Yoga's Ancient Code of Conduct—the Yamas & Niyamas

Yoga's Ancient Code of Conduct—the Yamas & Niyamas

One of my favorite pearls of wisdom from the teachings of Yoga is that the journey inward begins with outward actions. How we treat others is going to directly affect our mind, body, and spiritual growth. We can read all the books in the world, attend lectures to obtain knowledge, and put both feet behind our head until the cows come home, but real development begins with our actions. The reason is, our outward actions reveal what is going on in our consciousness. More than the actions others see, it is the actions no one sees that matter most. Mental activity deeply influences our overall well-being.

The great yogi, Sir Isaac Newton, taught in his third law of motion, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The same can be said for the law of karma and its effects on both body and mind. Patanjali, author of the ancient text, The Yoga Sutras, clearly points out the karma or good action that comes to us when we apply the first and second of the eight limbs of yoga to our lives. By adhering to these moral and ethical codes and personal behaviors that are vital to our spiritual growth, we obtain the strength to control our minds, mouths, and bodies. 

The Yamas

The first of the eight limbs are the yamas. Often thought of as restraints, there are five yamas to avoid.

The list begins with ahimsa, which is non-harming in word, thought, or deed. This is the foundation that the other four yamas are built upon. Patanjali says the karma that will come to us if we apply ahimsa to our lives is that all hostilities cease. Imagine what our world would look like if we all practiced ahimsa.

The second yama is satya or truthfulness and sincerity. This is when what we say, think, and do are all in alignment and consistent with each other. Patanjali says when we apply satya to our lives, all we say will come to fruition. Because we will be in perfect alignment with our path or dharma, we will not say anything that is not meant to occur in our lives.

The yamas continue with asteya, which is non-stealing. The karma or action that will come to us when we live with asteya is prosperity and wealth. This does not necessarily mean an abundance of material goods. Instead, we will be at peace and have all we need.

Brahmacharya is the fourth yama, which focuses on applying and directing our energy to activities that will help us on our path to self-realization. By embracing this action, it is said that we will benefit by gaining vigor and vitality.

The final restraint is aparigraha, or non-greed. When we lack aparigraha we are unfulfilled and unsatisfied in our mind or body. It can be a feeling of lack and a need to acquire. Sutra 2.39 states: “When we are no longer grasping for things, we will discover our dharma—our life’s purpose.” 


yamas and niyamas

The Niyamas

The second limb is called niyama, meaning personal behavior. It is very important for those who are on a spiritual path to see these as a way of taking care of ourselves. Knowing your prakriti, and gaining a better understanding of who you are at your core, can be very helpful when focusing on personal behavior. The Ayurvedic Profile™quiz can provide a deeper insight into knowing yourself. Again, for the five niyamas there is a beneficial result that naturally occurs when each becomes a part of our daily practice. 

The first niyama, saucha, refers to cleanliness or purity. Not just our physical cleanliness but also in our mind and our physical space. The karma or action that will come from this niyama is that our body's natural protective instincts come into play and we are less attracted to lifestyle choices or relationships that will bring us harm. We see our bodies and others as a vehicle for the divine. When this happens, the result is a clear, happy, and one-pointed mind. We achieve mastery over the senses and we will be prepared for self-realization.

Second is santosha, or contentment. When we no longer have cravings or a sense of lack, and instead we have faith in a bigger plan, Patanjali says we will experience supreme joy. This joy is unrelated and not influenced by the ever-changing world. It is a pure and direct reflection of supreme bliss—our true nature.

The third niyama is tapas, which means austerities or regular practices that create a positive change in our minds and bodies. Our bodies become pure and our sense organs are perfected from the practice of tapas.

Next, we come to svadhyaya, the study of fundamental spiritual teachings. We must always be a student of nature, mantras, and self-observation. When we incorporate this practice into our daily lives we can then connect with our higher truth.

The last niyama is called ishvara pranidhana, which presents itself as surrender, humility, and faith. This is bowing to that which is omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient. We fully surrender ourselves and give our ego to the Divine. The result of this willing dedication of time, energy, and selfless service is a union with Divinity. 

When we fully incorporate the yamas and niyamas into our lives, we set the foundation for a well-rounded yoga practice. It is important to lay this ground work with dedication to the dos-and-don’ts of the sutras. Keeping these tenants as our moral and ethical compass will help us when we face challenges in our daily lives. It is always good to have a safe and grounded place to call home on the journey to self-realization.