Deepening your Yoga on and off the Mat – An Introduction to the Yamas and Niyamas

“Our challenge is to remain upright and graceful despite the forces of entropy, faithlessness, and greed – not in an attempt to change the world, rather to create an internal environment that has a peaceful and beneficial affect on our state of mind. When there is equanimity of mind, the affect on the world around us is profound.”

3000 years ago, a being named Patanjali codified the Yoga Sutras, 196 aphorisms which outline the way in which we can live a yogic lifestyle to exist in pure consciousness, Samadhi, or bliss. Within these sutras, an ashtanga (eight-limbed) path is defined and offers guidelines to create a more harmonious existence with one’s truest self.In the west, we are quite familiar with the third limb, asana, however an understanding of the other seven limbs is vital to establishing a deep and nourishing yoga practice. The limbs are as follows:

The Ashtanga (eight-limbed) Yoga Path:

  1. Yama: External observances or restraints
    • Ahimsa
    • Satya
    • Asteya
    • Brahmacharya
    • Aparigraha
  2. Niyama: Internal observances
    • Saucha
    • Santosha
    • Tapas
    • Svadhyaya
    • Ishvara Pranidhana
  3. Asana: Physical practice of postures
  4. Pranayama: Controlled breathing practice (ex. Ujjayi)
  5. Pratyahara: Withdrawal of the senses
  6. Dharana: Drawing one’s attention to a single-pointed focus
  7. Dhyana: Absorbed concentration, meditation
  8. Samadhi: Bliss, complete oneness with all life

Our work in yoga begins with yama (ethics toward others), five guidelines that help us create and live in a sane and peaceful society. Then comes niyama (prescribed observances), personal disciplines that help us to become more aware of our own true selves.


Ahimsa: Non-violence/Non-harming
Ahimsa is not something we strive towards, but something we inherently are – compassionate. When one is self-confident the need to hurt, humiliate or kill another being (or ourselves) is absent.

  • The more we practice Ahimsa, the closer we come to the realization of our true nature: that which is peaceful and free of debilitating internal conflicts.
  • True Ahimsa is a deep realization that we are all one; equanimous with all other human beings, animals, and the environment with which we live.

REFLECT: How can we be kinder to others, to ourselves, to our planet (in thought, speech, action)?

Satya: Truthfulness in thought, action, and deed
Can we look beyond the obvious examples of Satya and evaluate a deeper meaning of what it means to be truthful?


  • Do I live a life where I am living out my truest, deepest desires?
  • Does the life I live reflect the values I hold to be true?
  • Do I have truthful relationships with all people in my life?
  • Do I find myself exaggerating my accomplishments or experiences?

Asteya: Non-stealing
Not taking what is not ours – true generosity of thought, action and deed. Includes not stealing ideas, credit, another’s affection, etc…

Brahmacharya: Self-restraint
This yama is often interpreted as celibacy, however one can relate to it more if it is thought of as restraining ourselves from not using others for our own personal pleasure/gain. Honouring the life force within ourselves and all others is a way to practice true Brahmacharya.

Aparigraha: Non-accumulation, greedlessness
In essence this yama is about moderation. Freeing us from coveting material objects, people, status, and position. This ultimately frees us from identifying ourselves with things, reducing overall possessiveness.