If you’re diving a little deeper into yogic philosophy and the teachings of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra and the eight limbs of yoga, then you are bound to come across Yamas and Niyamas along the way.
They are part of the elusive ‘eightfold path of yoga’, so yea… they’re pretty crucial in understanding the yogic way of life.
But what are they exactly?
And what do they mean?
It can all get a little confusing when trying to decipher exactly what the ancient teachings are telling us, let alone trying to translate them into a modern-day context. After all, this is an ancient practice and has been at the forefront of the daily life of many yogis for centuries. There’s got to be something valuable in all this, right?
Spoiler alert…..there is and you deserve to know about it.
Let’s dive right in together and break down exactly what the Yamas are and why we should be applying them in our lives starting today.
What is a Yama?
First things first…
The word ‘yama’, literally means ‘bridle’ or ‘rein’, which pretty much sums up what these teachings are about.
A yama is a kind of rule or restraint or discipline.
Think of it as a ’strong recommendation’ from yogi’s past. There are five yamas and each is advised by Patanjali to be followed or observed in order to live a pure and ‘yogic’ way of life. If there was a yoga equivalent to the 10 commandments or a governed law, the Yamas would be it.
But don’t worry. They aren’t so much restrictive as they are a prescription for wellness, peace, and happiness.
When exploring yoga’s ethical practice, the yamas serve as a guiding light, teaching us new ways of being at peace in this world (and in daily life).
It’s like, “Hey, you wanna be happy? Try these things.”
What is the difference between Yamas and Niyamas?
While yamas are restraints or a restriction of actions, Niyamas are positive actions to be taken to promote a wholesome lifestyle, according to yoga philosophy.
Niyamas are recommended habits or observances which are said to help us live a more spiritual existence. These are generally habits that are concerned with bettering our own health and wellbeing.
Basically, yamas are the ‘don’ts’ and the niyamas are the ‘dos’ of yoga’s 10 commandments.
The ultimate goal of following both the yamas and niyamas is a spiritual awakening of sorts. Or, in the words of Patanjali and all yogis that came before him, “samadhi”.
In this major way, yoga and all of the eight limbs of yoga are a spiritual practice. In fact, the yams, the niyamas, asana, pranayama, and pratyahara (the first 5 limbs) are all in preparation for the last 3 limbs, which is where the spiritual work begins.
These actions will inevitably have an impact on our energy and how we show up in the world, which can only be a great thing for the people around us too!
What Are The Five Yamas?
What are these special rules and regs I’m gonna be following to the letter from here on out as a modern yogi?
The moment of truth is upon us…
1) Ahimsa, Non-Violence
Now, you may recognize this fella as a popular wrist tattoo favored by vegans across the spiritual globe….(I know you’ve seen at least one)
Because it literally means ‘non-violence’ in Sanskrit.
And I’m not talking just in the physical sense. It’s an all-encompassing word meaning nonviolence or non-harm to any living creature, including ourselves.
Negative thoughts, gossiping, and self-destructive behavior like drug abuse and reckless spending also fall into the category of violence and nonviolence.
It kind of goes without saying, but this Yama promotes being careful with our words, refraining from physical violence, practicing compassion and living in a way that won’t affect others negatively.
Ahimsa is a practice strictly followed by Buddhist, Jainists and Hindus and is considered a basic requirement to live a moral life.
Turns out the vegans were right…..whoooo knew??
(Me, I knew)
So to begin your spiritual practice through yoga, begin with your own mind by practicing compassion on yourself and others.
2) Satya, Truthfulness
Numero dos in our Yama list brings us to talking about honesty and truthfulness. ‘Satya’ is the Sanskrit word for truth and this yama promotes truthfulness in our words and actions.
Diving a little deeper, this means that we need to avoid getting caught up in falsities and distorting our realities by the way we speak and express ourselves.
I know what you’re thinking….how can I express myself in a truthful way AND stay on Instagram?
The struggles of our generation are real.
Seriously though, this yama is an important practice that enables us to speak freely, nurture our relationships with others and tap into our intuitive minds.
Just, you know, do it truthfully.
That doesn’t mean that we suddenly have the freedom to speak our mind exactly as it produces thoughts. Because ahimsa.
So find a way to be truthful and compassionate if you want more peace in your life.
3) Asteya, Non-Stealing
This is a biggie. Asteya, in short, means non-stealing. I’m not just referring to material things here. Of course, it is encouraged to not take what isn’t yours physically but this is also referring to not taking other people’s time and energy.
(Someone send this to my ex-boyfriend please)
All jokes aside, it’s such an important one to consider. So often we move through life without realizing that we are being complicit in theft or exploitation. We do or say things that contribute directly to this so-called ‘stealing’ including taking things away from ourselves. Perhaps we feel unworthy or lacking in confidence and so we rob ourselves of experiences or refrain from taking chances.
Asteya, for this reason, is important to practice alongside our first Yama, Ahimsa. By not stealing (in all senses of the word), we reduce our chances of harming.
4) Brahmacharya, Chastity
This one is a little controversial.
It literally translates as ‘chastity’ which of course immediately infers sexual restraint.
And in a modern-day context, this just doesn’t fly for some people.
However, it is actually so much more than that. There is a lot of emphasis on marital fidelity and abstaining from sexual relations generally but it also refers to being able to do anything in moderation.
It is a way to practice observing restraint from any impulses or obsessions as a means of conserving energy and putting ourselves in a better position to achieve a higher spiritual existence.
So yeah, sure, restrain for acting out on your sexual energy on a whim. But it also means to not waste your energy, in general. Your energy is precious and your personal practice of yoga is designed to cultivate that energy for the good of the entire world, so don’t waste it on idle gossip or out-of-control Netflix binges.
This Yama is an important reminder not to form attachments to material things or anything that doesn’t contribute to the higher good.
5) Aparigraha, Non-Coveting
Our last Yama goes hand in hand with Brahmacharya. Literally translated as ‘non-coveting’, it is all about ‘letting go’. This means, releasing ourselves from distractions whether this is possessions, relationships, people or routines that don’t serve us.
This means letting go of your expectations, comparisons, and any control that you may (want to) have on things and people around you. This could be as big as letting go of resistance to something in your life or the expectation that someone will love you in return.
Or as little as letting go of the expectation that nobody will cut you in line at the grocery store today (cuz someone might and that’s okay too).
This Yama is said to allow the yogi to realize and see for themselves that they are the only thing they need. Without physical possessions or illusionary attachments, we are able to connect on a deeper level to our true selves.
And it’s a whole lot easier to reach at least contentment when we stop clinging onto expectations in daily life.
So there we have it, my friends. The yamas laid out for all yogis to see.
With all of these ancient teachings, I say take them with a pinch of salt and do what you can.
Awareness of these ‘rules’ as recommendations for a healthier lifestyle and happier life is the first step in incorporating them into yours. It’s something I cover in all of my online courses, which have been recommended as one of the top online yoga teacher certification courses 🙂 (read more)