During yoga class, you might hear the teacher mentioning the “Yamas and Niyamas”. What are they and what do they mean for you?
In the Yoga Sutra, a collection of texts written between the second century BCE and fifth century CE, philosophers outline an eight-limbed (read post “What Are The 8 Limbs of Yoga?”), step-by-step path for purifying the body and mind. The ultimate goal: to help practitioners cultivate a steady mind, leading to calm bliss. The first two stops on the path are ethical principles that are supposed to guide how we relate to other people and how we take care of ourselves. They’re called the Yamas (social restraints) and the Niyamas (self-disciplines).
The Yamas and Niyamas are like the “rules of the game”. As you read, I encourage you to figure out how they can be applied to your personal yoga practice, both on and off the mat.
“Yamas – These 5 principles have mostly to do with our behavior and thinking toward other beings”
- Ahimsa. No-harming, non-violence or, maybe more practical, “doing as little harm as possible”. We all do some harm to others in living; whether we eat cows or kale, we take a life. The idea of Ahimsa is to do our best to be loving and compassionate. For many yogis it means eating without using animal products… for others, being kind and caring to others. What is the least harm you can do?
- Satya. Truthfulness, honesty. The concept is clear but it takes courage to truly honor this Yama. Can we be fully honest even if it means we feel uncomfortable, if we are delivering information that is not welcome? Satya requires that we constantly look within to discover what is true in every situation. Satya usually works best when keeping the spirit of Ahimsa in mind – being honest while doing as little harm as possible. It means caring enough to be honest, and saying what’s true artfully (with love and care). Satya is often an act of courage and generosity.
- Asteya. Non-stealing. Again, this principle is clear but not always easy to implement, as it evokes the idea that “there’s no such a thing as a free lunch”. To earn, receive and grow, we must give out something of value, even give more value than we receive.
- Brahmacharya. Chariot to God. Often translated as continence or abstinence of sexual behavior, the guideline here is to use our sexual energy in a way that brings us all closer to God.
- Aparigraha. Non-hoarding. We move away from greed. We can be generous and sharing – in fact, this is what brings abundance. We live in a universe that is abundant; there is enough for everyone, there’s no need to hold on to what we have.
“Niyamas– These principles have mostly to do with our thinking and behavior toward and within ourselves.”
- Saucha. Purity, cleanliness. Like in the saying “Cleanliness is next to Godliness”, order, precision, purity help us toward our highest potential. Yoga reminds us that our true self already exists, lives in us inherently. Our task as yogis is to strip away the outer layers that obscure our true nature. Many of the yogic techniques are practices to cleanse ourselves inside and out. Relatedly, the cleaner and purer the food we consume, the easier our task. Organic, alive, vibrant food aids us best.
- Santosa. Contentment. To be content is to accept and enjoy reality as it is. We may still use our creative abilities to chance and develop situations, yet doing so from an attitude or contentment greatly enhances our effectiveness and well-being.
- Tapas. Heat, fire. Discipline and willpower are sometimes extremely helpful. Tapas means wanting something (certain results) more than something else (laziness, entropy, inertia). It means giving our best effort, especially at times when we don’t feel like it.
- Svadhyaya. Self-study. We develop and ever-depending understanding of ourselves through self-inquiry, meditation, mindfulness, therapy, study of scriptures, study of the lives of great beings and/or any other method that reveals the truth of who we are.
- Ishvara Pranidhana. Giving our identity to God. This guideline alone, fully-realized, is sufficient for reaching Samadhi (enlightenment). When we give our identity to God, we receive the identity of God. When we realize we are God – divine and perfect- Yoga is achieved.
At the beginning, it might seem difficult to integrate these principles into our daily life. Contemplating the Yamas and Niyamas can bring higher awareness on parts of ourselves that we don’t always notice, and help us live in a way that doesn’t cause harm, which in turn allows for less regret and a more peaceful mind.
So how can you incorporate these time-tested moral and ethical codes into your own life and practice? My suggestion would be to pick one of each and experiment: see in which situations you can apply them and how it helps your life. I always suggest to start with Ahimsa (non–violence to others or yourself, which means be kinder) and Santosa (love and accept reality as it is, not what you would like it to be).
Reach out for feedback, questions or comments.
Yours in philosophy,