Over 1700 years ago, the Indian sage Patanjali compiled the Yoga Sutras which became one of the foundational texts of yoga philosophy. In these teachings, Patanjali describes an 8-fold path leading to spiritual enlightenment and he offers guidance on how to live a meaningful and purposeful life. These are commonly known as the ‘Eight Limbs of Yoga’.

In the West, yoga is primarily known as a form of physical exercise; a way to increase flexibility, strength, and overall health. Some know it for meditation and relaxation, and some even for the chanting of mantras or selfless acts of service. What is clear though, is that yoga can be much more transformational than an occasional workout.

While yoga postures are very beneficial indeed and can lead to a healthier and more vibrant life, they are only one branch of the much larger yoga tree. Yoga postures (asanas) are one of the Eight Limbs of Yoga, the third in fact. Here though, we will focus on the first two practices of yoga as written by Patanjali called the Yamas and Niyamas.

The Yamas and Niyamas can be thought of as tenets, guidelines, or moral codes to live by. Deborah Adele, author of the best seller “The Yamas and Niyamas” (a fantastic read) describes them as jewels, rare gems of wisdom that give direction to a well-lived and joyful life.

The Yamas

The Sanskrit word ‘yama’ translates literally to ‘restraint’. There are five Yamas:

1. Ahimsa (Nonviolence)

Foundational to the other guidelines, nonviolence guides us to live together without causing harm to others or ourselves. This includes not doing physical, mental, or emotional harm as well as being kind to yourself and not engaging in self-destructive behaviours.

2. Satya (Truthfulness)

Truthfulness is essential to balancing nonviolence and they function in harmony as truthfulness prevents nonviolence from being an excuse for inaction, and nonviolence prevents truthfulness from becoming a weapon. The order of these guidelines is intention though as if there is ever confusion between nonviolence and truthfulness, nonviolence should take precedence.

3. Asteya (Nonstealing)

Stealing often arises from dissatisfaction and an outward gaze toward what is not rightfully ours. Not only can we be robbers to others, but also to our environment by stripping it of essential resources needed to sustain it, and to ourselves by neglecting opportunities to lead the life we really want.

4. Brahmacharya (Nonexcess)

This is only one translation of Brahmacharya, as it can also be translated as ‘walking with God’ or ‘celibacy’. The primary focus of this guideline is to manage our use of energy and to live within the limits of enough.

5. Aparigraha (Nonpossessiveness)

Grasping for material objects and people can lead to disappointment and unsatisfying baggage. Nonpossessiveness liberates us from greed and invites us to be conscious and let go of that which is no longer serving us to enjoy a life that is expansive and free. This can also manifest as cultivating detachment from outcomes and accepting the impermanence of life.

I like to think of living by the Yamas like clearing the cache or lightening your load. You may be able to sense more ease and joy at work, in your relationships, and a calmer state of mind.

The Niyamas

The Niyamas are more subtle qualities, translating literally to ‘positive duties’ or ‘observances’. The five Niyamas are:

1. Saucha (Cleanliness)

In striving for cleanliness or purity in our bodies, minds, and environment, we find ourselves closer to what really matters, the simple pleasures in life, and to connect with what is most important in the moment.

2. Santosha (Contentment)

No matter how hard we try, we cannot control what will happen to us or around us. Santosha encourages us to understand that peace is a state of mind. Contentment can only be found in the acceptance and appreciation of what is.

3. Tapas (Self-discipline)

Tapas translates literally to ‘heat’ or ‘catharsis’. This guideline invites us to burn off impurity, lean into positive change, and commit to consistency in our personal constructive habits. We can cultivate self-discipline in various aspects of life, such as a regular meditation, gratitude or movement practice. This could also involve setting and sticking to personal goals, fostering inner strength and resilience.

4. Svadhyaya (Self-study)

Self-study asks us to be present, without judgement, to our thoughts and realize that those stories create the reality of our lives. By releasing limited self-perception that are imposed by our ego can we uncover more about ourselves and the world around us.

5. Isvara Pranidhana (Surrender)

Surrendering is an invitation to sense and follow the underlying current in your life, to enjoy the ride, and to live in the present moment without necessarily needing to change what is. With this in mind, work to cultivate humility and acknowledge the interconnectedness with those around you.

Closing Remarks

Whether you avidly practice yoga or not, the Yamas and Niyamas are ways in which we can help ourselves and the world around us to become a better place. By incorporating these principles into our daily life, we can enhance your overall well-being and cultivate a more mindful and purposeful existence. Keep in mind that the Yamas and Niyamas are not strict rules but rather guiding principles that can be adapted to individual circumstances.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Yamas and Niyamas, I would highly recommend "The Yamas and Niyamas" by Deborah Adele. She dedicates a chapter for the exploration of each tenet, woven with practical examples and stories. I come back to them often and find it deeply grounding and gratifying to work on implementing these values a little (or a lot) more into my everyday life.

Thank you for reading! Please let me know if any of these really resonate with you in the comments and I’m looking forward to hearing how you incorporate your own values into your life.