Yoga thinking: Yamas and Niyamas

Although many of us come to yoga through asana (the physical movement associated with yoga) the yogic lifestyle is much more than that. Yoga is a gateway to spiritual awakening, allowing us to higher our vibration, physically shift energy around the body, and live a highly conscious life.

Although yoga, meditation, journaling and breath work are all practices, they are merely gateways to the higher self. No practice is the one and only way, or the truth itself, rather it reveals the truth.

And what if the truth hasn’t been revealed to you yet? What if you (spoiler alert: like all of us) struggle to reconcile your material existence with the spiritual realm? Or struggle to know how to behave in a material world that often feels so corrupt and backwards?

Well, this is where the Yamas and Niyamas come in as a helpful guide…

The Yamas And Niyamas

The Yamas and Niyamas feature on the eight-limbed path, as the bedrock of the realisation of yoga as detailed by Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras. If you’re looking to reach a heightened state of awareness, and want to behave in ways that align with this goal, then the Yamas and Niyamas act as a great guide to understanding how to live a peaceful and compassionate life.

The Yamas regard how we should treat other beings, and the Niyamas regard how we should treat ourselves.

The Yamas Are:

  • Ahimsa Non-Violence

  • Satya Truthfulness

  • Asteya Non-Stealing

  • Brahmacharya Moderation

  • Aparigraha Non-Hoarding

The Niyamas Are:

  • Saucha Cleanliness

  • Santosha Contentment

  • Tapas Self Discipline

  • Svadhyaya Self Study

  • Isvara-pranidhana Devotion

Interpretation of the Yamas and Niyamas

The Yamas and Niyamas are pretty straightforward to understand, but sometimes pretty hard to put into practice. However, for Patanjali, these 2 steps are the pillars of any yoga practice. According to his philosophy, before you even press into your first downward facing dog, you should be trying to live in accordance with this moral guidance. Although they are not commandments or rules, they are considered a guide to protecting the wellbeing of ourselves and others in the physical realm.

Here’s my interpretation of them, I encourage you to have your own. Each individual will resonate with some more than others depending on your moral strengths and weaknesses. The goal of the assessment is not necessarily to follow them all to a T, so don’t think of them as rules or a to-do list. Rather, we should think of them as a path to self-realisation. Simply by assessing them in your own way (possibly with your journal to hand!) you are taking the first step to living a more conscious life.

My Interpretation Of The Yamas

Ahimsa Non-Harm

For me this one feels pretty easy on the surface, but when I dig a little deeper it becomes harder. Of course, on a surface level I’m not causing harm to others. Well, certainly not any violent harm.

However, upon inspection it becomes apparent that every day we’re confronted with opportunities to do harm to other beings. Whether that’s through making throwaway bitchy comments, getting road rage and swearing at a fellow driver, or simply thinking negative thoughts about a person.

Negativity is a form of violence to both ourselves and others, and holding negative thoughts in our consciousness does harm to others. For me, this realisation was a hard one to come to terms with. I thought “what can I do if I have negative thoughts about a person?! That’s not my fault”.

Sure, it might not be your fault but it is your responsibility to change if you want to embrace the fullness of life in all its colour and wonder. Personally, I have found daily meditation is one of the best ways to bring awareness to this and change the quality of our thoughts.

Satya Truthfulness

Someone wise once said “before you speak ask yourself if what you are going to say is true, is kind, is necessary, is helpful. If the answer is no, maybe what you are about to say should be left unsaid”.

This is the essence of Satya. For me, it’s not just about speaking the truth, but also knowing within your own mind what thoughts are opinion, what thoughts are ego-centric and what thoughts are worthy of bringing into the world. It’s about using your communication skills to only speak of the highest, and reject that which is untruthful.

Asteya Non-Stealing

Don’t steal from others. This is pretty straight forward, however we must also note that stealing includes things like time, intellectual property, ideas, energy etc. The list goes on. We must be sure not to steal anything from another, whether that is on the material or spiritual plain. Asteya for me is about cultivating an attitude of giving rather than taking, and being sure never to take something that is not meant for us.

Brahmacharya Moderation

My teacher taught me that brahmacharya is about walking the path of Brahman or being more God-like. Often this gets interpreted as meaning that we should adopt a monk-like lifestyle that doesn’t place too much emphasis on the material world. Often celibacy is considered central to this lifestyle.

I personally do feel like abstaining from sex is a path that will keep your energy more balanced, and restrict your desire to live an urge-based lifestyle. However, in the modern world very few people want to live this way and that’s fair enough. For me, I think Brahmacharya is about striving for moderation in all things - noticing the power of our own energy and that of others and seeking to protect it. Having intention with where we place our energy, and being conscious of where it may be imbalanced is brahmacharya for me.

Aparigraha Non-Hoarding

Non-hoarding can also be understood as non-grasping. For me, this one becomes harder when I consider the things I ‘want’. Non-hoarding is not just about not being greedy and taking more than we need, but also about cultivating an attitude of gratitude and abundance. It is about changing our internal dialogue from one that is ‘I don’t have enough and I need xyz’ to one that says ‘I have plenty and x would be a bonus’.

My interpretation of the Niyamas

Saucha Cleanliness

Clean space, clean body, clean mind, clean company. These are the four things that I think of when it comes to this Niyama. The Niyamas are about how we treat ourselves, and how we behave in our own space. Keeping a clean space helps us live more wholesome, less cluttered and stressful lives. Having a clean body keeps us safe and is crucial to self-care. A clean mind means noticing our negative thoughts and putting them right, as well as being mindful of what kind of content we consume (social media, I’m looking at you). Clean company is one that often goes unnoticed but I find to be crucial to the good life - those we allow to enter our consciousness can have a profound effect on us so it’s important that they are good eggs.

Santosha Contentment

Contentment isn’t happiness, but joy. It’s about accepting the fullness of life and being genuinely present and grateful for each moment that we get to spend in our physical body. Contentment is about bringing awareness to every activity and being okay with it. Instead of resisting the present moment, or wishing that it were different, contentment is pure acceptance of the fullness of life.

Tapas Self Discipline

Tapas means heat or internal fire, and it perfectly describes what self discipline is. Finding our inner fire isn’t always easy, but if we want to live a good life we need to ensure that we discipline ourselves. This will be different for each person depending on their goals, but for me it involves things like getting out of bed on time in the morning, ensuring I workout, ensuring I eat well, and get enough sleep etc. The goal of tapas is to free ourselves from that naughty little voice in our head that tells us to just do what we want and to cultivate the one that has our best interests at heart.

Svadhyaya Self Study

This is my favourite Niyama, as it embodies a big part of what yoga, meditation, breathwork means for me. Self study invites us all into understanding our consciousness and discovering the fact that we’re not just the body, or the mind, but also something else. Discovering this essence puts us in touch with the divine, or God, however we understand that to be. Once we have this deeper understanding things just align. We work with the universe to live the life we’re meant to be living. Things have meaning and purpose, and it all starts to make a bit more sense. This is the beauty of self study.

Isvara-pranidhana Devotion

Yes, yes and more yes. I take it back, I think this is my favourite of the Niyamas. Isvara pranidhana means devotion and surrender to God/ the universe/ the force/ the truth/ whatever it is that you conceptualise. It really doesn’t matter what it is that you believe, but once you undergo enough self study you will *probably* end up believing in something.

Devotion to this higher value is about allowing the divine to ‘use you’ to bring about its will for greater good. To reach the highest levels of consciousness, we must be in alignment with God/ the universe and trust in the divine completely. When we’re in this state, we are grateful for every eventuality, knowing that everything is exactly as it was meant to be. We are fully open to the universe’s possibilities.

This is where the fun starts to happen - the manifestations come true, the synchronicities appear often, the spiritual realm becomes much more integrated with the material. Devotion helps us move in alignment with the divine, and in alignment we recognise that we are an extension of the universe.

“We do not "come into" this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean "waves," the universe "peoples." Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe.”
Alan Wilson Watts