What Are the Yamas and the Niyamas?
The Yamas and Niyamas are the first two in Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga. Yoga, as Patanjali explains it, is a process the purpose of which is to still the mind. The eight limbs are categories of practices that, working together, aid in stilling the mind and allowing resolution of what is obstructing our awareness of the peace and bliss at the core of our being.
The Yamas provide guidance about how to regulate ourselves as we interact with the world in which we live. There are five Yamas: non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, continence, and non-possessiveness.
Ahimsa is the Sanskrit term that is translated as non-violence but there are subtleties in the original term not captured in the translation. Vyasa, the most revered and ancient commentator on the sutras, says Ahimsa is “non-animosity toward all living beings, all the time, and in every respect.” Other commentators say that ahimsa can be understood by looking at the world around you through a lens of love and compassion. Ahimsa is not just a restraint on words and action, it also includes thought. It is an attitude that filters how you see the life around you and influences how you choose to act in that world.
Patanjali emphasizes that the other Yamas are rooted in Ahimsa. Not having a refined sense of Ahimsa will make it more difficult to make progress with truthfulness, non-stealing, continence, and non-possessiveness.
Understanding the subtleties of the Yamas and letting them influence your approach to how you live your life is the first limb of yoga. Using the Yamas as a guide in life will bring benefit for anyone. Anyone practicing the Yamas will have a solid foundation for a wholesome life.
The Niyamas are different. Anyone who is not practicing yoga—engaging in yoga practices to still the mind and become more familiar with their inner being—will find understanding and acting on the Niyamas difficult. It is a challenging limb of yoga for yogis as well.
The Niyamas are described as Observances; they are purity, contentment, austerity—accepting but not causing pain, self-study, and trustful surrender to the divine (Ishvara).
Purity includes both our physical body and our mind. Keeping toxins out of our bodies and impure thoughts from our mind is the goal.
Contentment is accomplished by not desiring more than we have, requiring a strong grasp on non-attachment.
Austerity involves accepting the inevitable experience of pain in a human life. This requires regulating the tug of war between the good and the pleasant, between our discrimination and our desires, and between the forces of surrender and those of attachment.
Self-study is both intellectual and experiential. It involves reading sacred scripture and hearing the narrative of those who have gone before. It also involves meditating on a sacred mantra.
Trustful surrender to the divine (Ishvara Pranidhana) requires a comfortable, grounded acceptance of the divine as part of life. It need not involve the personification of divinity, or any particular god. It is sufficient to accept the truth that a higher reality is always with us, that we are part of a larger unfolding not bound by time.
Each of the Yamas and Niyamas is by itself a powerful practice. Mastering any of them will shift your life. Overlooking any of them will slow and possibly prevent progress. Collectively they form a foundation of wisdom for practicing the other limbs.