Deepen Your Yoga Practice: Yamas and Niyamas

Go Deeper

Go Deeper

We’ve all been there before… the yoga funk: we roll out our mats, breathe, cat, cow, updog, down dog, warrior one, warrior two, etc, and it starts to feel somehow robotic; like we’re just going through the motions and it’s all about physicality. It’s completely normal for this to happen, as we are often products of our environment, and Western society greatly emphasizes aesthetics. Yes, yoga can be great physical exercise, but aren’t we all searching for more?

According to the Yoga Sutras, a highly detailed outline of the how’s and why’s of yoga, written by, Sri Patanjali, the purpose of yoga is self-realization. This includes mastering the mind and parting the veils of ignorance to reveal our true selves. And your true self is an infinite, beautiful, unshakeable expression of the divine. Patanjali outlines an eightfold path that leads to self-realization and guess what? Asana, yoga postures, is only one of these limbs. Without the other seven informing our practice, it frankly isn’t yoga and we aren’t afforded the full experience it has to offer.

As a teacher and practitioner, I’m interested in facilitating a holistic practice for the student and myself; one that incorporates all of these limbs on the mat, so that they can integrate into all aspects of life. So for this series of articles, I’m going to delve into the 8 limbs of yoga, while explaining how they can be incorporated into your yoga practice on the mat. This will help you delve more deeply into your spirit, and hopefully get you out of that yoga funk.

The first two limbs of yoga are the yama and niyama. They are basically yoga’s “Ten Commandments” without all of those thall-shalt-nots. Yamas, or abstinences, are virtues that strengthen and purify the mind and are helpful as a general guide to being a decent human being. They include nonviolence, truthfulness, non-stealing, continence, and non-greed. Niyamas, or observances, are a set of essential principals for those on the yogic path, which garner spiritual growth. These include purity, contentment, accepting but not causing pain, study, and self-surrender. The yamas and niyamas are great guidelines to living a decent and spiritual life, but how can we incorporate them on the mat?

Yama (Abstinence):

  1. Ahimsa (Non-violence): This is considered the most important among the yamas. This includes not only doing harm, but the desire to do harm, which sinks us further into ignorance and away from self-realization. When on the mat, you can incorporate ahimsa by being compassionate toward yourself. Modify poses when you need to and don’t beat yourself up when you are not yet able to attain what you wish to attain. Maybe you’re over-heated and take child’s pose instead of doing one more vinyasa. Perhaps it even includes taking a day off when you’re sick our injured. Taking these steps helps us disassociate with the ego and adds quality and longevity to our practice.
  1. Satya (Truthfulness): This yama is practiced in word, deed, and thought, and always with selfless motivation in order to adhere to the previous yama, ahimsa.  Try this mantra on the mat to cultivate satya: “I am exactly where I need to be right now.” By affirming yourself into the bigger picture, you are accepting the ultimate truth and your vital place within it. In other words, take a deep breath, stop fighting against the present, and you’ll be left in raw truth, which is the beauty of this moment.
  1. Asteya (Non-stealing): This, of course, can refer to physically taking something that isn’t yours, but often when we steal it is far more subtle. One subtle form of stealing that often occurs on the mat, is coveting.  Perhaps your neighbor is in a beautiful king dancer’s pose, while you’re struggling just to balance on one foot. You wish with all your heart that you could express something so impressive and you curse your body’s limits. Sound familiar? One quote I enjoy sharing with my students is “Don’t compare your beginning to somebody else’s middle.” Yoga studios are filled with a diverse clientele with all levels of experience and with unique bodies. By practicing asteya, you can appreciate others while knowing within your heart that you are exactly where you need to be on your journey.
  1. Brahmacharya (Continence): This yama tells us to avoid expenditures of energy that are not productive. This basically means over-doing it, and “it” can mean literally anything. This is often thought of in a sexual context, but on the mat, I like to think of it in a purely physical way. When in asana, oftentimes in pseudo-concentration, we tense the face, jaw, and shoulders. Taking the tension out of these areas and into whatever muscles the particular asana actively works, is a great way to conserve energy. Another way to do so is to efficiently make your way from one asana to the next. Try going from upward facing dog to downward dog without readjusting the hands and feet. Notice these habitual extraneous movements and retrain yourself to let them go.
  1. Aparigraha (Non-greed): Greed leaves us constantly unsatisfied. It’s a constant craving and an itch that just cannot be scratched. Perhaps, on the mat, this can mean dissatisfaction with your asana. It’s the gap between what you want to be able to do and what you are currently able to do. Instead, accept each practice, whether or not it meets your expectations, with loving gratitude. After all, gratitude is the polar opposite of greed.

Niyama (Observance):

  1. Saucha (Purity): This refers to mental and physical purity. We achieve this by cleansing our bodies and minds, and then filtering what is allowed to pass through them. Oftentimes, on the mat, memories and emotions can come to the surface of the mind. It is better to acknowledge them, feel them, and eventually let them go, than to suppress them, as they’ll certainly resurface. We then filter the mind by meditation, focusing on the infinite or divine, and by turning negative thoughts into positive ones. We can cleanse the body through taking deep breaths to oxygenate the blood, by sweating, and by detoxifying twists, followed by plenty of water. Off the mat, we can continue to keep the body pure with a healthy, balanced diet.
  1. Santosha (Contentment): When we are content, we live in the present moment, without focusing on fulfilling desires. Santosha leads to faith, which steadies the mind, and ultimately leads to self-realization. Through the power of the Universe or Divine, we at this moment have all the tools we need to see ourselves for who we are: an expression of divinity. On the mat, contentment does not equal complacence. It simply means that everything is exactly as it should be. Every breath, every thought, and every movement is an expression of the Universe, of the Divine. How’s that for an intention?
  1. Tapas (Accepting, but not causing pain): We’ve all had that moment in class: Maybe the teacher has put you into chair pose for way too long. You’ve got a sweat mustache going on and your thighs are on fire. It’s natural to react with anger, but with tapas comes spiritual maturity, and instead you accept this moment as a teacher of vital lessons. With this struggle comes beautiful growth, spiritually and physically. We develop tapas on the mat by combining regular, challenging practice with santosha, or contentment.
  1. Svadhyaya (Self-Study): This includes study of scripture, lives of great yogis, nature, life, and repetition of mantra. This informs our practice in a concrete way. When on the mat, notice what makes you happy, what frustrates you, whether or not you’re able to follow things through or if you’d rather just give up. Study yourself. It can truly bring to light aspects of your personality, some positive and some that require growth. Through regular practice, you can improve these traits not only on the mat, but off. Svadhyaya, on the mat can also be attained by repetition. You must repeat a mantra, breath, or asana many times to truly understand it.
  1. Ishwara Pranidhana (Worship of God or Self-surrender): This niyama basically says, “Hey, it’s not all about YOU!”  With self-surrender, we dedicate our time and abilities to a greater cause. This is the foundation of Karma Yoga where the ego gives up ignorance with every act of dedication. You can practice this on the mat by dedicating your practice to someone you love, someone in need, or to a higher power. You’ll find that when you pass your bliss onto others, it does yourself and the world a great amount of good.


Spread the love, dig in deep, and I’ll be back soon to add more limbs onto the yoga tree!