The wise rishis who gave us yoga knew that without moral backbones, a yoga practice would never get us very far. And so, they gave us the five yama and five niyama. These 10 principles feel similar to the ethical codes that many of us learned as kids. For me, they parallel the Catholic church’s moral theology under which I grew up; but, having shed religion, they fit a whole lot better in my adult years. They’re now the foundation of my own morality, and they can benefit anyone and everyone who’d like to advance on their spiritual path.
The yama are codes of conduct and the niyama are disciplines for yoga. They are step one and step two in Patanjali’s Ashtanga yoga: the eight-limbed path that lays out a logical progression for yogic advancement. They help us navigate our interactions with others and how we approach our spiritual practice. In essence, the yama and niyama help us to live virtuously.
Here is a brief summary of each yama and niyama, and why you'll want to apply them to your life on the spiritual path.
Yamas & Niyamas' Purpose
Every action creates a reaction. This is the law of karma. If our actions and the intentions behind them are not dharmic, or morally correct, negative reactions will come to pass. The yama and niyama give us a clue as to what is right and wrong. A yogi is always mindful of his/her actions because he/she understands that karma binds him/her to the cycles of life and death. With a solid code of ethics guiding our actions, we stop creating negative karma and grow closer to enlightenment.
(For more on this yogic law of nature, try The Truth About Karma and How to Handle It.)
Patanjali understood that kundalini can be easily manipulated through asana and pranayama. A kundalini rising can make us feel like we’ve made some advancement on the spiritual path. However, we need basic morality in place for a kundalini awakening to stick. Otherwise, we can’t maintain or even deal with such a powerful surge of energy.
This is the purpose of the yama and niyama. Unless we have our ethics sorted, we cannot possibly get close to enlightenment. And so, we have to first learn the self-restraint taught under yama.
First and foremost, there is the principle of ahimsa, or non-violence. We’re not to harm anyone (including ourselves) or anything: physically, verbally or mentally. As we all know, words carry great power and can cause deep suffering to others. Our thoughts also carry great power and even if an action is positive and our intention behind it is negative, the impure intention creates negative karma.
(To get started practicing this important yogic principle, try Ahimsa: The Number One Yama of the First Limb of Yoga.)
Thirdly is the principle of asteya, which literally means non-stealing. This is not limited to not taking what isn’t ours, but also refers to taking from others without giving anything in return.
For example, I recently found a $100 bill on the street. Thinking back to this yama, I left it there. It wasn’t mine and I certainly didn’t earn it. To pocket the money would have been the wrong thing to do.
The fourth principle is Brahmacharya. In the strictest sense, Brahmacharya is celibacy. This may fit austere yogis, but for a common person, it means approaching sex in a non-obsessive, non-lustful way and with one partner.
The final yama is aparigraha, or non-collection. It is the opposite of greed and discourages us from taking or accumulating more than we need.
While the yama deal more with our behavior in society, the niyama have more to do with personal conduct.
The first niyama is saucha, or cleanliness. It encompasses personal hygiene, cleanliness of our surroundings, purity of our food, and purity of our thoughts and emotions.
The second is santosha, or contentment. This niyama encourages us to be happy with what we have. It does not infer laziness, as we’re still encouraged to work to meet our needs.
The third is tapas, translated as "austerity" or "strict discipline." Tapas encourages us to become less dependent on things and outside comforts. This is a must for a yogi. Without willpower, the spiritual path is all too difficult.
(To make it easier, here's more on Tapas and the Discipline of Yoga.)
Finally, the last niyama is ishvara pranidhana. It encourages us to always be aware of God, or the Divine. Nothing is done through our efforts alone, and this recognition eliminates ego from our actions.
Yama & Niyama: Your Moral Guidebook
The yama and niyama are mostly quite obvious principles. Nonetheless, they’re very helpful to study and to treasure as the moral backbones of a spiritual practice. Whenever I find myself in an ethically challenging situation, I come back to the yama and niyama for guidance. I hope that now you can, too.