The yamas and niyamas are yoga’s ethical guidelines laid out in the first two limbs of an eightfold path. They’re like a map written to guide you on your life’s journey. Simply put, the yamas are things not to do, or restraints, while the niyamas are things to do, or observances. Together, they form a moral code of conduct.
Before I go into great detail about each of the yamas and niyamas, it is important to know more about yoga in general. The practice of yoga is much more than going to the studio once or twice a week and practising yoga poses. There is a philosophy behind each move and a belief system that governs the way to act and think. These are called Sutras (or “threads”). The Yoga Sutras, compiled more than 1,500 years ago by the Indian sage Patanjali, are the foundation of yoga as we know it today. In fact, they are the thread that connects the various schools and lineages of yoga. In the sutras, Patanjali outlines the eight limbs of yoga, the eightfold path of spiritual growth and self-discovery. These limbs are ethical guidelines on how to live a vibrant, meaningful life, and they are just as relevant to contemporary practitioners as they were to the seekers back in the time of Patanjali.
Asana (yoga postures) is arguably the most well-known of the limbs, but it’s only a part of the story, for this path offers so much more. Each of the eight limbs addresses a different aspect of our being, and together they act as a road map to what is called “yoga off the mat.”
The eight limbs are:
1. Yama: character-building restraints
2. Niyama: character-building observances
3. Asana: physical postures
4. Pranayama: breathing
5. Pratyahara: inward sensing
6. Dharana: concentration
7. Dhyana: absorption
8. Samadhi: oneness
So, let’s begin with the yamas.
The five yamas, self-regulating behaviors involving our interactions with other people and the world at large, include:
Ahimsa: nonviolence. It implies the total avoidance of harming of any kind of living creatures not only by deeds, but also by words and in thoughts. Here are ten ways to practise ahimsa in our daily life.
1. Eat a healthy and plant-based vegetarian diet.
2. Cultivate positive and loving thoughts.
3. Make sure not to skip meals and sleep.
4. Be a calm driver.
5. Care for our earth and the ecosystem.
6. Practise your yoga poses regularly, not obsessively.
7. Just let it go.
8. Resolve conflict by peaceful measures
10. Get involved in non-violent efforts to spread peace.
Satya: truthfulness. The word ‘sat’ literally translates as ‘true essence’ or ‘true nature’. It also means something that is pure and unchangeable. ‘Sat’ also means ‘that which exists’, ‘that which has no distortion’, ‘that which is beyond time, space and person’, and it also means ‘fact’ or ‘reality’.
Being truthful isn’t just as simple as about being truthful in words. Satya is total commitment to truth— in being, in words, in actions, in intentions. The practice of this second yama of Satya requires deep understanding, a lot of awareness, and a delicate balance of honesty. Basically truth is not what we speak, but who we are.
Here are five ways to practise Satya in our daily life.
1. Be genuine and authentic.
2. Speak the truth.
3. Nurture relationships with skillful practice of Satya
There is a beautiful Sufi saying:
“Before you speak, let your words pass through three gates.
At the first gate, ask yourself ‘Is it true?
At the second gate ask, ‘Is it necessary?
At the third gate ask, ‘Is it kind?”
4. Find the purpose in your life.
5. Work at your own level and honour where you are each day without any judgments and opinions.
Asteya: non-stealing. But at the deepest level, Asteya means not hoarding materials you don't need, mindlessly consuming natural resources, coveting other people's possessions, or appropriating other people's ideas, wasting other people’s time.
Here are some modern day ways to practise Asteya.
1. Write short, concise, elegant emails.
2. Think before you reach out for help.
3. Consider not speaking.
4. Show up on time.
5. Don’t commit to projects you have no desire to complete.
6. Make it easy for people to help you.
7. Make it easy for people to understand you.
Brahmacharya: non-excess (often interpreted as celibacy). Literally, Brahmacharya translates as “walking in God-consciousness.” Practically speaking, this means that Brahmacharya turns the mind inward, balances the senses, and leads to freedom from dependencies and cravings. Yogis tell us that when the mind is freed from domination by the senses, sensory pleasures are replaced by inner joy.
How can we apply Brahmacharya today?
In most cases, mindfulness and moderation are key to pursuing the “right use of energy.” Brahmacharya is about paying attention to how you use your energy in everyday life. It’s about providing your mind and body with what it needs – and enjoys – without going to a place of excess.
1. Listen to your body.
Paying attention to what your body is asking for will naturally lead you toward brahmacharya. What does that look like in practice? Eating when you’re hungry, but not stuffing yourself. Resting when you’re tired, but not lying in bed all day. Exercising regularly, but not overtraining.
2. Set limits.
Sticking to limits can also help us apply brahmacharya in daily life. For example, professional accomplishment is an important source of fulfillment for most people. But working excessively leads to burn out, so we need to set work/life boundaries.
Similarly, some amount of social media use can be beneficial. But we need to limit our time on it, so it doesn’t become excessive and mindless or move us away from our true selves. Using an app to connect with old friends is consistent with brahmacharya; scrolling through other people’s photos for hours on end is not.
3. Look for balance.
Finding moderation can also mean striking a balance. For example, spending time alone and spending time with others can both be considered right uses of energy. But we need both. If you only do one or the other, instead of finding moderation, you won’t be getting everything your mind and spirit needs.
Aparigraha: freedom from greed, possessiveness, or covetousness. The following are ways we can incorporate Aparigraha in our everyday life.
1. Let It Go. Possessions take up space and energy—in your head as well as in your home. So try this: Every time you buy something new, let go of something old—give it away, or toss it out. By letting go of things from the past, you can live more fully in the present.
2. Breathe. When we get stressed out, we tend to hold our breath. This makes us even more anxious. Release the breath and allow it to flow fully and deeply. Then you will feel more relaxed, open, and spontaneous.
3. Self-Care. When we are afraid and insecure, we may feel a need to cling to and control those who are closest to us. That rarely works. Instead, find ways to nurture and center yourself so that you feel independent and strong in your own right, and can allow others to be who they need to be.
4. Be Positive. When we cling to negative thoughts, emotions, or memories, we spiral into destructive habit patterns. By replacing negative thoughts with positive ones, and by remembering your mantra, you create a harmonious space for yourself and others.
5. Forgive. Let go of painful memories from your past. Free yourself by offering forgiveness to those who have hurt you and to yourself.
6. Practice. Sometimes we try so hard to be perfect—in our asanas, meditation, contemplation—that we miss the essence of practice. Do your best and then remember to release—physically, mentally, emotionally. Let go and stay open to guidance from within.
7. Be generous. Expand your capacity to stretch yourself. Share your time, your energy, your knowledge, your attention, your connections. Donate. Volunteer. Give in whatever way you can.
I will write about the Niyamas at another time. So stay tuned.