A Beginner’s Guide to the Yamas and Niyamas
Yoga is more than bending, breathing, and meditating. These core principles can help you expand your understanding of yoga and yourself.
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
If you’re the kind of person who likes to have a plan in order to forge a path toward your ideal life, your yoga practice can undoubtedly help you on the journey. Centuries ago, the great sage Patanjali laid out a kind of map to help you chart your course to contentment. The yogi suggests not just asana and meditation but also attitudes and behaviors to aid your transformation.
At first glance, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras—short aphorisms written in Sanskrit—may seem esoteric and impenetrable. But the ancient manual has been translated and interpreted by many teachers over the decades. It’s worth taking a closer look at one or more of the translations because each contains essential advice for daily living.
“Patanjali has offered us guidelines that will allow us to have enhanced emotional and mental well-being and a more fulfilling and meaningful life,” says Joan Shivarpita Harrigan, a practicing psychologist and former director of Patanjali Kundalini Yoga Care. “The Yoga Sutra is specifically designed to lead to greater happiness and spiritual fulfillment for you and everyone around you.”
Following the Branches of the Eightfold Path
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, thought to have been written between the second century BCE and fifth century CE, outline an eight-limbed path for purifying the body and mind. (This is also called the Eightfold Path of classical yoga, or Ashtanga Yoga). The ultimate goal: to help practitioners cultivate a steady mind, leading toward everlasting contentment.
The yamas (social, ethical restraints) and niyamas (self-disciplines) are the first two stops on the path. These ethical principles guide how we relate to other people and how we take care of ourselves. The other limbs include postures (asanas), breath control (pranayama), withdrawal of the senses (pratyahara), concentration (dharana), meditation (dhyana), and absorption into the Divine (samadhi).
Yoga is more than just asana, says Nicolai Bachman, a Sanskrit scholar who is the author of The Path of the Yoga Sutras: A Practical Guide to the Core of Yoga. “It’s really a way of life.”
The core values of yoga
The five yamas and five niyamas that make up the ethical precepts, or core values, of yoga. They provide a recipe for living in the world with ease and integrity. Long before the West embraced sweaty asana classes and tight-fitting yoga pants, these principles were a deeply embedded part of yoga culture, providing practitioners with a philosophy for how to make their way through the world. Rather than being a supplement or an afterthought to yoga asana, they are the starting place of yoga—meant to be practiced before you do your very first Sun Salutation.
“The yamas are really about restraining behaviors that are motivated by grasping, aversion, hatred, and delusion. The niyamas are designed to create well-being for ourselves and others,” says Stephen Cope, the author of The Wisdom of Yoga. People sometimes think of them as yoga’s Ten Commandments, but they aren’t concerned with right or wrong in an absolute sense. “There’s no thought of heaven or hell. It’s about avoiding behaviors that produce suffering and difficulty, and embracing those that lead to states of happiness.”
What are the yamas and niyamas?
The five yamas ask practitioners to avoid violence, lying, stealing, wasting energy, and possessiveness. The five niyamas ask us to embrace cleanliness and contentment, to purify ourselves through heat, to continually study and observe our habits, and to surrender to something greater than ourselves.
Many of these principles have multifaceted nuances. For example, Bachman says, the meaning of tapas—purifying through heat—isn’t so much about sweating out toxins in a hot yoga class as it is about tolerating the heat of mental discomfort when one habitual pattern rubs up against a new, hopefully more beneficial, one. When Susanna Barkataki, author of Embrace Yoga’s Roots: Courageous Ways to Deepen Your Yoga Practice, studied satya, truth telling, she says “I started to understand how seeking truth could also involve self-inquiry. To discern the truth, we have to know ourselves deeply,” she wrote in an essay for Yoga Journal.
Because these principles were written thousands of years ago and once considered mandatory vows for any yoga practitioner, the yamas and the niyamas can be difficult ideas to market or embrace in a secular, contemporary society. But Deborah Adele, author of The Yamas & Niyamas: Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice, describes them less as rigid directives and more as reflective tools that allow us to deepen our self-awareness in yoga class and beyond.
“I understand the meanings of these concepts in different ways every time I study them,” says Adele. “When I first ran across the yamas and niyamas, my reaction was, ‘Well, I’m not violent and I tell the truth.’” But with more reflection, she realized that ills like violence, dishonesty, and stealing have subtler manifestations, too. For example, violence isn’t just firing a weapon; it may also arise in the harsh ways we treat ourselves, such as pushing into a potentially injurious pose to keep up or compete with classmates. Practicing the yama of non-possessiveness (aparigraha) could be interpreted as letting go of old grudges.
Practicing the yamas and niyamas can transform your life
Rather than thinking of the yamas and niyamas as a mandatory “to-do list,” view them as invitations to act in ways that promote inner and outer peace and bliss. They also provide a mirror in which to study your practice and your Self. Viniyoga teacher and yoga sutra scholar Gary Kraftsow says they represent the qualities of an integrated human being. You get there through practice, contemplation, meditation, and working to transform yourself.
“The path of practice begins with understanding and refining the different dimensions of who you are, and it unfolds progressively, not all at once,” says Kraftsow. “The whole goal of yoga is Self-realization, which can also be called freedom.” The yamas and niyamas give you infinite opportunities to truly transform your life.
Patanjali doesn’t tell you how specifically to “do” the yamas and niyamas—that’s up to you. But the promise is that, if you align your life with them, they’ll lead you to the higher calling that many of us aspire to: peace, abundance, harmonious relationships, contentment, self-acceptance, love, and meaningful connection to the Divine. These are considered the essence of happiness.
Here, we’ve asked prominent yoga teachers and philosophers to share their interpretations of each yama and niyama to help you make them a part of your path. (Sutra interpretations that appear throughout this story are taken from Bernard Bouanchaud’s book The Essence of Yoga.)
In yoga philosophy, ahimsa—often translated as “non-violence” or “nonharming”—is the opportunity to relinquish hostility and irritability, and instead make space within your consciousness for peace. “In that space, all the anger, separation, and aggression resolve themselves,” says Kraftsow. This allows you to let others be who they are, and to relate to the world in a whole new way.
To incorporate ahimsa into your life, look at all the attitudes you have that might be keeping you from feeling at peace. “I encourage students to notice how many times they have an enemy image of something—a neighbor, a co-worker, even the government,” says Judith Hanson Lasater, a renowned yoga teacher and the author of ten books, including A Year of Living Your Yoga. “Write down your five most negative thoughts,” she says. “These thoughts themselves are a form of violence.” Lasater recommends that you hold your negativity in your consciousness and step back from it a bit. Just noticing the negativity can help you stop feeding the thoughts and lead you toward peace.
“My favorite description of ahimsa is of a dynamic peacefulness prepared to meet all needs with loving openness,” says Charlotte Bell, a longtime Iyengar Yoga teacher and the author of Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life. “There’s a suggestion of a state of balance that can evolve, that meets each situation in an open and accepting way.”
Many interpretations of the Sutras promise that once you’re fully vested in satya, everything you say will come to be realized.
But be careful not to confuse your point of view with the truth. “You have to have integrity and humility to realize that the truth may be bigger than you,” says Nischala Joy Devi, the author of her own interpretation of the Yoga Sutras, The Secret Power of Yoga: A Woman’s Guide to the Heart and Spirit of the Yoga Sutras. “In each moment, you must ask yourself: Am I speaking the truth? Am I just giving my opinion, filtered through my mind and all my prejudices?”
Satya requires that you consider both the spoken and unspoken aspects of your words. You don’t want to mislead through omission; neither do you have to say everything that’s on your mind—especially if it’s hurtful. “Don’t gossip, even if the information you’re giving is true,” says Kraftsow. “Instead, speak only of the highest. Use your words to elevate the listener.” When you do so, you elevate yourself in the process.
Many spiritual seekers find that spending time in silence helps them notice the distinction between opinions and reality. Slowing down your internal chatter can help ground you in satya. “Silence is discriminative restraint,” says Cope. “You are able to examine the roots of speech on an inner level, which enables you to better control your gross outward communication.” You then establish a way of interacting with the world that includes both ahimsa and satya, both peacefulness and truthfulness.
Don’t steal, the Yoga Sutras say, and all good things will come to you. Because asteya is commonly translated to mean refraining from taking anything that is not freely offered, the first things most people think of are money, clothes, food, and other tangibles. But there’s more to asteya than what is found on the material plane.
“There are lots of things you can steal,” says Devi. “You can steal someone’s time if you are late. You can steal someone’s energy. You can steal someone’s happiness. You can steal someone else’s ideas if you represent them as your own.”
To invite asteya into your life, consider what you truly need and refrain from letting your desires persuade you to take more. Have fair trade be your mantra—not only in your shopping habits but also in all of your day-to-day interactions. Respect the time and energy of others, give credit where credit is due, and see if you can help build up the world’s kindness reserves by giving more than you take.
Brahmacharya: Energy Moderation
The most talked about interpretation of brahmacharya is celibacy. But you needn’t become a monk or ascetic to be a good yogi. Many people embrace a broader interpretation of this yama. “It literally means ‘walking in the way of God,'” says Harrigan. “It’s about preventing the dissipation of one’s energy through the misuse of the senses. It’s a personal energy-conservation program. When you practice brahmacharya, you are not letting the senses rule your behavior; you are not urge driven.”
Anything that causes turbulence in the mind and stirs the emotions might be seen as a violation of brahmacharya: overstimulating foods, loud music, violent movies, and yes, inappropriate sexual behavior. “Whatever disturbs the mind and body disturbs the spiritual life—it’s all one energy,” says Devi. “Brahmacharya asks you to consider how you spend it. Look at energy like money in the bank: If you have $100, you don’t want to spend it all right away so that you have nothing left. Become a good energy manager.”
Brahmacharya has applications in the physical practice, says Bell. “When you’re working with asana, you need to learn to regulate your effort so that you’re not pushing and forcing, which drains the life force,” she explains. “I’ll put my students in a pose and have them consider what they would have to do—or stop doing—to stay in it for an hour. Almost universally, their faces will relax and their shoulders will drop down, and they’ll find that they put energy into things they didn’t need to. Asana should be replenishing your energy, not draining it.”
Experiment with this practice on your mat, then take it into the rest of your life. No matter what’s going on—whether it’s being delayed for your next appointment by a long line at the supermarket, or nervously kissing a new love interest—ask yourself: Can I let go of my tension and relax into this moment?
Notice how the situation doesn’t need your stress to resolve itself. And by not giving so much energy to intense moments—by not squandering your life force—you can be more at ease in all moments.
Aparigraha can mean “non-hoarding” or “nongrasping,” and it can be a tough sell in this consumer culture of ours. But freedom from wanting more and more is just that: freedom.
“Aparigraha is the decision to not hoard or accumulate goods through greed but rather to develop an attitude of stewardship toward the material world,” Harrigan says. “Before you bring anything into your home, ask yourself: Do I need this for my role in life? As a parent? As a spiritual seeker? Or am I just accumulating stuff out of my own fear and greed?” If you don’t consider these questions, your possessions can take over. “Once you get so much stuff, you have to take care of and defend it,” Harrigan says. “You start to get attached to it and identify with it. It’s easy to start thinking you are your stuff, but the truth is that stuff comes and goes.”
The idea is: Just let it go. “If our homes are filled with old junk that doesn’t apply to us anymore, there’s no room for new energy to come in,” says Bell. That holds true for the nonmaterial ideas and attitudes you cling to as well. “If you are hanging on to old beliefs about yourself or your relationships, or clinging to a career that no longer feeds you, there’s no latitude to move in a different direction.”
To invite aparigraha, try a simple practice. “Acknowledge abundance and practice gratitude,” says Devi. “You don’t need more and more if you are grateful and feeling fulfilled with what you have in the moment.”
Saucha’s the first of the niyamas, the active observances. It involves keeping things clean, inside and out. “For me, [the concept of] saucha means both physical and mental hygiene,” says Cope. “You want to keep your thoughts uncluttered so you can feel free from afflictive emotions. You keep your body and environment in order, to create a sense of calm.” A mind trained by meditation has more complexity and orderliness. Physical orderliness can also affect the mind. So get rid of clutter, scrub your floors, simplify your life—all these are expressions of saucha.
But don’t get too hung up on the idea of literal purity. “When you work at purifying the body, you begin to understand that it will never be perfectly clean,” Kraftsow says. Patanjali says, “look more deeply at what the body is: The more you clean it, the more you realize that it is an impermanent, decaying thing. Saucha helps break up excessive fixation with your body, or the bodies of others.”
When you learn to dis-identify with the body, the Yoga Sutras suggests, you can get in touch with your essence—the part of you that’s pure and free from aging, disease, and decay. When you understand your true undying nature, it’s easier to stop striving for physical perfection and instead rest in joyful awareness.
Nearly every translation of Yoga Sutra II.42 interprets santosha as the greatest happiness. It is the underlying joy that cannot be shaken by life’s tough moments, by injustice, hardship, or bad luck. “Contentment is really about accepting life as it is,” says Bell. “It’s not about creating perfection. Life will throw whatever it wants at you, and you ultimately have little control. Be welcoming of what you get.”
You can practice this on the mat quite easily, by acknowledging your tendency to strive to do a perfect pose and accepting the pose that your body can do. “There’s no guarantee that you’ll get enlightened when you do a backbend with straight arms, or touch your hands to the floor in Uttanasana (Standing Forward Fold),” says Bell. “The process of santosha is relaxing into where you are in your pose right now and realizing that it is perfect.” Lasater compares santosha to the deep relaxation possible in Savasana (Corpse Pose). “You can’t run after contentment,” Lasater says. “It has to find you. All you can do is try to create the space for it.”
If you release your mind from constantly wanting your situation to be different, you’ll find more ease. “It’s not fatalism; it’s not to say you can’t change your reality,” says Cope. “But just for the moment, can you let go of the war with reality? If you do, you’ll be able to think more clearly and be more effective in making a difference.”
During those times when you don’t feel content, just act for one moment as if you were. You might kick-start a positive feedback loop, which can generate real contentment. It might feel absurd when your inner landscape isn’t shiny and bright, but the simple physical act of turning up the corners of your mouth can have amazing effects. “Smile,” suggests Devi. “It changes everything. Practicing smiling is like planting the seed of a mighty redwood. The body receives the smile, and contentment grows. Before you know it, you’re smiling all the time.” Whether you’re practicing asana or living life, remember to find joy in the experience.
Tapas: Right Effort
You can translate tapas as “self-discipline,” “effort,” or “internal fire,” and the Yoga Sutras suggest that when tapas is in action, the heat it generates will both burn away impurities and kindle the sparks of divinity within.
“Tapas is the willingness to do the work, which means developing discipline, enthusiasm, and a burning desire to learn,” says Bell. “You can apply tapas to anything you want to see happen in your life: playing an instrument, changing your diet, cultivating an attitude of loving kindness, contentment, or non-judgment. In yoga, it’s often seen as a commitment to the practice. You figure out what you can do, and do it every day. If it’s only 10 minutes, fine—but make that time sacrosanct.”
Connect to your own determination and will. “Holding a posture is tapas,” says Cope. “You are restraining yourself from moving and are watching what happens. In this way, you build the capacity to tolerate being with strong sensation, and you get to answer the question: What is my real limit? And you develop the skill of witnessing, which is one of the most important skills of classical yoga.”
The effort you use when you engage tapas is directed toward cultivating healthful habits and breaking unhealthful ones. “Asana is tapas, but if you become an asana junkie, then your tapas is to stop practicing asana,” says Kraftsow. “One goal of tapas is to stop anything you do mindlessly because you’ve become habituated.” When you use your will to overcome your conditioning, you free yourself from the many unconscious actions that cause suffering. Yes, discipline is actually a path to happiness.
Happiness is our nature, and it is not wrong to desire it. What is wrong is seeking it outside when it is inside. To tap into the wellspring of happiness that lies within each of us, try dedicating yourself to svadhyaya, the art of self-study, of looking within and asking the eternal question: Who am I?
The Yoga Sutra suggests that the study of the Self leads you toward communion with the Divine. It’s a lofty aim, but you can develop svadhyaya as you move through everyday life. “Some traditions see study as a contemplation of the ultimate. Others see it as study of how you are: your functions, habits, and the ways your karma is playing out,” explains Cope. “For most of us, the most fruitful practice will be looking at the Self. Are you on time and orderly? Or are you sloppy and late? What makes you mad or happy? How do you feel about that person on the next mat who’s invading your space?”
Develop the capacity to find the answers without chastising or lauding yourself in the process. “Svadhyaya is a skillful and systematic investigation of how things are,” says Cope. “When you practice self-observation, you begin to uncover and address the unconscious patterns governing your life.” When you can notice, but not judge, what you are doing and how you are feeling in every moment, you open a window to empathy for yourself and gain the stability you need to extend it to others.
Bell recommends another aspect of svadhyaya: the study of sacred texts, such as the Yoga Sutras, the Bhagavad Gita, Buddhism’s Heart Sutra, or the Bible. “That’s where the wisdom side develops,” she says. “If you are only looking at the Self, it is easy to lose perspective. When you read the texts in service of svadhyaya, you’ll read something that really resonates, and you’ll begin to understand that…all beings experience these things.” Study helps you understand the universality of life experiences and thereby increases your compassion for yourself and others.
Ishvara Pranidhana: Dedication to the Highest
Few dispute that the last of the niyamas, Ishvara pranidhana, is the pinnacle of spiritual practice. Yoga Sutra II.45 says that liberation—the highest happiness—comes only from a love of, communion with, and surrender to, God.
To embrace Ishvara pranidhana, it helps to understand what “God” is. “You don’t have to believe in an anthropomorphic representation of God to accept that there is a divine design, a benevolent essence in the universe,” says Harrigan. “It’s about offering oneself to the divine matrix. It’s letting our own holy essence guide our actions and catching the sacred power of life. This higher power is there for all of us, Patanjali says. That is the promise of the Yoga Sutra.”
The yamas and niyamas don’t have to be practiced in a linear way. It’s possible to capture, say, ishvara pranidhana in any moment, Harrigan says. “You can always pause to look for the higher essence in any situation,” she explains. “You can ask yourself, ‘What is the best goodness here?’ You can imagine that you have your own wise inner adviser, and ask, ‘If I were to set aside my own desires and aversions and concerns for comfort, what would you advise for me?’”
Bringing the Yamas and Niyamas Into Your Practice
The benefits of practicing the yamas and niyamas may not seem to be as instantly gratifying as a good asana class, but they can be deep and long lasting. Contemplating them can shine the light of awareness on parts of ourselves that we don’t always notice, and help us live in a way that doesn’t cause harm, which in turn allows for less regret and a more peaceful mind, explains Adele.
So how can you incorporate these time-tested moral and ethical codes into your own life and practice? There are many ways to embody them. Start with poses, mudras (hand-and-finger gestures), and mantras (a sacred utterance repeated continuously), designed to help you embody and explore all ten yamas and niyamas. “Practicing the ethical codes from every perspective helps fortify the concepts within the body and the mind,” says Coral Brown, an internationally recognized vinyasa yoga teacher and psychotherapist, who developed the practices below. “And what you practice, you become.”
Each of these practices embodies a yama or niyama, helping you to reflect on the unique lessons it provides. The asana is accompanied by a mudra, meditation, and mantra that focus you on the subtle and not-so-subtle ways each yama or niyama plays out in your life. Hold each pose, with its mudra, for three to five breaths as you mindfully chant (aloud or internally) its accompanying mantra. Do each practice on its own or link them together as a sequence.
Yoga Practices for the Yamas
Brahmacharya (maintenance of vitality)
Yoga Practices for the Niyamas
Tapas (purification through discipline)
Ishvara Pranidhana (devotion to a higher power)
Explore more about The Yoga Sutras at YogaJournal.com
Teaching the Yamas in Asana Class
Teaching the Niyamas in Asana Class
Get to Know the Eight Limbs of Yoga
Yoga: Ancient Heritage, Tomorrow’s Vision
Please note that we independently source all of the books and products that we feature on yogajournal.com. If you buy from the links on our site, we may receive an affiliate commission, which in turn supports our work.
About our contributors
Hillari Dowdle is a former Editor-in-Chief and long-time contributing editor for Yoga Journal. She is a writer, editor, producer, author, and content strategist who writes frequently about health and mind, body, and spiritual wellness.
Kate Siber is a freelance journalist and a correspondent for Outside magazine based in Durango, Colorado. She writes about a range of topics, including science, the environment, social issues, mental health, and the outdoors for magazines, newspapers and websites.