The Yamas and Niyamas are the first two limbs of Yoga, as defined and outlined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.
The yamas are a list of five things that we can choose not to engage in if we want to reduce suffering.
They are standards to live by yes, BUT they are also a great gauge by which we can measure and monitor our progress. They are words which have little meaning until you have lived through the realization of each yama on your own. All of the yamas define behaviors you’ve noticed in yourself; behaviors you may not want to continue, but may be so habitual that they are hard to change.
The difference here (and it is profound) is that the yamas say you are a free agent moment by moment.
That you will have situations presented to you (moment by moment) and you will have the ability to choose how to respond to those situations (moment by moment). The yamas give us a hint on how to respond.
That is why they are stated in the “negative.” (‘non-harming, non-lying” etc.) So for instance, when given the choice to harm or not to harm, choose in that moment NOT to harm. Eventually it won’t even be a “choice” because you have “cleansed” the “negative” desire (or behavior or habit) from your consciousness.
All the yamas apply to actions, words and thoughts. This is important because it implies how much our actions affect others.
“I can decide how I am going to live and I must let others decide how they are going to live.” Gandhi – The Way to GodGandhi – The Way to God
A List of the Yamas:
- Ahimsa (Non-harming)
- Satya (Non-Lying)
- Asteya (Non-stealing)
- Bramacharya (Like God; non-using)
- Aparigraha (Non-clinging, Non-attachment)
The niyamas are internal observances. The niyamas promise that if we make even meager efforts at devotion to the highest within us, this devotion will distill, strengthen and cultivate our connection to our own psychic (intellectual, mental, psychological, cerebral) energy.These qualities provide the driving fuel for the yogi on his journey.
Niyamas are both choices we make (making a choice about what we will focus on) and things that happen to us naturally as we practice yoga.
So, for instance, I may be craving a soda, but I can choose, because I am going to yoga class, not to load my body up with soda. But then after yoga I have lost my taste for it. Eventually I no longer even think of soda as an option. My tastes have changed. My body is cleaner as a result.
I would call Niyamas a:
1. list of benefits. (like, hey! Don’t be surprised if your yoga practice helps you remove unwanted obstacles and see the good in your life!) Qualities growing within that you can expect to see as a result of your practice.
2. list of reminders (like, hey! You might want to focus on the things going right in your life (contentment) rather than bitching all of the time.) That will help your yoga practice move right along.
3. list of observances (like, hmm . . . I am more aware of my physical appearance, actions, words and thoughts.) Observing that all of life does and will continue to change.
4. good advice (like, hey, you might want to eat better, get rid of unnecessary stuff in your life, be cleaner in your thinking and your words, do things in moderation)
A list of the Niyamas (and what they mean to me):
Internal and External cleanliness, orderliness, precision, clarity, balance.
What this means to me: For someone starting off a yoga practice, Shauca is both good advice (eat better, get rid of unnecessary stuff in your life, be cleaner in your thinking and your words, do things in moderation) and a result of a yoga practice. You will get cleaner inside, you will want to eat better, you will gain more clarity in your life. For me this was most decidedly true. Before yoga I wanted all these things but had a hard time following through. Yoga practice let me step into my “uncluttered mind” and I am now able (without forcing) to be precise and clear and – somewhat – balanced.
Equanimity, peace, tranquility, acceptance of the way things are.
What this means to me: Santosa is is a reminder to be okay with where you are at in your practice today. It is good advice – focus on the positive a little more and you will have a better experience. It is also a result of your practice. From yoga you do gain the unique trait of equanimity – the ability to slow down your reaction/response time so that you get to CHOOSE how to respond to different situations.
Burning desire for connection with God/Source.
What this means to me: A burning desire to experience life to the fullest. Courageous living.
This may be a quality of the person who is drawn to yoga, and more often than not it is a result of doing the yoga. Tapas is expressed through self-discipline – we need to commit to and have a burning desire to engage in something like meditation or even pranayama or asana. And you gain a lot of self discipline from doing the practices; ending up with a burning desire to continue.
Tapas is one of my favorite niyamas because it implies a fiery passion to connect to something higher. It definitely lets the practitioner know that life does not have to become mediocre, boring, dull, or austere. IT says to me that I will become MORE alive, experience life in all of its nuances, and to NOT BE AFRAID to experience the human drama!
Svadhyaya (Study of the Self)
Self-inquiry, mindfulness, self-study, searching for the Unknown (divinity) in the Known (physical world).
What this means to me: This one is fairly self explanatory. And this one is absolutely a result of the practice. You don’t have to start out practicing ANY of this, or even knowing you WANT to look inside, but very quickly it becomes apparent that you have new eyes, and a new capacity for introspection.
Ishvara Pranidhana (Devotional offering to the Lord)
Surrender to your HIGHEST purpose, open-heartedness, love, “not my will, but Thy will be done,” willingness to serve.
What this means to me: Ishvara Pranidhana is another favorite of mine. I have truly realized through teaching that my personality is not really the person teaching. There is suddenly MORE to me than “me.” I say a prayer before every class asking for the highest good to happen through me, inviting my Potential in.
Loving others to the best of my ability (the way I imagine a loving Universe would do) and actually feeling how easy it is to do that is also isvara pranidahana. Being able to see the beauty in people – I mean really having their inner beauty revealed to me – is a gift from the yoga, and not a “behavior modification.”
Over to You!
Now I have a challenge for you. Go back to the beginning of this article and engage with the text in another way. What do each of the Yamas and Niyamas mean to you? What do they mean to you in general? Most importantly, what do they mean to you now? What actions are they calling you to in your everyday life? Use this as a journaling exercise, or print out the article and highlight the sections you want to contemplate over the course of the next week or month. Then, join the conversation by posting your own reflections in our HelloYogaWorld community chat here.
D’ana Baptiste is a teacher, trainer, author, and influencer, and pioneer in the yoga community, D’ana inspires others to find their own way in the “mind-body” world. She organizes regular workshops and retreats in North America, and is a co-founder of HelloYogaWorld. She’s the author of four books: The Yoga Sutras: One Woman’s Personal, Practical, and Playful Perspective, Sutra Study Guide: Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, The Real Yoga: Life, and Practices Inspired by the Sutras: The Companion Book