What Are the Yamas and Niyamas?

Maybe in your yoga classes, you have heard your instructor speak of the Yamas and Niyamas in passing. This is because, for yogis, the Yamas and Niyamas are the code of conduct. Just as the Ten Comandments indicate how Christians should live and act, so do the Yamas and Niyamas.

History of the Yamas and Niyamas

Anywhere from 1,700 to 2,200 years ago, Patanjali wrote the Yoga Sutras. The Sutras probably existed in oral tradition before they were transcribed, and it is widely accepted that Patanjali is the compiler, not the author, of the Yoga Sutras.

In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali outlines eight limbs of yoga. In a to-do list order, they are:

  1. 8 limbs of yoga according to PatanjaliYama-moral and ethical codes of conduct (external)
  2. Niyama-recommended habits for healthy living (internal)
  3. Asana-physical postures
  4. Pranayama-breath energy regulation
  5. Pratyahara-withdrawal from/control over the senses
  6. Dharana-concentration
  7. Dhyana-profound meditation
  8. Samadhi-the state of superior consciousness

This indicates that the very first Yama is the very first thing you should do. Successfully practicing this Yama will open the door to furthering your yoga practice.

However, most people who come to a yoga class are coming in on step 3, the physical practice of yoga. While your instructor may give you information about the Yamas and Niyamas during your class, it really is up to you whether you will practice them. This is a great opportunity for personal growth.

What are the Yamas?

Timothy Burgin observes, “Patanjali considered the Yamas the great, mighty and universal vows. He instructs us that they should be practiced on all levels (actions, words, and thoughts) and that are not confined to class, place, time or concept of duty (YS 2.31).” (“YS” refers to the Yoga Sutra. The verses and lines are numbered.)

Patanjali’s moral and ethical guidelines for conduct are:

  1. Ahimsa:  Non-violence
  2. Satya:  Truthfulness
  3. Asteya:  Non-stealing
  4. Brahmacharya:  Non-excess
  5. Aparigraha:  Non-possessiveness

I’ve already written articles about each of these Yamas, so please click on the link to get more information.

What are the Niyamas?

The Yamas and Niyamas go together like peas and carrots. The Niyamas “extend the ethical codes of conduct” from the Yamas in “to the practicing yogi’s internal environment of body, mind and spirit. The practice of Niyama helps us maintain a positive environment in which to grow, and gives us the self-discipline and inner-strength necessary to progress along the path of yoga,” according to Timothy Burgin.

Patanjali’s moral and ethical guidelines for conduct are:

  1. Saucha:  Purity
  2. Santosha:  Contentment
  3. Tapas:  Discipline
  4. Svadhyaya:  Self-Study
  5. Ishvara Pranidhana:  Surrender

As I write articles on each Niyama, I will update this article with links.

This is the book that I have on the Yoga Sutras. There are so many translations of the Sutras that you will want to shop around and read samples when they’re available. The information is normally very terse, so your enjoyment of the Sutras will probably stem from the translation style of your author.

Have you been practicing any Yamas or Niyamas? Sometimes, it’s not until we read about something such as the Yamas and Niyamas that we realize we are already incorporating them in to our lives. Share your experience in the comments below.

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Sarah Stockett is STOTT certified in Matwork, Reformer, Cadillac, Chair, & Barrels, Injuries & Special Populations, and CORE; a Yoga Alliance RYT-200; and has studied Active Isolated Stretching. When she is not trying to discover the best exercises to get rid of pain, she likes watching movies and travelling with her family.

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