pranidhana—Surrender to the divine. This final niyama asks us to let go, to surrender our ego, and be open to the grace of the divine. 

As a parent I can attest to how difficult it is to let go. From the time we bring our baby home to when we walk them down the aisle and beyond, we are asked to let go—to surrender to the inevitability of life unfolding as it is meant to whether we like it or not. We surrender the notion that we can protect them from all of life’s ups and downs, that we can smooth the road ahead, and help them to avoid the mistakes we made along the way.  Ishvara Pranidhana helps us realize that all we can really do is love them and surrender to the divine force that’s at work in our, and their, lives.

Ultimately there is nothing I can tell you about surrender except
Having nothing and wanting nothing,
Not keeping score,
Not trying to be richer,
Not being afraid of losing,
Not being particularly interested in our own personalities,
Choosing to be happy,
No matter what happens to us.
These are some of the clues.
The rest we learn with practice and grace.

—Swami Chetanananda

Happy Mother’s Day to each of you. 


libby scanlan

Libby Scanlan, E-RYT 500, YACEP, currently teaches at Prana Yoga Center in Geneva IL. She came to yoga as a way to balance the demands of motherhood and modern life. She is a 200 and 500-hour certified teacher through Moksha Yoga Chicago and Prairie Yoga. Her teaching has been strongly influenced by Daren Friesen, Lisa Bertke, Rod Stryker, and Tricia Fiske, among others as she believes that there is something to learn from everyone. Libby strives to provide her students with well rounded, creative, and insightful yoga classes that are challenging, accessible, and fun.