The Yamas and Niyamas are the first and second limbs of the ‘8 Limbs of Yoga’ – Outlined in Patanjalis Yoga Sutras. These are guidelines that allow us to develop emotional and mental wellbeing and a more fulfilling, meaningful life. There are many amazing teachings in these sutras, including the eightfold path of classical yoga:
- Yamas (Restraints)
- Niyamas (Observances)
- Asanas (Physical Postures)
- Pranayama (Breath Control)
- Pratyahara (Sense withdrawal/nourishing the senses within)
- Dharana (Concentration)
- Dhyana (Meditation)
- Samadhi (Absorption into the Divine)
Western society has taken the asana part of yoga and run with it. We’re all probably familiar with practicing postures, maybe pranayama, and a little bit of meditation. But there’s so much more on offer to support our wellbeing and connection with Self.
The Yamas and Niyamas provide an outline for living in the world with ease. Rather than thinking of them as another thing to add to your to-do list, how about viewing them as an invitation to act in ways that promote inner and outer well-being/contentment.
If you’ve been to one of my classes, then you know that I invite a lot of self-exploration, and working with these ‘limbs’ is another way to bring that in so that we can take our yoga off the mat and into our every day lives.
There is no ‘right or wrong’ way to do this, it’s simply about aligning your actions with your highest desires.
Ahimsa – Non-violence
- This is the basic act of being kind. This Yama asks us to restrain against violence or harm towards others.
- Notice negative thoughts towards yourself (This is often the most common form of violence but one that is rarely thought of)
- Watch your actions, speech and thoughts – how might they cause harm to yourself or others?
- Bathe your life in kindness – towards yourself first, and watch the effects spread naturally out to others.
Satya – Truthfulness
Sat: That which is
- This yama asks us to be sincere and authentic so that all our actions line up with our values.
- This is where you may have to realise that the truth may be bigger than you.
- Are you being truthful with your words? With yours thoughts? With your actions?
- What is your truth? Are you being influenced by those around you? By social media? By external forces?
Asteya – Non-stealing
- This may seem pretty obvious. Don’t steal. But what comes to mind when you read this? Don’t shoplift, don’t steal objects from others etc. What about stealing other people’s time? With gossip, with running late, with taking over conversations? You can steal peoples energy, someone’s happiness, someone’s ideas.
- How are you stealing from yourself? Binging on Netflix? Doubting your capabilities? Playing small?
- How are you stealing from the earth?
- We steal from ourselves when we compare ourselves to others, when we are not present in this moment, when we look outside of ourselves for answers from others.
- What if we went into each moment wondering what we can offer, what we can put in, rather than what we can get out of it?
Brahacharya – Energy Moderation
Brahma: The Divine, essential truth
Char: To move, to engage with
- This used to be thought of as celibacy, nowadays there’s a broader interpretation of this Yama. It’s about preventing energy leaks through the misuse of the senses.
- These energy leaks might be excessive social media consumption, excessively loud music, violent movies etc.
- The aim is to not expend our energy needlessly.
- It’s of great importance on the mat during your asana practice – are you holding on too tight, are you pushing too far in order to ‘get somewhere’ – Soften, find ease, settle in.
- This yama simply asks you to look at where you’re putting your energy and if it’s being put to good use.
Aparigraha – Non-grasping
Gra: To grasp/hold
Pari: From all sides, anything that is nearby.
- In times of change, our instinct is usually to hold on tighter, to cling on to the known as if it will protect us.
- What is it that you can’t let go of? A thought about yourself or others? A job? Your perception of your body? What we grasp to can take many forms.
- Are you accumulating stuff? Are you hoarding?
- Are you attaching yourself to your items and starting to identify yourself with your belongings?
- Are you holding on to old beliefs about yourself? Old memories? Clinging to certain ideals?
There’s no space to move, develop or adapt if you’re still holding on to ‘how it was’.
Niyamas - Observances
Saucha – Cleanliness
Saucha stems from the root word purus: Purity.
- Housekeeping for the mind – Take a look at the people who nourish you, or those who are toxic. Practice forgiveness, release anger and betrayal, and emotional weight that is no longer needed. – As we do this, as we de-clutter our minds, we might find that life becomes a little more straight forward, less distracting and more authentic.
- This is about keeping your mind and your space uncluttered.
- Relates to cleanliness of your body and surrounding environment and also your thoughts and intentions.
Santosha – Contentment
Sam – Complete
- This is the underlying joy of life. Not needing life to be perfect, but trying to accept life as it is.
- Can you let go of the war with reality and simply rest in it – however it is.
- How often do you think ‘I’ll be happier when….’. Placing conditions on our life like this can waste so much energy. Santosha is an inside job that asks us to ride the waves of life and to try to look for the sweet spots within each experience, good or bad .
Tapas – Self-discipline/right effort
Tap: Heat, flame, cleanse.
- This Niyama speaks about the willingness to do the work. You can apply tapas to anything in your life: changing your diet, learning an instrument, developing a meditation/yoga practice.
- Directing your energy into what is essential in life.
- To change, evolve, or grow we must practice. Whatever that practice is for you. We have to show up for ourselves. The actions we take today are affecting our futures.
Svadhyaya – Self-study
- This is the practice of getting to know yourself better.
- Exploring the Self without judgement (A BIG one that we cover in classes)– How am I today? How is my body? And maybe on a deeper level, what are my deepest desires? What makes me happy? What is happening in this moment, what’s my reaction to it?
- When you notice but don’t add a judgement, you open up to empathy for yourself which can then extend to others.
- Examples of this can be meditation, mindfulness, therapy, study of philosophical texts.
- The way you practice yoga is the way you practice life. Are you constantly striving to get deeper, to do more? Or are you able to settle into stillness and simply observe your experience in this moment, and the next, and the next.
Ishvara Pranidhana – Surrender to the Divine
Ishvara : A God of your own understanding (God, a deity, our higher self, nature, or divinity within)
Pranidhana: To surrender
- This niyama asks us to surrender. Not to give in but to maybe allow ourselves to be nudged in a certain direction for our greater good.
- When we can redirect our energy away from any personal dramas and view the ‘bigger picture’, when we can soften and say ‘I accept’, then we are practicing this last niyama.
I love these concepts and have found that since introducing the exploration into my life that certain experiences have changed due to the awareness. Maybe when I was holding on too tight to an expectation I had, or when I fall back into believing I'm the same person I was a few years ago, with the same capabilities.
I would love to know which one you resonate most with, and which one you may struggle with.
So much love x