The Yamas and Niyamas come from the Yoga Sutras, which were written by the yogi sage, Patanjali. They offer a moral code, or ethical guidelines, to the yoga way of life. In the Sutras, Patanjali lays out an eightfold path that gives instruction for living a meaningful and purposeful life. This eightfold path is defined as the eight limbs of yoga. The Yamas and Niyamas are the first two branches of this path. They lay the foundation for your yoga practice.
The word “yama” is translated as “restraint.” The Yamas are considered the “outer” observances. They describe restraining our behaviors, our outward actions, and are generally things to avoid doing. There are five Yamas:
- Ahimsa: nonviolence
- Satya: truthfulness
- Asteya: non-stealing
- Brahmacharya: non-excess (often interpreted as celibacy)
- Aparigraha: non-possessiveness, non-greed
The word “niyama” is translated as “positive duty” or “observance.” The Niyamas are considered the “inner” observances. The Niyamas speak to the inner work we need to do in regard to our thoughts, attitude, and beliefs. There are also five Niyamas:
- Saucha: purity
- Santosha: contentment
- Tapas: self-discipline, training your senses
- Svadhyaya: self-study, inner exploration
- Ishvara Pranidhana: surrender
In the Sutras, Patanjali doesn’t give specific instructions on how to integrate these ethics into your life. The “how” is a personal journey for you to explore. They provide a mirror in which to study your practice and your Self. You get there through practice, contemplation, meditation, and working toward transformation. But, if you align your life with them, they will cultivate harmony in all aspects of your life. Finally, they will lead you to a place of peace, truth, abundance, contentment, love, and meaningful connection to the Divine—the essence of happiness.
If you’re interested in reading about the Yamas and Niyamas more in depth, and how you can incorporate them into your life, Deborah Adele wrote a simple, easy-to-read book called, The Yamas & Niyamas: Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice. It’s written in a friendly way that includes relatable stories that help explain the ideas.