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.

neti nose best

I irrigated my nostrils last night with my pseudo-neti-pot. It is an efficient tool, although it looks rather alarming, like a massive syringe. It got some hoots at my last teacher training course. Everyone wanted to see me shoot the water up my nose. I did it cautiously, with just the right umph to shoot a clean spray. I was shy about it, especially when the slimer oozed out. Really though, it was nothing to ooh-and-ahh about. Were in Malibu now enjoying summer/winter. It hasn’t gotten that cold, but the temperature drops when the sun sets. My allergies are flaring. I guess Im still allergic to cats. I thought that I had outgrown those but it seems like I just kept my exposure to a minimum.

I led Cristina through an asana practice yesterday. It’s good to flex my teaching muscles, each time I teach I learn more. I must admit that I felt a bit awkward. I was probably trying too hard. Teaching a stranger is one thing; a new sister-in-law is a different story. This is a special friendship in the making, a new part of my family. Before she came over I spent a good chunk of time researching modifications to protect her injured shoulder.

I spent more time exploring savasana. I sat beside Cristina and watched as her belly rose and fell, her breath smooth and long. I closed my eyes and placed my hands on my belly. It was clenched, holding – not wanting to say the wrong thing; speak too loud or talk too fast. I stopped talking and returned to my breath.

I stopped trying and I was present. I saw the value in speaking less and listening more. I discovered that my breath is my best guide. If its relaxed and free-flowing, so am I.

A Brief History of Yoga

Yoga is not simply a form of physical exercise, like calisthenics or aerobics. While it is certainly a great physical outlet, this is not the true purpose and technique of yoga. In many ways the physical aspect is just the point of contact. Beyond its physical aspect, lies the vast science of yoga. Its truths are based on the experiences and experiments of an unbroken line of mystics, occultists, saints and sages. Comprehensive in nature and profound in its doctrines, yoga does not fit neatly into the framework of any particular ancient or modern philosophy. The following is by no means an exhaustive depiction of the history of yoga; that would literally be a lifelong work! We understand ourselves better in the moment, by placing history in context. That is what I offer you here. Let us begin!Hinduism, India’s most prevalent tradition, is best understood as a complex cultural process between spiritual and social life. It is said to have commenced with the Vedic civilization, possibly as early as 5000 BCE. Written in Sanskrit (the oldest spoken language) the Vedas are rich hymns that cover vast topics, such as mathematics, astronomy, astrology, human development and consciousness. It is believed that the Aryans composed the ancient Vedas. The essence of the Vedas (or “Vedanta”) is that Reality is non-dual. Vedic teachings merged with Hindu tradition, creating a philosophical system that applied to daily life. Both traditions acknowledge the existence of a transcendental Reality, and believe that our relationship with this Reality influences our spiritual and physical well-being.