In this paper, you will learn the Yamas and Niyamas in Sanskrit and English. How each of these principles is applicable in daily life? What role Yamas and Niyamas play in the Scope of Practice and Code of Ethics for professional Yoga therapists? How will the Yamas and Niyamas influence my approach to practicing yoga therapy? The Yamas and Niyamas are foundational to all yogic thought. They are guidelines, ethical disciplines, or pieces of wisdom that you can think of, like the yoga commandments. This set of guidelines helps us recognize moments of self-deception, such as observing what sort of communication style we are using with others. It teaches us tools in which to distinguish between cause and effect or Karma. Yamas are restraints, disciplines, attitudes, and behaviors (like our attitude toward things and people “outside us”- our external world). Niyamas are our inner observances and how we relate to ourselves – our self-care (Adele, 2009).
According to Doug Keller in The Heart of the Yogi, there were traditionally ten Yamas and ten Niyamas. However, we will focus on the main five in each category widely used today (Keller, 2004). The Yamas are the guidelines to help us interact with our external world, social environments, relationships, and ethics code. The Yamas are Ahimsa (non-violence), Satya (truthfulness), Asteya (non-stealing), Brahmacharya (non-excess), and Aparigraha (non-possessiveness). The Niyamas are our code of personal conduct; it is about self-regulation and maintaining a positive environment in which to grow. The Niyamas are Saucha (purity), Santosha (contentment), Tapas (self-discipline), Svadhyaya (self-study), and Ishvara Pranidhana (surrender) (Adele, 2009).
Ahimsa (Sutra 2:35) at its root means finding the courage to maintain compassion towards yourself and others in all situations (Satchidananda, 2005). When we don’t meet our body “where it is” on the mat that day, we are violent toward our body. We are no longer listening to the messages that it is trying to send us. Our body speaks our mind; violence and awareness do not coexist. How we treat ourselves is how we treat those around us. If we are a taskmaster and critical with ourselves and then feel as though we are being light-hearted and forgiving with others, we are fooling ourselves. We can’t be critical of ourselves and forgiving with others. If we can’t be emotionally safe and loving with ourselves, others can never feel safe. The pop-culture allegory would be like Pigpen in the Peanuts cartoon. There is always a “cloud of dust” around him. People can sense this cloud of harm in actions or thoughts. You can’t expect to purchase orange paint at the store and hope it will be yellow at home when you put it on the walls (Adele, 2009). I believe Ahimsa helps us build bridges with people by being compassionate, loving, and patient. It nourishes our students. However, this doesn’t mean we should be a doormat. The most compassionate people have boundaries for themselves. Gandhi is just one teacher whose whole life was based on this one principle.
Satya (Sutra 2:36) Patanjali describes it as truthfulness (being honest with ourselves and others) (Satchidananda, 2005). In our practice, when we buy a pose by selling Ahimsa and Satya, it is too expensive. We do not need to be cafeteria practitioners taking only what we are good at and leaving the rest behind or compromising our truth. Our body is ever-changing. We should love it and be honest about where it is that day without apology or excuses about parts of the body that are healing or unflattering. By letting go of our competition with ourselves and others, you can let go of your masks by being authentically you (bold, brave, courageous, loving, honest, and compassionate) (Adele, 2009). When we are vulnerable, it is a language that connects us and allows us to be empathic. We can’t just organize our stuff in a closet and close the door forgetting about it because, at some point, the door bursts out. We are imperfect beings. Be careful not to confuse truth with ‘brutal honesty’ or compassion with ‘being right. Love is a higher vibration than truth and should be your guide in directing you on how to use your truth. By not letting the ego get in the way of the heart, we can recognize when we require being right rather than the more important issue of the feeling of others. Sharing our knowledge with love, compassion, and authenticity feels better than causing harm to others, making them feel wrong or “less than.”
Asteya (Sutra 2:37), while it consists of “non-stealing,” is rooting out the subconscious beliefs of “lack” and “scarcity” that cause greed and hoarding in various forms (Satchidananda, 22005). When we approach our practice from scarcity and hold back thinking that we won’t have enough energy to do the entire procedure, we are not operating at our total capacity and trusting that we have the required energy to do our practice. If you attain what you want through honest means, you will have no fear. Taking time to use objects in the right way, managing our time correctly, and cultivating a sense of completeness are ways to practice Asteya. How often do you steal from yourself? We steal our time of rest and reflection because we see it as a status symbol or self-worth validation. As we allow the demands of others and their perceptions to mold our images, it steals our uniqueness (Adele, 2009). When was the last time you were on an electronic device instead of being present with the person in front of you?
Brahmacharya (Sutra 2:38) moderation of sensual pleasures (mental, vocal, or physical). What is the perfect limit for us, and why do we move into excess? Learning to tame the mind to distinguish between what the body needs to fulfill our health or dharma and why is making up what we need. We are complex beings, and many times, we satisfy the surface level needs rather than pausing and taking a moment to view what our soul needs for a holistic approach to fulfillment. It is neither obsessing nor repressing that satisfies our desires.
Aparigraha (Sutra 2:39) is non-clinging or simplicity (Satchidananda, 2005). When we take away our stuff (our possessions), and we face ourselves, it isn’t always comfortable, but it is a place of inspiration that makes room for growth to come. When students look at someone else in the class and want to be them, and they judge their lives against their peers, it creates comparison and jealousy. Rather than the student looking inward and working on their own body in their capacity, loving and accepting where they are in that movement, everyone has a starting point in which they leave denial and start to grow awareness and understanding. It is okay to have possessions in life as long as we stay connected to our internal self (our soul). It is when we use the controls to feed spiritual starvation that we get off of our path… remaining connected to our inner desire or our soul’s dharma code and allowing life to flow and trust our journey, determining what is enough for us in all dharma roles that we play (such as child, sibling, partner, a teammate at work, parent, etc. Remember to check in to see how many rocks we are carrying around with us and learning to let go to detach and respect the circle of life (Adele, 2009).
Shaucha (Sutra 2:40-41) is purity and, at the root, concerned with keeping different energies distinct and keeping the sanctity of the power around us (Satchidananda, 2005). The sage Manu says, “Water purifies the body; truthfulness the mind; true knowledge the intellect and the soul is purified by knowledge and austerity.” Keeping an orderly environment ensures that our body is cleaned and free of strong body odors… by coming into our practice and lining up with our peers rather than scattered about the room, which allows our energy to flow and keeps the room clean.
Santosha (Sutra 2:42) being content with what we have already attained and wanted what we already have, accepting what is, and making the best out of everything (Satchidananda, 2005). We may not be ready yet for what we are attempting to do, and that doesn’t mean we are wrong or “less than,” instead of accepting, we did our best, and tomorrow we will show up and do the same. Approach each asana with an effort of ease when we practice gratitude and grace by approaching each obstacle with love over fear. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves of the adage “accept that which we cannot change, change what we can and have the wisdom to know the differences.” Every day I ask for the wisdom to know which question to ask, the ability to be quiet enough to hear the answer, the courage to accept the solution, and the boldness to take action without fear.
Tapas (Sutra 2:43) is the wiliness to do what is necessary to reach a goal with discipline (Satchidananda, 2005). I think of this in a personal practice where wise effort can be discerned as the difference between someone who fantasizes and someone on a path toward their dreams. It takes effort to bear fruit in our physical world, yet we need to balance Tapas with Santosha (effort with contentment). If we try to force things, we end up harming them. If we are pushing an asana, we create gripping muscles and joints versus meeting our body where we need it to be with effort and ease and allowing circulation and health to thrive. Sometimes we have to underwhelm ourselves so that we will build more desire to reach our goal. I am reminded of the story of the Phoenix… of burning off some layers and emerging as something new so that we can fully live our soul’s dharma… our life’s mission.
Svadhyaya (Sutra 2:44) is studying oneself through careful observation (Satchidananda, 2005). Pausing during our overstimulated life and finding our breath, relaxing, and feeling, watching and allowing ourselves to “be.” At these times, we can journal and meditate, and almost organically, we can start to see our inner wisdom source guide us to our truth. We are being aware of our spirit of exploration within and acknowledging the sacred power it holds.
Ishvara-Pranidhana (Sutra 2:45) is something bigger than ourselves (Satchidananda, 2005). It is about showing up in our life, doing our best, and leaving the rest up to the higher power that we believe in, and allowing our energy to create a legacy that is for a higher purpose than ourselves—always asking which option will help the most people keeping self-actualizing as the goal in life and adjusting all of our actions to serve this goal in some way. When we allow growth to happen, it brings awareness to our being, fully expressing our authenticity of “self” and celebrating this energy.
Adele, D. (2009). The Yamas & Niyamas Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice (pp. 21-175). Duluth, Minnesota: On-Word Bound Books LLC.
Keller, D. (2004). The Yama and Niyamas. In The Heart of the Yogi: The Philosophical World of Hatha Yoga (pp. 141-146). South Riding, Virginia: Do Yoga Productions.
Satachidananda, S. (2005). Sadhana Pada Portion on Practice. In The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (11th ed., pp. 131-151). Buckingham, Virginia: Integral Yoga Publications.