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The Yamas and Niyamas in Yoga

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Before yoga focussed on tight-fitting sweatpants and achieving the perfect body, it infiltrated culture in a much deeper way. In addition to bettering their physical health, practitioners were taught a fundamental philosophy about how to make their way through life. Contrary to popular belief, yoga is much broader than just asana practice; instead, it’s a way of life. To achieve enlightenment, yogis can follow the eight limbs of yoga. Each step, or limb, offers guidance on how to live a meaningful and purposeful life. In this article, we explore the first two steps, the Yamas and Niyamas.

What Are the Yamas and Niyamas?

In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, an eight-limbed, step-by-step path is outlined that focusses on purifying the body and mind. The ultimate goal of this practice is to help yogis to achieve a steady mind that leads to bliss or enlightenment. The first two steps on the path, Yama and Niyama, are ethical principles that guide how we take care of ourselves and how we relate to other people. When translated from Sanskrit, Yama means ‘social restraints’, and Niyama means ‘self-discipline’. Below, we explore the Yamas and Niyamas further.

The Yamas

The word ‘Yama’ is often translated to ‘moral discipline’, ‘moral vow’, or ‘restraint’. In the Sutras, it is explained that these vows are universal, and can be used by practitioners of all sorts. No matter who are you, where you come from, or where you’re heading, the Yamas can be used as guidance. At times, everybody struggles to be ‘moral’. This is why the Yamas are so important. When translated, the word Yoga means ‘unity’, ‘wholeness’, or ‘connectedness’. While it’s important to be mindful during class, we need to connect with our inner-self when off the mat to feel the real benefits of yoga. The Yamas are designed to change how we see ourselves and the world around us. In the Sutras, there are five main Yamas: Ahimsa, Satya, Asteya, Brahmacharya, and Aparigraha. Below, we discuss these in more detail.


The first Yama, Ahimsa, translates to “avoidance of violence”. This aspect is the foundational Yama of classic yoga. Essentially, it’s the act of being non-harming in word, thought, and deed. This includes not harming animals, the environment, other people, and yourself. This Yama also teaches non-violent speech and acts, even towards things that you don’t like.


The second Yama is Satya. Meaning ‘truth’ when translated, Satya is the principle of living with integrity. To abide by this, you must refrain from betrayal and dishonesty in word, thought, and deed. While Satya is encouraged, most yogis see Ahimsa as the most important principle. With this in mind, you should refrain from telling the truth if it could bring harm.


The third principle is Asteya, which means “non-stealing”. This Yama focuses on not taking that which is not given. This not only includes material possessions, but also the time and energy of those around you. The Yama encourages you to focus on what you have, as opposed to what you don’t have. The principle also teaches you not to expect others to provide their time, energy, or possessions. Instead of depending on those around you, Asteya encourages you to be self-sufficient.


The fourth Yama is Brahmacharya. Seen by some as controversial, this principle refers to the wise use and preservation of sexual energy. It’s important to note that this Yama does not necessarily encourage celibacy. Instead, it teaches you to act responsibly with your sexual energy in a way that respects yourself and others. The principle also refers to controlling your energy in general. Your spirit and vigour is precious and shouldn’t be wasted on superficial things.


The final Yama is Aparigraha. This is the principle of non-possessiveness and refers to the ability to let go. The Yama encourages non-clinging, non-grasping, and non-attachment to possessions or thoughts. The principle teaches you not to fill your life with negative thoughts and physical possessions, but rather to relax and be content with what you have.

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The Niyamas

When translated, Niyama means ‘positive duties’ or ‘observances’. Essentially, the Niyamas are the recommended habits for healthy living. Traditionally, they’re thought of as the principles concerned with ourselves; however, we can think of them as affecting the world around us, too. In the Sutras, there are five main Niyamas: Saucha, Santosha, Tapas, Svadhyaya, and Ishvara Pranidhana. Below, we explore these further.


The first Niyama is Saucha. Meaning “purity”, this Niyama is the principle of cleanliness. Not only does this encourage good hygiene, but it also teaches you to refrain from impure or toxic thoughts, words, or deeds. To abide by Saucha, we must practice internal cleanliness. This means that we should avoid egoism, gossip, and hurtful subjects.


The second Niyama, Santosha, means “contentment”. This Niyama is the practice of finding joy in your own life, as opposed to wishing for a life that you do not have. It’s important to note that Santosha doesn’t refer to complacency. You are not encouraged to give up on your hopes and dreams; instead, you are encouraged to accept the present moment.


The third Niyama is Tapas, which means “heat”. This principle refers to self-control of your energy. Abiding by Tapas will allow you to burn away impurities and achieve health and happiness. While this Niyama requires restraint, austerity, and hard work, it’s definitely worth it in the end. When you learn to control your impure energy, your true energy can come forward.


The fourth Niyama, Svadhyaya, means to “self-study”. This principle requires contemplation and self-reflection to discover your true nature. When you look inward, you will start to realise the meaning of your life and discover your deeper purpose.

Ishvara Pranidhana

The final Niyama is Ishvara Pranidhana. This is the act of yielding to your higher self or a higher power. This principle encourages humility and modesty as you learn about the existence of a greater force. It doesn’t matter what higher power you believe in, all that matters is that you surrender to the guidance of this force to achieve peace.

In Summary

To connect with your higher self and achieve liberation, practice the Yamas and Niyamas. While they should be used during yoga class, they should also be practised off the yoga mat for best results.

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