What are the Yamas and Niyamas

What are the Yamas and Niyamas


The first two limbs of Ashtanga are often the subject of internet memes that allude to there being “more to yoga than just asana”… but really, what are they? Does anyone really understand these two concepts?


In the latter part of the second chapter of the yoga sutras of Patanjali, the Yamas and Niyamas are discussed in a basic but succinct manner. Each Yama and Niyama is broken down and defined. They are defined as:  


·      Yamas:

o   Ahimsa; non hurtfulness

o   Satya; truth

o   Asteya; non-stealing

o   Brahmacharya; spiritual resolution of desires

o   Aparigraha; non-possessiveness

·      Niyamas:

o   Sauca; purity

o   Santosha; contentment

o   Tapas; intensity in spiritual practice

o   Svadhyaya; learning and practice of personal mantra

o   Isvara pranidhana; aligning with the seer within



Credit:  Yoga Sutra Workbook of the American Sanskrit Institute.



Rather than redefining these individua aspects of Ashtanga Yoga in a diatribe, lets analyze them for what they are; a way of life that is conducive to the aims of yoga practice. Because yoga is nothing but holistic, it is one complete unified practice, lets allow ourselves the freedom to pursue the meaning of these vital aspects of yoga as a lifestyle and path, rather than analyze them for the sake of academic discretion.


On a historical note, there is a record of a system of yoga that existed prior to the advent of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, and thus before the method of Ashtanga Yoga had gained solid ground as the prominent method. This method has six limbs and neglected a moral or ethical system, that Ashtanga clearly defines in the Yamas and Niyamas. Scholars have noted that this older system of yoga is very similar to the final six limbs of Ashtanga Yoga.


What are the Yamas


The Yamas are at the forefront of the Ashtanga Yoga system because they are more than observances, they are internal ways of being… these are pillars by which to live your life if you are to succeed in yoga. While there are theories that ascert that by practicing asana over and over again, that some virtue will be invariably discovered in yoga, but we can use simple reasoning to deduce that the Yamas were put ahead of asana for a reason; without them the yoga aspirant simply toils away. Lets take a closer look at what these things are.


The Yamas are perspectives. When you wake up in the morning; what is it that you wish to accomplish in life? What is the altruistic reason for your existence? Maybe you know and maybe you are less certain, but for a yogi the Yamas are ingrained in our daily routines.

  1. Ahimsa

When we make a business deal, or go to the park, we do so in the way that does the least harm. There is a utilitarian/karmic reason for this, but also a less pragmatic one in that we simply believe this is the way to live life to be aligned with yoga, and it is the way in which to live that will bring us closer to the goals of yoga (chitta vritti nirodaha, etc.). By non-hurting or non-violent action we can remove the attachment to our physical form through moving from our spirit and not merely from our animal instincts. By living in a way that is non-violent, we will be leaving a smaller karmic footprint and we will also be assisting others in their pursuit of spiritual awakening. We will, essentially, be giving yoga to the world through our actions.


While nonviolence is most aptly described, perhaps, by Mohandas Gandhi, who is practically a saint in this regard, we can have our own definitions. Many people say that to eat meat is violent, and to practice an aggressive yoga practice like that style of yoga taught by Sri K Pattabhi Jois could be considered violent, while others say that to drive a car is violent. It is difficult to look at individual acts and give them a grade of non-violence. Ultimately, the level of non-violence a person lives with will be dictated largely by their place in life. A military general has a much larger capacity to inflict violence, and thus, their decisions could be more more violent (and thus potentially much more non-violent) than someone who does not have others in their control. Furrther, what is more violent one day than the next can change due to our continuing learning of yoga, and our perspective evolving; certainly, non-violence is closely connected to Isvara Pranidhana in that we are required to surrender to our conscience, and our more inner being, and allow our actions to flow from this place of holism and unversalism, rather than the individualistic and more selfish source of the flesh.



Next up: Satya

Luke BaughComment