While many people practice yoga to increase their flexibility and build muscle, yoga is much more than just a physical practice. Postures, or asana, are just one of the 8 limbs upon which yoga is built. These 8 limbs outline how to live a meaningful life according to Patanjali, the sage who wrote the yoga sutra. Yamas and niyamas are the first two limbs of yoga, outlining moral practices, spiritual beliefs, and guidelines for interacting with the world around us. Yogis can incorporate these ideas into their asana practice and into their lives.
The Yamas and Niyamas
If you are interested in learning more about the yamas and niyamas, here is a breakdown of the first two limbs of yoga!
The 5 Yamas
The yamas are ethical standards and moral practices yogis live their lives by. These ideas encompass values with which one can live a happy and righteous life. Patanjali said these are 5 values yogis should practice their thoughts words and actions. The 5 yamas are:
1. Ahimsa – Nonviolence
The first yama, Ahimsa, speaks to nonviolence in thoughts, words, actions. Ahimsa means refraining from violent acts in your life. In a larger sense, this idea encompasses compassion for all living beings, including yourself. Many yogis will incorporate this yama into their practice by being kind to their bodies and not being too hard on themselves if they are struggling with a pose or flow. This idea also speaks to sharing kind words and thoughts with yourself and those around you!
2. Satya – Truth
Satya means living truthfully and honestly with others and with yourself. On the mat, yogis may practice satya by being honest with themselves about their strength and limitations. There are also many ways to practice satya off the mat! You may try being more mindful of your truth and goals and taking some time to think about your honest thoughts and desires. Some yogis will also practice this in relationships by being open about what they are feeling and sharing their love with their biggest supporters.
3. Asteya – Non-stealing
Asteya translates to “non-stealing.” While this yama speaks to literally not taking other people’s things, it also has a larger message. This idea addresses stealing in the sense that you are not wasting time and resources. Some ways to put this yama into action include choosing sustainable products to conserve natural resources and being mindful of how you use your own time and other people’s time.
4. Brahmacharya – Moderation, Right use of energy
People interpret Brahmacharya in many different ways. The overarching idea of this concept is consuming things in moderation and avoiding excess and greed. Some yogis interpret this idea to mean celibacy or, more generally, control over your body and impulses you may have. A third way to interpret this yama is as an effective use of energy. This can be as simple as taking the most efficient route to work and being mindful to not waste your own and other people’s time.
5. Aparigraha – Non-greed, detachment
The fifth yama, Aparigraha, encourages yogis to avoid the desire to be greedy and instead be grounded within themselves. This value enables practitioners to embrace the art of letting go and move away from things that plague them. Incorporating Aprigraha into your life may mean being generous, moving away from toxic and ambivalent relationships, and finding ways to forgive yourself and others.
The 5 Niyamas
Yamas and niyamas go hand in hand. While yamas focus on your internal thoughts and actions, niyamas are focused on how you interact with the world. These tenants are based on spirituality, self-discipline, and observance in your physical yoga practice and in your life as a whole. The 5 niyamas are:
1. Saucha – Cleanliness
The first niyama is centered around maintaining cleanliness and purification in your life. This idea speaks to having clean physical spaces, avoiding unhealthy habits, clearing your mind, and more. Yogis may practice this niyama by making time to clean their homes and workplaces, thinking about the foods they are eating, and clearing their minds through mindfulness and meditation.
2. Santosha – Contentment
Practicing Santosha means finding happiness with our lives and avoiding comparing ourselves to others. Rather than yearning for what others have, this niyama helps yogis be content with their lives. You can practice santosha by celebrating the things that make you happy and finding appreciation for the positive things in your life.
3. Tapas – Self-Discipline
Tapas is the niyama yogis practice when they push through things when they get hard and find the motivation to get things done. Also translated as “the burning desire to better ourselves,” practicing tapas helps yogis do the things they need to get done in order to reach their goals. This can be as small as stepping onto your mat even when you feel tired to taking a leap and going back to school even though you know it will be challenging.
4. Svadhyaya – Self-Study
Svadhyaya is the niyama that helps yogis turn inward in order to improve their lives. This practice encompasses reflection and coaching in order to become better and make positive change. Yogis can do this in a number ways: it can be as small as asking your yoga teacher for feedback on your poses to doing a large-scale evaluation of your career and finding ways to do your job better.
5. Ishvara Pranidhana – Devotion
The final niyama can be interpreted in a number of different ways. Devotion, or “surrendering to a higher power” as it is often translated means giving your heart to the things that you believe in. Some people do this by means of religion and devoting themselves to their higher being. Other people will devote themselves to their hopes, goals, and pursue happiness in ways that are meaningful to them.
Understanding yamas and niyamas, the first 2 of 8 limbs of yoga, can help you deepen your practice and enrich your life. To explore how you can incorporate these ideas into your practice check out our thoughts on how yamas can shape your yoga practice!