Silence like no other: a contemplation of Yama Niyama, by Karin Carlson

Yama Niyama by Karin Carlson

Silence Like No Other

yama:  nonviolence, truth, not-stealing, non-excess, non-greed

niyama:  purity, contentment, discipline, study, surrender

Karin Carlson dives into the multi-faceted yama niyama. A juxtaposition of our modern life.

This morning I woke to snow. I wasn’t happy about it. It’s been such a long winter. For weeks I’ve been trying to write about love. This morning, looking at the snow, I decided Valentine’s day is an expression of desperation. We talk about love because it’s so fucking cold.

I was writing back and forth with someone a few weeks ago, about the Minnesota forests in winter. It is a silence like no other silence, I said.

But the weather was just small talk, as weather usually is. We weren’t really talking about the trees. We were talking about death.

There is no silence like it.

Katha Upanisad

Years ago, when I was wading through grief like a dark and unfamiliar room, a teacher guided me through the Katha Upanisad.

I later used it in an intensive, as we talked about terrorism and the grief and suffering in our world. Look at the bodies of my peers, the protagonist says: They are mown down like a crop. After teaching, I started wandering in the fields around town. I’d stand on the furrowed and clodded earth, looking down the long rows of broken corn.

That was three years ago. The violence hasn’t stopped. All week long I fielded grief. There is so much confusion. There is so much pain. We stand in the fields, looking.


Yama NiyamaI sat with my coffee and watched the empty street. It looked like a mansion sheeted and shrouded against some vital absence. As I sat there, a cardinal lit on the pine two houses down. A fleck of red. He stood out like a drop of blood.

I have been trying to write of love and I end writing about blood. I have been trying to talk about mothering, nurturing, protecting and feeling protected, breeding. Bleeding. Children. And Hope.

the only hope I've seen in this bleak season has been the bravery of the children. They light up like gumption. Click To Tweet


YAMA NIYAMA with Karin Carlson

This isn’t a far cry: the only hope I’ve seen in this bleak season has been the bravery of the children. They light up like gumption. Their uncanny intelligence, their anger, their rightness, their bold. They are incorrigible, humbling, and precious. And then there’s the thrumming pulse of the too-long-silenced: Black Panther came out recently and it’s a glory. The cultural swell and throb around it is a relief and a joy. I watched footage of release parties happening in Africa. The actors wept. The parties stomped and shimmered and nearly burst with historical import: the need for celebrating black culture rests on the fact that black Americans are the descendants of slaves. 

Questions of racism return and return again to that fact – and the reality that we have not dealt with the legacy of slavery – like water to the sea. Ancestry and lineage are showing up everywhere (even in yoga, although there it’s a question of lost lineage); women are invoking the prayers and the efforts of their grandmothers, hoping the prayers still protect us; Dreamers invoke the courage of their parents and the undocumented and the made invisible; immigrants invoke family bonds; local Indian artists keep reminding me that this is an old story. Following the most recent school shooting, mothers and those who mother without having pussies or children rose up en mass and screamed, as mother’s have always screamed, for accountability.

In the Katha Upanishad, a teenager faces down the god of death. Death it’s own self. Maybe ‘faces down’ isn’t the right way of saying it: the kid sought Death out and called him teacher.

It’s important that the meaning of human life, and death, and grief, is a thing worked out on the soul of an adolescent. 


Yama Niyama with Karin CarlsonThe Super Bowl happened in Minneapolis. My husband and I went to hear a talk given by The Honorable Alan Page, former Supreme Court Justice of Minnesota and hall of fame defensive tackle. He and his wife have collected Jim Crow and slavery memorabilia for decades and this collection was on display during the Bold North tourism campaign. It seems the collection began as a kind of a tongue in cheek, private joke: to collect cookie jars shaped like Rosa Parks. But at some point, a slave collar becomes historically important. 

Never whisper justice, he said. We’re talking about a lot of things that aren’t the point and it ends up feeling like we have to whisper, justice. Everything has become so volatile. There’s so much talk, and deflection, and up to the minute breaking stories. We become polemical, reactive, polarized. In such a hostile and combative environment justice is trivialized, relegated, the very concept is ridiculed. Words are stolen, compromised, manipulated. Things that should not be debatable, are. This, too, is an old story.  Power isn’t reasonable, it’s usually just a silencing.  It’s telling history by omission.

We can’t take up our destiny unless we’re aware of our legacy, he said.

Do we have a destiny? I wondered. Which is really just saying: is there a future?


There are some experiences in life that are absolutely silent. There is no answer. It’s so hard our souls will squirm. Trees in midwinter have a dark to them that is hard. Snow presses us down. There is nothing, nothing, nothing we can say about death.

You can't not have a voice. You can't. Click To Tweet

But of course we do. We go on talking, asking, breathing: it isn’t us but death that is quiet. That’s exactly what I’m saying: there are things in life that don’t answer to us. We go on and but there’s this silence in front of us, or around us, or behind us. It’s inside us. If we ever, even just once, really acknowledge it we’re by default acknowledging our autonomy. When we face silence we realize our own voice. You can’t not have a voice. You can’t. You know in your gut that there is complicity and there is agency and you have to choose.

Sometimes this hurts like hell. Sometimes it’s scary. Sometimes its a release of the petty and the trivial and the stupid and this is when it sounds like a song. Sometimes its handed down to you by people who came before and this is when it feels like a hymn. Sometimes it’s strange and inarticulate and this is when it sounds like a mantra, sounded and sounded and sounded again until it there isn’t sense but rhythm. Sometimes it throbs and you know it’s your own pulse, it’s smokey and smells of iron, and far from being yours it’s given, it’s taken, it’s threaded from here to there and her to him like a vein, a thread, a sutra. It hangs in winter trees like a bird.

Yama Niyama

Yama and niyama arise when we confront death and suffering.  Social responsibility and personal work are the primal human response to the question of questions, this what do I do, this why has this happened, this oh my god the children

In my experience, yama and niyama are the work of self love. Click To Tweet

Yama Niyama with Karin CarlsonThat’s the point of the Katha Upanishad, what it eventually gets to. We have to set ourselves on fire. The daunting realization of destiny, autonomy, dharma or whatever the hell is what tells us so. In my experience, yama and niyama are the work of self love. Not indulgence: love. Not conviction: faith. Faith in our truth, faith in our stories, faith in our ancestors. Faith in our actions, even if their outcome is blurry to us from here.

It’s the hard work of moving from conviction to doubt and being okay, there. Love and self-love are the confusing and shifting ground in which we realize it isn’t about us, and yet we ourselves are all we’ve got. 

Sometimes this teaching feels like hearing five, or ten, or a million souls hammering themselves out in private and in the dark. Tink, tink, tink it sounds. One leaning in to examine her face in a mirror. One standing up to leave the couch. One vowing this year I will, never again, I swear this time I mean it. Tink, tink, tink


The thing about silence is you can hear it.

I have one teacher who says the yama-niyama are an outcome, a result, not a practice. I have others who say they are safety nets, containers, training spaces. I don’t know what they are, exactly, except important. Sometimes I pray them like rosary. Sometimes I refer to them like road maps. Sometimes I confuse them for bones. Sometimes I chew on them like candy. Mostly they hit me on the head like a stone.


The closest I’ve come to making sense of love is to realize it isn’t a feeling, it’s a force. It isn’t a feeling, although we sometimes experience it that way. It isn’t sexual or familial although sometimes it looks like that. It isn’t mine, but something I can chose to listen to or make myself turn away from. It’s a relationship we have with reality, and faith that we can change the world. We do this when we love our children, when we marry, when we choose to gather with community. Or when we march. Or vote. Or run for office or throw a buck to a cause that matters. Faith is this, love is this: an insistence that what is silent and invisible, matters.


YAMA NIYAMA with Karin CarlsonThere is such a thing as democracy. But it’d be a mistake to assume that is what we’re actually living, as a country. Not yet. Suffering is more democratic and inclusive than our policies are. (Yet. Yet.)

The weather, too, is a model of democracy, proof of the fact that we’re all in it together. By the time the sun came out neighbors had appeared with shovels, mittens, and sweatpants. The drone of a snowblower whined down the street. I set down the coffee cup, because it was empty. I got up and went into the day.

Never whisper, justice.

He it is who sends prana upward and who leads apana downward. All the devas worship that adorable One seated in the middle.

When the soul, identified with the body and dwelling in it, is torn away from the body, is freed from it, what then remains? This, verily, is That.

No mortal ever lives by prana, which goes up, nor by apana, which goes down. Men live by something different, on which these two depend. Katha Upanishad




Karin Carlson Resolution, Revolution, RitualKarin was an anthropologist, a barmaid, and a journalist before she bottomed out. Yoga saved her; she figures it might help others.  Karin’s teaching in jails, crisis centers, and church basements became a non-profit in 2007. Based in Minneapolis, MN, discover and practice with Karin online in her Collections for Gather Yoga or at



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Featured Photos by Karin Carlson, Inma Ibáñez, Ray Hennessy , Zulmaury Saavedra,  Ina Soulis Joel & Jasmin Førestbird, Om Prakash SethiaPaul Bulai on  Unsplash