Ya Wanna Talk Yamas & Niyamas?

Yoga is a spiritual practice. True, it’s also a great workout, reliable means of stress relief, magical mood lifter, and trendy topic of conversation among celebrities, but at its core, yoga is a practice of self-discovery. While it originated within a Hindu culture (India), the practice of yoga is not relegated to a specific religion. Yet, it is a spiritual endeavor.

In fact, of the eight limbs of yoga practice- or eight aspects of living a yoga lifestyle- outlined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, a foundational yoga text, only one is purely physical, asana. The first two- yamas and niyamas- are not. This post will focus on those; however, the complete list of limbs is as follows: yamas (attitude toward the world), niyamas (attitude toward yourself), asana (yoga poses), pranayama (breathwork), prathayara (withdrawal of the senses), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), samadi (enlightenment).
Of course, you can practice yoga strictly for its physical benefits, but that’s a bit like traveling to a foreign country known for its native cuisine and eating at the nearest McDonald’s the whole time. Imagine how much of Italy you’d miss if you eschewed bruschetta made from the most lusciously local tomatoes and basil on the planet in favor of chicken McNuggets? A yoga practice fully nourishes by aligning our bodies, minds, and spirits, and to focus solely on the physical practice is to miss a profound opportunity.
Some yogis, such as B.K.S. Iyengar for example, might argue that one inevitably follows the other– that by training the body through asana, the mind follows suit. As the body becomes still and strong in a pose, the mind, too, settles and expands. This settling of the mind is the purpose of yoga, as outlined in the first book of the The Yoga Sutras:
“If you can control the rising of the mind into ripples, you will experience yoga.”
For anyone who’s listened to their own thoughts for a millisecond, you can vouch that quieting the mind is no small task. Therefore, the sutras provide plenty of tips for the journey, the yamas and niyamas being paramount among them. You might experience life-changing results through asana alone, but the journey toward enlightenment requires that you summon greater resources and avoid certain pitfalls. These are known as the namas and niyamas.
The Yamas: Yogic guidelines for how to treat others/interact with society.
Ahimsa: Non-violence. Besides the obvious interpretation of not participating in physical acts of violence toward oneself or others. There is also a subtler translation of not engaging in harmful behavior, through thoughts, words, and deeds. Gossip, for example, is a harmful behavior that, while not physical, has the potential to injure others. Negative self-talk is also an example of harmful/violent behavior. Quit calling yourself fat; it’s psychological poison.
Satya: Truthfulness. This one is pretty straightforward: Tell the truth. Moreover, act truthfully. Align your life with your true nature (hint: your true nature is good and honest). People instinctively want to tell the truth, which is why it feels crappy when we lie, withhold, or obstruct the truth.
Asteya: Non-stealing. Hey klepto, put that down!
Brahmacarya: Sexual responsibility. Sexual energy is powerful, and when misused or misdirected, it leads to suffering. This yama advises yogis to express sexuality in a way that respects and honors our partners, rather than using them for one’s own benefit. Ancient yogis were traditionally abstinent in observance of this yama, yet the interpretation need not be so literal [insert sigh of relief]. We do need to be mindful of the ways our sexual expression affects ourselves and others. Yoga teachers, in particular, need to treat this yama with care in the classroom. Or, as a fellow teacher pal once remarked, referring to a prominent teacher who tends to engage regularly in, um, relations, with his students, “What part of ‘don’t [shag] your students’ do you NOT understand!” Above all, the goal of this precept is to conserve energy for the purpose of spiritual practice. Therefore, sexual energy should not distract, detract, or undermine the larger yoga journey.
Aparigraha: Abstention from greed. This yama relates to keeping our material desires in check by not seeking to obtain more than we need. It also relates to coveting what isn’t ours. Envying someone else’s possessions, or their life, is one of the quickest paths to unhappiness– plain and simple.
The Niyamas: Yogic guidelines for how to treat yourself.

Sauca: Cleanliness. In addition to keeping the physical body clean, yogis also aim to keep clear the energetic body. Eating cleanly, making nutrition choices that support the practice, and minimizing toxins are essential to the path of yoga.
Santosa: Contentment. Put simply, be thankful for what you have.
Tapas: Austerity. This rule relates to keeping the body in peak physical condition, as the vehicle for yoga practice.
Svadhyaya: Self-study. As I mentioned earlier, yoga is a practice of self-discovery; therefore, it’s important to engage in self-inquiry and self-examination. Pragmatically speaking, yogis can do this by educating themselves, studying sacred texts, reading and commenting on yoga blog [ahem], asking life’s great questions (i.e. Who am I? Why am I here?), and regularly reflecting on the answers.
Isvara prahnidhana: Modesty. Humility. Surrender to God/the universe/a higher power/life force. In other words, we acknowledge and honor a greater energy that connects us all.

Think of it like this: There are lots of ways to hike a mountain. At the bare minimum, you could simply start walking– hiking gear, map, and provisions be damned! However, taking into account the length and magnitude of the journey, you might consider using additional resources. Life is like this: A long, steep path through uncharted woods. And, the yamas and niyamas are a yogi’s compass.
My best to you on your journey,
Om Gal
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  • Audrey

    Thank you for this great post; I learned a lot! I read it while eating two chocolate chip cookies (practicing satya with my full disclosure) so my sauca could probably use some work. The rest of the batch went to my ten year old neighbor for her birthday, so I think that my yama/niyama scale for today is still balanced.

  • Anonymous

    Yes! Yes! Despite all the sanskrit goblydygook it all makes sense…living a yogic life is about you, your mind, and your world. It is not about classes and whether you can hang high and tight in Bakasana, or face plant on your yogi toe towel…..and yes a yogic life is not easy all the time. Especially during Girl Scout cookie season. Om Shanti.

  • nifer

    Rebecca, thanks for reminding me of the different aspects of Yoga, and how they all intertwine to create a better person, a better soul.

    I agree with you that so many now think of Yoga as mere exercise, but it is so much more. I remember reading some of the sacred texts you reference during my college studies, and I found meaning in them then. Now that I actually practice Yoga physically, I am able to find even more meaning.

    Your blog is so inspirational and informative. Thank you!

    ~ Jen

  • Lorelli

    Not to mention, there are many other forms of yoga ("union") that are practiced, aside from the yoga of asanas (hatha yoga) that we practice.

    e.g. karma yoga, jnana yoga, bhakti yoga, nada yoga, etc.