Eight Limb Path of Yoga – Yamas and Niyamas

In our previous post, we went through a brief overview of the Eight Limb Path of Yoga, the yogic way of life outlined by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras, the “textbook” of yoga.  If you missed that post, check it out here!  

The first two steps on the Eight Limb Path of Yoga are the yamas and niyamas. They help us come to right relationship with ourselves and others.  They are about cultivating positive energy in our lives as it relates to the way we treat ourselves, and the way we treat other people. 

The yamas and niyamas allow us to show a sense of respect and love for the life force that created us. They are essentially a yogi’s code of conduct and are the perfect examples of rules that are really, really good for us. 

The yamas are things we want to avoid or reduce in our lives. They deal with our interaction and communication with the outside world.
The yamas are things we want to avoid or reduce in our lives. They deal with our interaction and communication with the outside world.

Yamas – The Five Moral Restraints

Ahimsa – Nonviolence

Ahisma is much more than refraining from harming others.  It’s about seeing our connectedness as humanity, and our oneness at a spiritual, energetic level.  Ahisma encourages us to see others as our brothers and sisters, and to appreciate that we’re all in the human struggle together.  This appreciation spurs natural compassion as we aim to refrain from harming at the level of thought, word and action. 

Satya – Truthfulness

As with all of the yamas, there is much more to truthfulness than the word suggests.  The obvious interpretation of this is not lying to others.  This puts us in right relationship with them in that regard and fosters positive relationship energy. 

But this yama also refers to being truthful with ourselves.  This could mean addressing our denial of something that has made our life difficult, internally or externally.  Or it could mean recognizing that our emotions and fleeting thoughts often lie to us, and that to identify with them is to identify with something other than our true selves. 

Asteya – Nonstealing

Asteya addresses greed and asks us to look at our need to steal.  What are we missing in our lives or within ourselves that causes greed, what is the root cause?  That’s where this yama helps improve our lives.  As we look at our greed using the satya, we can see where we need healing. 

Brahmacarya – Moderation

Moderation can be practiced both on and off the mat.  In asana, we practice moderation by listening to our bodies and knowing when we’ve pushed them too far.  If you find yourself sustaining yoga-related injuries, it is a good sign you are not practicing brahmacarya on the mat. 

In our daily lives, moderation can be practiced in just about anything.  Some obvious ones are food and alcohol, but there are so many areas in our lives we may indulge against our body’s best wishes.  The key to this yama is acknowledging that overindulgence is usually a sign of a deeper need for healing.    

Aparigraha – Nonhoarding

Aparigraha is similar to asteya in that it addresses greed, but aparigraha deals with our ability to let go.  It teaches us to understand that the Universe will always provide, and that we actually receive more when we let go.  The concept with aparigraha is that we should let things flow to us, then through us.  Only then can we be open to receive new blessings and pass on the blessings we’ve received to others. 

The niyamas are things we want to cultivate in our life. They mainly concern the way we treat ourselves, and the way we connect with our higher power and our Self.

Niyama – The Five Observances

Sauca – Purity

Purity can be practiced at the levels of thought, speech, and action.  Sauca encourages us to notice when we’re thinking negative or harmful thoughts, about ourselves or others, and to redirect.  In speech, we recognize that our words can either help or harm. 

Even simple things, like saying ‘hi’ and ‘thank you’ to the person checking us out at the grocery store, even though they’re buried in their phone, are examples of pure speech. 

At the level of action, this niyama touches many aspects of our lives, such as what we choose to put into our body, and even our sexual conduct. 

Santosa – Contentment

Contentment can be a difficult concept for goal-oriented people.  Although having goals for the future can be a healthy practice, this niyama asks us to be content right where we are, with a disregard for the future based on the understanding that we’ll always be okay.  Santosa teaches us that essentially, happiness is our choice.  If we can look at our present circumstances, regardless of what they are, as exactly where we need to be in our journey, we can appreciate both our struggles and our times of bliss. 

Tapas – Zeal, Austerity

Tapas could also be interpreted as self-discipline, where we focus our energy on something that we believe will bring about positive change in our lives.  Discipline can often have a negative connotation, so the word devotion is of better use here.  An excellent example of tapas is a regular asana practice.  We believe asana will help our minds and bodies, so we dedicate time to it.  With tapas, we embrace our curiosity about yoga beyond the mat, and we make personal healing and growth a priority in our lives. 

Svadhyaya – Self-study

In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali says, “Study thyself, discover the divine.”  The idea of this niyama is that we come to a place where we become curious about ourselves and anything that might be causing unnecessary trouble in our lives.  Similar to a body scan at the beginning of meditation, we scan aspects of ourselves, like our thoughts and habits, and see where we are not in line with our true selves. 

The Sutras talk much about “chitta vrittis”, or the fluctuations of the mind.  With svadhyaya, we become aware of the ways in which we harm or hinder ourselves because of our thoughts, emotions, or patterned behaviors.  To have a clearer picture of where we’re at gives us a clearer path toward self-discovery and self-acceptance. 

Isvara-pranidhana – Surrender to the Divine

The previous niyamas are all about ourselves individually.  That changes when we get to isvara-pranidhana.  In this niyama, we begin to see ourselves as part of a whole, and recognize that a higher power, regardless of our belief system, is all around each one of us.  Surrendering does not mean waving a white flag; it means totally letting go of ourselves in the sense that we will be much better taken care of in the hands of our Source. 

Final Words

There is a reason that the yamas and niyamas are the first two steps on the Eight Limb Path of Yoga.  Only when we are in right relationship with ourselves and others can we progress on the path to enlightenment.  Only then will we have the tools necessary for deeper levels of meditation, reflection, and understanding. 

At their core, the yamas and niyamas are about mindfulness in the way we interact with the world around us.  This is an essential foundation for the rest of the limbs on the Eight Limb Path of Yoga. 

Next week, we’ll discuss what are arguably the limbs most recognized: Asana, or the physical postures of yoga, and pranayama, breathing techniques used to direct prana, or life energy. 

At Inspiring Actions, the concepts of the Eight Limb Path of Yoga are at the very essence of what we do.  Our studios in River Falls and Hudson, Wisconsin, as well as online, offer an overall goal of finding our inner calm, and from that state of mind, go into the world to make it a better place.  We’d love to have you on the path with us!  Check out our studio; you are welcome here! 


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