A Modern Guide to Yoga Philosophy: Yamas & Niyamas

Ann Swanson
A Modern Guide to Yoga Philosophy: Yamas & Niyamas

Consider this: After I die, what do I hope people will say and feel about me?

I suspect your answer may be similar to mine at first: “She/he was a great person and lived a meaningful life.” For me, that means that I was honest, kind, and humble through my mistakes.

Take a moment, perhaps closing your eyes and sitting tall, to consider what it means to you to be remembered as a great (yes, great, not good) person by the people that matter in your life. What words, values, and feelings arise?

Unfortunately, life doesn’t come with a handbook. Patanjali, an ancient Indian thinker, proposed the yamas and niyamas in “The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.” These 10 ethical principles could be considered the yogi’s handbook to a life well lived.

A Brief Intro to the Yoga Sutras

Throughout the ages, throughout the world, humans have developed basic guidelines and rules that we pretty much all can agree upon—like not murdering each other and not taking what is not ours. The yamas and niyamas are the version of these guidelines developed in India in the framework of yoga.

Most people nowadays start of yoga by going to a class filled with poses. However, traditionally, if you were in India during the early days of yoga, you would seek a guru. They would refuse to teach you any yoga poses (asanas), breathing practices (pranayama) or meditation techniques until you have demonstrated that you live your life in accordance with the yamas and niyamas, which are (loosely translated):

Yamas

1. Ahimsa - Nonviolence (not harming)

2. Satya -  Truthfulness

3. Asteya -  Non-stealing

4. Brahmacharya - Moderation (conservation of energy)

5. Aparigraha -  Non-possessiveness

Niyamas

6. Saucha -  Cleanliness

7. Santosha - Contentment

8. Tapas - Passionate self-discipline

9. Svadhyaya - Self-study

10. Ishvara Pranidhana - Surrendering

Let’s explore each one individually and discuss how to apply them to life practically in the modern day.

The Yamas

1. Ahimsa: Non-violence (not harming)

Ahimsa is often interpreted as nonviolence towards all living things. Of course, this means that we don’t murder or physically harm other humans, and it also means that we try not to emotionally hurt others, avoiding activities like gossip.

Ahimsa can also be translated as compassion and kindness towards yourself and all others. Sometimes, it is easier to be kind to others than ourselves. Perhaps you have had a thought like this “I am so stupid for falling for that again” or “I shouldn’t have said that.”

Consider this: Would I say this to a loved one?! Is that being kind to myself? We can shift our minds by simply by catching those sort of thoughts as they happen and asking yourself, “is this true?”

We can also choose to not hurt ourselves by being mindful of what we eat and how we treat our bodies. Many yogis are also vegetarian, environmental advocates, and social equality advocates as a part of non-harming. In what ways do you personally choose to promote nonviolence?

The physical yoga practice is another great opportunity to practice not harming yourself. Have you ever forced your body into shapes that just didn’t feel right to you?  Do you take breaks when you need? I believe—despite whatever a teacher is telling you to do—that you are the world’s leading expert in your own body and must adapt or stop when something doesn’t feel right.

Yoga class is not monkey see, monkey do; a good yoga class is full of mindful options and choices.

Living in nonviolence is the foundation for the rest of these principles. It is the most important, and can be challenging in its subtleties. For example, it is harmful to judge ourselves and others when not measuring up to an ethical standard. Although a yogi opposes harmful acts and wrongdoing, a yogi tries not to waste energy judging or hating the wrongdoer.

Recently, while reading the news, I have caught myself thinking (and judging): ”I could never do that.” Then, I reminded myself that we are all imperfect humans and have the capacity to do anything, even the most horrific acts.

Maya Angelou explains this quote as a path to compassion: “The brute, the bigot, and the batterer are all children of God...and I’m supposed to treat them accordingly. It’s hard and I blow it all the time.”

Consider this: How can I be more humble and compassionate when I am tempted to judge myself and others?

2. Satya: Truthfulness

This is the practice of trying to be truthful (and congruent) in our speech, thoughts, and actions. Both being true to others and ourselves is vital in satya. This is simple to explain, but not easy to do.

Consider this: How can I be more truthful in my everyday life?

3. Asteya: Non-Stealing

Naturally, we know that we should not take things that are not ours. But, what else can you steal that is a bit less concrete? Time and energy.

One big way we steal is by being late, which can be considered stealing people’s time. Of course, we can’t always control this, but when it is a pattern in our life, we know we need to make changes. For example, if you are often late to yoga class, interrupting the class to come in, then you know that you can leave 10 minutes earlier next time.

Another way we can steal is by taking energy from others. This often shows up by talking way more than listening, or complaining more than giving thanks. Asteya can also be translated as avoiding a mindset of greediness and hoarding. I’m not saying we all need to be minimalists, but consumerism adds up when we’re buying clothes to only wear them once or twice.

Consider this: How can I cut down the amount of resources I use in the world? Am I giving as much as I am getting?

4. Brahmacharya: Moderation (Conservation of Energy)

Traditionally, yoga was taught as a monastic practice to young boys who have devoted their lives to spirituality. As yogis that live in the modern world, as householders with jobs, kids, and the stresses of busy lives, we must adapt these ethical principles to be practical for us.

This means, we don’t have to be celibate monks or nuns to live this principle. We can, however, live in moderation—conserving our energy (including, but not limited to, our sexual energy).

Let’s consider for a moment the sexual energy interpretation of brahmacharya. Imagine gathering up all the energy (time, money, and thoughts) that you have ever exerted on the pursuit, maintenance, and breaking up of romantic relationships from—let’s say—7th grade to today. That includes your 7th grade crush, high school heartbreak, online dating swiping, texting, analyzing with friends, and maybe some therapy.

Imagine you could have all that energy back. What books would you have read—heck, written—with that energy?! Surely, we all can redirect our energy better in this department.

Recently, conserving my energy has meant turning off all screens at 9 p.m. to wind down to sleep well. When I Netflix or scroll at night, I am not redirecting or conserving my energy properly. (Well, I do this as many nights as possible. Remember what Oscar Wilde said: “Everything in moderation, including moderation.)

I propose that neither Netflix nor sex are bad ways to spend your energy. Perhaps, being a yogi in the modern day just means that we do these things mindfully and in moderation.

Consider this: In what ways could I conserve my energy?

5. Aparigraha: Non-Possessiveness

Aparigraha is often translated as being non-possessive. It can also be viewed as not being jealous of what others have or do. Living the principle of aparigraha means you are self-reliant and have an attitude of gratitude for who you are and what you have.

We are neurologically programed for survival as humans to strive for more. However, in our modern world of excess, we can override some of that consciously. We can do that simply by noticing our thoughts and natural propensity for attachments without judgement.

Consider this: How can I be more grateful instead of jealous?

The Niyamas

6. Santosha: Contentment

Contentment, to me, also involves a sense of gratitude for the moment and the way things are. A feeling of contentment is like a muscle that needs to be strengthened and stretched through repetitions like journaling, prayer, or affirmations.

Building your contentment muscle doesn’t mean you are also complacent—not striving for ambitious goals. The challenge is finding a balance of being content with where you are in your journey while passionately working towards your vision.

If you are in school or in a job that is not ideal, although it is hard, can you enjoy the learning journey while working passionately (see #8: Tapas) toward your next destination?

Consider this: How can I create a habit and mindset of contentment, even when life gets busy and challenging?

7. Saucha: Cleanliness

They say that cleanliness is next to godliness. At a basic level, this means showering, wearing clean clothes, and keeping a clean and organized house (and a clean car— that’s my downfall). We could also interpret this as cleanliness of thoughts. (Oh my, do we all have some housekeeping to do!)

Consider this: Do I have a cleanliness downfall that I could work on?

8. Tapas: Passionate Self-Discipline

The word “tapas” in Sanskrit implies fire. It is often interpreted as having self-discipline, but I like the interpretation of having a “burning passion.” This is that burning desire to express our creativity, help others, and to meaningfully contribute in the world.

Following your path (or dharma) is not always easy; a lot of times it takes tireless work. Tapas is the fuel to keep doing the work. Often, this means resilience amidst failure.

When considering tapas, I often think back to santosha (contentment). A grandparent figure once told me, “be content but never satisfied.” Most rewarding things in life require hard work.

Consider this: How can I find more balance between contentment and a burning passion to improve?

9. Svadhyaya: Self-Study

Traditionally, svadhyaya is studying spiritual texts. I extend this broader to activities like reading any self-improvement or yoga book, listening to podcasts that make you reflect, journaling, and really, anything that helps you reflect on life.

Just by reading this article and reflecting on how to best integrate these ethical principles, you are practicing svadhyaya.

Consider this: What type of self-study is most fulfilling to me?

10. Ishvara Pranidhana: Surrendering

This can be translated as surrendering to a higher power or, even, simply to that which you cannot control in life. I think the Serenity prayer best sums up the feeling of this yogic principle:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” -Reinhold Niebuhr

Perhaps, you simply have to be humble and realize that you cannot control everything. This seems to be the hardest and the most important for a happy, fulfilling life. To me, ishvara pranadhana is an attitude of being in flow—accepting the challenges that arise in our lives with strength and resilience.

Consider this: How can I let go and be in flow more in my daily life?

I hope this article has helped you reflect on how these values play a real role in your everyday life: nonviolence, truthfulness, non-stealing, moderation, non-possessiveness, contentment, and cleanliness, self-discipline, self-study, and surrendering.

Image credit: Kate Swarm