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

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, Director of the Kripalu Schools of Yoga and Ayurveda, 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.

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