By Leah Sugerman, Summersalt yoga teacher
Most of us know yoga as a physical exercise class to help us gain strength and flexibility. But, yoga’s roots run much deeper. The most widely accepted text of yogic philosophy, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, outlines the Ashtanga yoga path. Ashtanga means eight-limbed and it is essentially an eight-fold path to enlightenment. The first two limbs of this hierarchical path are the yamas and niyamas.
The yamas (restraints) and niyamas (observances) are essentially a yogi’s code of conduct. Clearly outlining what one should and shouldn’t do, these five restraints and five observances are typically described as the practice of yoga “off the mat.” Often in yoga practice, asana (postures) seems to take the spotlight, leaving the rest of the philosophy and practice at the wayside. However, when we explore, practice, and embody these ten moral and ethical codes, we can truly live our yoga both on and off the mat, unleashing the true power of its potential.
If we examine these ethical guidelines, we can see how they are extremely applicable not just to our yoga practice, but to our everyday lives as well.
The Yamas (Restraints)
Ahimsa – nonviolence or non-harming
Inherent in yogic philosophy, nonviolence and non-harming can have many interpretations and meanings. While the implications may seem obvious, violence can arise in unexpected ways. Despite the fact that the majority of us aren’t committing homicide, we can unintentionally become violent by treating our loved ones or even ourselves poorly. But, we can apply the principle of ahimsa to our everyday lives in simple ways—by sparing that harmless spider we find in our bedroom, carefully choosing our language (even when we’re angry), adopting a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, or swearing off negative self-talk.
Satya – non-falsehood or truthfulness
Being truthful is not always convenient or easy, but deep down, we always know that it is right. Removing falsity from our lives creates a refreshing atmosphere of transparency and clarity. Falsehood doesn’t necessarily mean flat out lying, but perhaps, withholding the truth or misleading. This can also mean lying to ourselves. We can apply the concept of satya to our lives by living with openness, vulnerability, and integrity.
Asteya – non-stealing or non-coveting
Stealing doesn’t necessarily have to manifest itself as robbing someone’s wallet or car. Stealing can also mean stealing someone’s time or even someone’s happiness. Coveting means dissatisfaction with what we already have and actively craving more. We often believe that the grass is greener on the other side, but the truth is, the grass is greener where you water it. So, to practice asteya in our everyday lives, we can—instead—focus on gratitude and giving to create generosity of spirit.
Brahmacharya – celibacy, chastity, or sexual restraint
Traditionally, yogis renounced their worldly possessions, their sexuality, and even their identities. They went to live as recluses in forests and caves. This extremism doesn’t necessarily coincide with the way most modern yogis wish to live their lives. But, brahmacharya remains an essential ethical restraint. Often translated in a modern context to mean “sexual restraint,” brahmacharya implies control over sexual desires and impulses. In everyday life, we can practice this by only exchanging sexual energy with one, committed, loving partner, and regarding this exchange as sacred.
Aparigraha – non-possessiveness
Similar to non-coveting, aparigraha means freedom from greed and desire. We often think “if only this, then I’d be happy.” Whatever “this” doesn’t matter—it can be a tropical vacation, a better job, a loving partner, a nicer apartment, and so on. But, the formula always remains the same. If this, then that. And it’s a dangerous cycle to fall into; because once “this” actually happens, we replace it with a new “if.” The best way to practice aparigraha is to find gratitude and reassurance in all that we do have and recognize unnecessary and frivolous desires. When we acknowledge how utterly absurd we are to desperately wish for the latest iPhone when people are literally starving to death, our practice of aparigraha brings everything into perspective.
The Niyamas (Observances)
Saucha – purity or cleanliness
The purity and cleanliness of saucha is both literal and metaphoric. Cleanliness and purity of body and mind are equally important to yogis. The recluse yogis of the past performed extensive cleansing rituals on both their bodies and their minds. Today, we practice daily cleansing rituals such as showering and brushing our teeth which is definitely a part of saucha. We can further this cleansing by practicing pranayama (breath work) to clear stale prana (life-force energy) from our bodies. We can also create the purity of mind by carefully watching our thoughts, intentions, and actions.
Santosha – contentment
Contentment is hard to come by these days. Similar to the concept of aparigraha, we always seem to be wanting something else in our constant strive toward reaching contentment. Yet, it always seems to elude us. According to yogic philosophy, our true nature is inherently content and we move away from this true nature because of our attachment to our egos (which we mistake as ourselves). Because of this, it is believed that santosha already is intrinsic within us; we just need to open ourselves up to its existence. We can do this by practicing meditation and feeling at peace with everything exactly as it is until we truly start to accept this inalienable truth.
Tapas – austerity, self-discipline, or burning spiritual passion
We must fan the flames of our burning spiritual passion to remain on the devotional path of yoga. Creating self-discipline in the form of faithfully maintaining our daily yoga and meditation practice, adhering to a specific diet, taking time every day for self-care, or altruistically volunteering every week are all forms of tapas. Anything in which we create challenging but attainable guidelines to adhere to on our spiritual journey are tapas—they all help us fuel the fire of our sacred passion.
Svadhyaya – self-study
Studying oneself is wildly important. We need to look into the mirror of our own souls and understand who we are on the deepest level. There is no spiritual practice that exists without knowing your own spirit so this practice is essential on the yogic path. We can practice svadhyaya by studying spiritual texts and we can undoubtedly learn a lot about ourselves through the practice of meditation. The self-reflection that occurs through such questions as, “Who am I?” or “Why am I here?” offer incredible insight into our own beings. Through honest contemplation of these questions and others like them, we can grow to better understand ourselves, all of humanity, and our role within it.
Ishvara Pranidhana – surrender to the absolute
Life unfolds mysteriously. Often, we have no control over what happens. And, while this can sometimes be frustrating, it is also incredibly beautiful. More often than not, we need to let go of the reins and let life just happen. There is divine intelligence in everything and to practice ishvara pranidhana, we bow in awe and wonder to this mystery. We surrender and let go of control to allow whatever will be to be. Que sera, sera.
The yamas and niyamas show us that things do not necessarily need to be as grotesque as they may appear to be considered immoral or unethical. These set guidelines were not created to make us feel bad about ourselves or our actions. They exist to make us, as yogis think deeper about the way that we live our lives. For each and every one of us, there is always room for self-reflection and improvement and the yamas and niyamas help us to do just that. As a moral and ethical code of conduct, these ten simple concepts can help us to live more fulfilling, honorable, principled, and yogic lives—if we have the courage and strength to practice and maintain them.
If you’d like to dive deeper into the philosophy of Yamas and Niyamas we recommend some of these reads: