Yoga’s Ethical Guide to Living: The Yamas and Niyamas

Posted on July 1st, 2013 by in Conscious Living, Yoga


“By firmly grasping the flower of a single virtue, a person can lift the entire garland of yama and niyama.” —Swami Kripalu

The yamas and niyamas are yoga’s ethical guidelines laid out in the first two limbs of Patanjali’s eightfold path. They’re like a map written to guide you on your life’s journey. Simply put, the yamas are things not to do, or restraints, while the niyamas are things to do, or observances. Together, they form a moral code of conduct.

The five yamas, self-regulating behaviors involving our interactions with other people and the world at large, include:

  • Ahimsa: nonviolence
  • Satya: truthfulness
  • Asteya: non-stealing
  • Brahmacharya: non-excess (often interpreted as celibacy)
  • Aparigraha: non-possessiveness, non-greed.

The five niyamas, personal practices that relate to our inner world, include:

  • Saucha: purity
  • Santosha: contentment
  • Tapas: self-discipline, training your senses
  • Svadhyaya: self-study, inner exploration
  • Ishvara Pranidhana: surrender (to God)

Micah Mortali, a Kripalu Yoga teacher and manager of the Volunteer Program, says it’s important to address character first, so you can support your physical practice. “If you start to do a ton of asana or pranayama but haven’t addressed that you are violent, depressed, or anxious, it’s going to come out,” Micah says. You need that strong spiritual foundation to contain your newfound energy.

“Without that foundation, you might inadvertently violate other people’s autonomy,” says Sally Kempton, a nationally recognized meditation teacher and Kripalu invited presenter, referring to sexual and financial scandals involving prominent yoga teachers.

Perhaps the best way to learn the yamas and niyamas is to live them, as Gandhi did. Swami Kripalu taught them at length, teaching that if you practice one, the others naturally follow. Sally explains you can approach the teachings in a very cut-and-dry way, or more subtly. For example, ahimsa, or non-violence, can be interpreted as refraining from hurting another person. But it can also mean not speaking violently about others, by refusing to gossip. Others practice nonviolence toward animals by becoming vegetarians. Gandhi’s practice of ahimsa incorporated all three.

Bramacharya, the process of moderation, can show up for some as not eating a bag of chips. For others, it means managing their energy by abstaining from practices that sap it in unhealthy wayslike drinking excessive amounts of coffee or having casual sex. Some translate bramacharya as celibacy, a vow yogis have traditionally taken when entering an ashram.

Sally says most people find one of the 10 practices particularly challenging. For her, it’s surrender. Micah says he comes back again and again to satya, or non-lying, and being straightforward in his communication. He says that studying the yamas and niyamas have taught him how to navigate his everyday interactions, especially when it comes to having difficult conversations. Through his practice, he says, he’s learned to be gentle yet direct. Finding that balance is just as much a practice as mastering Handstand or Tree pose.


About Jennifer Mattson

Jennifer is a journalist, writer, yogini, and kirtan junkie. A former volunteer resident at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, she’s a former broadcast news producer for CNN and National Public Radio. Her reporting and writing have appeared in The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, USA Today and the Women’s Review of Books.

9 Responses to “Yoga’s Ethical Guide to Living: The Yamas and Niyamas”

  1. Mona Gable July 1, 2013 4:03 pm #

    I just started doing yoga a few months ago, and found this guide really helpful. Thanks so much.

    • KripaluEditor July 3, 2013 8:24 am #

      Hi Mona!
      Thanks for taking the time to comment. Enjoy your new-found yoga practice!
      Kim from Kripalu

  2. CLBM July 29, 2014 5:05 pm #

    This is a beautiful overview. Thank you.

    • KripaluEditor July 29, 2014 10:31 pm #

      Thanks for reading, CLBM!

  3. sandeep August 18, 2014 12:27 am #

    awesome description
    We have bind these qualities in our five senses and in our five elements for harmony

    • KripaluEditor August 18, 2014 7:44 am #

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Sandeep!

  4. john calabria January 29, 2015 9:27 pm #

    With all due respect, Ahimsa is not harming, period. To compartmentalize which people, or which beings are deserving of that respect is missing the point. Ahimsa and the peace Mantra Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu ask us to extend our circle of compassion out to all beings. Realizing this reality might change what you have for dinner. Peace, -j

  5. yo mamas ex March 30, 2015 10:19 am #

    who the hell cares

  6. Kim Lawrence June 20, 2015 7:49 pm #

    I had a nap and woke up with an epiphany: Yoga, from a non-dual perspective, means “union” with ALL things. When you have achieved “Yoga” nothing takes you away from it. We all need to purchase things for survival, sometimes just for fun, and we all know when we are purchasing for the wrong reasons, there is a contraction inside us, that is when you leave yourself, or unhook from your yogic state. We all know when we are practicing yoga with ahimsa (non-violence), santosha (contentment), aparigraha (taking only what one needs) and satya (truthfulness) and we know when we aren’t. B.K.S. Iyengar says “God is found on the median plane.” (I’m like to use “Yoga” sometimes in place of the word “God”) not to much, not too little. True, non-dual yoga rejects nothing! It is wonderfully freeing to let go of the tyranny of should’s and shouldn’t and just live a bright full life adjusting when the pinches of leaving yourself arise. You can be deep into the “yoga industry” or in the quiet of your bedroom practicing before the kids wake up and still be “doing yoga”. Good luck to all of yogis trying to find their way through this type of misunderstanding, this type of conditioning and good luck to all of you yoga teachers and yoga teacher trainers. Thank you Dawn for sharing this with me and helping me come to a deeper realization ; ) I love the last bit too, it is such a joy to have a teacher who shows you how to trust your own inner guidance and make the practice your own.

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