The yamas and niyamas could easily be described as the yogic code of conduct. These 10 basic principles ultimately tell yogis what they should and should not do on the yogic path.
Translated as ethical restraints and ethical observances, the yamas and niyamas guide a yogi ethically and morally on their spiritual journey.
The yamas are five ethical restraints and the niyamas are five ethical observances that are laid out in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.
The Yoga Sutras is a sacred text in yogic philosophy that was compiled by the scholar Patanjali. The collection of 196 succinct aphorisms seeks to explain the teachings of the Classical School of Yoga.
In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the Raja Yoga Marga, or the Royal Path of Yoga, is introduced. This path outlines the Ashtanga Yoga Path, or the eight-limbed path to enlightenment.
The yamas and niyamas are the first two limbs of the noble eight-fold path.
The Ashtanga Yoga Path is a hierarchical course. So in order to progress forward, a yogi must master the preceding steps.
The yamas and niyamas are the first two limbs of the noble eight-fold path. So they are often considered to be the most important aspects of the yogic journey because they must be mastered before one can move on to the next steps.
Both the yamas and niyamas are subcategorized into five separate restraints and observances.
The yamas are the ethical restraints laid out in the Yoga Sutras by Patanjali. There are five distinct yamas.
This first yama is often considered to be the most important and the most essential on the yogic path. Ahimsa mean non-violence or non-harming, and it is the first thing that a yogi must refrain from when embarking on the yogic journey.
Most people in modern society are non-violent. But violence doesn’t necessarily mean committing homicide. Violence can arise in unexpected ways. We can be violent with our words, our thoughts, and our actions.
But we can practice ahimsa in many ways as well. We can spare the harmless spider in our bathroom or refrain from negative self-talk or choose our words carefully, particularly when we’re angry.
Violence doesn’t necessarily need to be grotesque to be considered immoral to a yogi. It can come up in much more subtle ways.
But when we consciously choose to reduce and eliminate violence and harming from our lives, we inevitably take a huge step forward in making the world a more caring and loving place.
Put ahimsa into practice with this Loving Kindness Metta Meditation
The next yama, satya, means non-falsehood or truthfulness. As yogis on the spiritual path, we must strive to be truthful, honest, and transparent.
Being truthful is not always convenient or easy, but deep down, we always know that it’s right. Removing falsity from our lives creates a refreshing atmosphere of transparency and clarity.
But again, falsehood doesn’t only show up as flat-out lying. Sometimes we’re ingenuine to save face about why we were late for work or we withhold the truth or are misleading in our social media posts or perhaps we even lie to ourselves.
As yogis on the spiritual path, we must strive to be truthful, honest, and transparent.
We may convince ourselves to stay in unhealthy relationships or tell ourselves that our workaholic lifestyles are normal.
But satya is more than just being honest. This principle is also about upholding some greater Truth—with a capital T. This concept is about exploring and connecting with this greater, eternal, unwavering Truth.
We can apply the concept of satya to our lives by living with openness, vulnerability, and integrity and by living in such a way that we can understand and experience cosmic truth.
This yama may seem obvious at first. Don’t steal. Don’t take what is not yours. And most of us are probably not typical thieves.
But stealing doesn’t necessarily have to manifest itself as robbing someone’s wallet or car. Stealing can also mean stealing someone’s time or energy or even someone’s happiness.
How many times have you been running late and showed up to an appointment 20 minutes behind schedule? Aren’t we all guilty of stealing precious resources from the planet without replenishing them? Or who has stolen from themselves by depriving yourself of self-love or happiness?
And asteya can also be translated as non-coveting because this ethical guideline includes not only theft by action, but also theft by intent.
But there are many ways that we can put asteya into practice. We can focus on the opposite of stealing and coveting—giving and appreciation to create generosity of spirit.
The fourth yama, brahmacharya, is often translated as complete celibacy or chastity. Sexuality has always been a controversial topic in religious and philosophical worlds.
Many traditions, religions, cultures, and philosophies dictate how a person should and should not behave regarding this heated subject. Most spiritual paths agree that sexuality is only a hindrance to the soul’s ascension to higher states.
This is because it’s typically believed that indulging in physical pleasures only feeds the physical vessel of the body, not the spiritual vessel of the soul.
While practicing complete celibacy is probably a stretch for most, we can all relate to the importance of exercising self-control and respecting ourselves and others. So modern yogis typically interpret brahmacharya to mean sexual restraint by having only one, committed, loving partner.
Similar to the third yama of non-coveting, aparigraha means freedom from all greed and desire. It’s a practice of not being possessive—of anything, whether that’s material objects or the people we love.
So aparigraha is a practice of becoming aware of our endless cravings and dissatisfaction and consciously choosing to renounce our egoic selves.
This is because the true Self—and that’s self with a capital “S”—is constantly satisfied. The true Self never needs anything or craves for more.
We so often take for granted the many blessings that we have in our ego’s constant search for more. So the best way to practice aparigraha is to find gratitude and reassurance in all that we do have and recognize unnecessary and frivolous desires.
The niyamas are the ethical observances laid out in the Yoga Sutras by Patanjali. There are also five distinct niyamas.
Saucha translates to purity or cleanliness. And the purity and cleanliness of saucha is both literal and metaphoric. Cleanliness and purity of body, mind, and spirit are all equally important to yogis.
The recluse yogis of the past performed extensive cleansing rituals on both their bodies and their minds. Some of these rituals have survived to our modern times. Practices like flossing, brushing your teeth, showering daily, fasting, and using a neti pot are all modern-day saucha practices.
But, of course, the yogis were not only concerned with cleansing the physical body. They were much more interested in purifying the mind and the soul. So they further applied saucha with cleansing practices like pranayama (or breathwork) and meditation.
Learn more about pranayama with Pranayama: Control Your Breath to Calm Your Mind
And we can further practice saucha by creating purity of mind through carefully watching our thoughts, intentions, and actions.
Santosha means contentment. And at first glance, this niyama seems very easy to observe. Be content. Contentment implies a state of steady happiness and fulfillment, a state in which we lack nothing.
But so often, we feel like we are lacking or we feel unhappy or unsatisfied. We always seem to be wanting something else in our constant strive toward reaching contentment. But, it always seems to elude us.
According to yogic philosophy, our true nature is inherently content and we move away from this true nature because of our attachment to our egos. In order to truly taste the sweetness of santosha, we must see past the veils of illusion, realize our true essence, and identify with our highest Self.
According to yogic philosophy, our true nature is inherently content.
We can do this by practicing meditation and feeling at peace with everything exactly as it is until we truly start to accept this inalienable truth. We can do this by practicing gratitude and stopping ourselves each time we feel disgruntled or unhappy by recognizing all that we have.
We can truly practice santosha by acknowledging that nothing outside of ourselves will ever bring us true happiness because happiness is an inside job.
Feel at peace with this Mindful Sensory Awareness to Calm and Soothe
Tapas literally translates as “burning,” but it is often described as austerity, self-discipline, or a burning spiritual passion.
The truth is that the spiritual path is not an easy one. It takes commitment, discipline, faith, and drive. There are many times when we falter and stray from the path. Sometimes, we give in to worldly temptations or we get angry and express our human emotions in a less than optimal way.
But as dedicated yogis, we always return to the path because of a burning spiritual passion. We can create a practice of tapas in any way that suits our own individual path.
Whether we cultivate a daily meditation practice or refrain from eating meat or sleep on a bed of nails, we can practice tapas by fanning the flames of our deep spiritual passion through self-discipline and austerity.
The niyama svadhyaya, or self-study, refers to both study of the spiritual scriptures as well as looking deeply into our own soul.
We can gain so much insight and wisdom from reading the teachings of others. We can explore their journeys, understand their advances, and learn from their setbacks. We can stand on their shoulders in order to see more clearly.
But svadhyaya also implies deep self-reflection. Studying oneself is wildly important. We need to look into the mirror of our own souls and understand who we are on the deepest level. There is no spiritual practice that exists without knowing your own spirit, so this practice is essential on the yogic path.
Through penetrating self-inquiry, we can start to uncover the internal knowledge and wisdom that we already possess. We can slowly begin to understand the nature of the human mind and discover our deepest sense of self.
We can practice svadhyaya by asking ourselves important questions like, “Who am I?” and “Why am I here?”
The final niyama, ishvara pranidhana, means surrender to the Absolute.
Whether you believe in an all-powerful, all-knowing god or you believe in the concept of love or the greater forces that drive the universe, or even if you believe in nothing at all, this principle simply requires surrender—an acknowledgement that you are not in complete control.
Any time that you forget to adopt this observance, simply look up at the night sky to remember where you are. Marvel at the mystical nature of your own existence. Marvel at the magic that surrounds you on every corner.
There is some form of divine intelligence that infuses everything, and to practice ishvara pranidhana, we humbly bow in awe and wonder of this infinite mystery. We surrender and let go of control to allow whatever will be to be.
The yamas and niyamas show us that things do not necessarily need to be as grotesque as they may appear to be considered immoral or unethical on the yogic path.
But these ethical guidelines were not created to make us feel bad about ourselves or our actions. They exist to make us, as yogis on a spiritual journey, think deeper about the way that we live our lives.
For each and every one of us, there is always room for self-reflection and improvement and the yamas and niyamas help us to do just that.
As a moral and ethical code of conduct, these 10 simple concepts can help us to live more fulfilling, honorable, principled, and yogic lives—if we have the courage and the strength to practice and maintain them.
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All Nomad Yoga teacher trainings dive heavily into the philosophy and history of the yogic tradition, including in-depth study of the yamas and niyamas as well as the entire eight-limbed Ashtanga Yoga path.