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EGR Blog Post: The Yamas and Niyamas - Yoga's Ethical Foundation

May 1, 2017

“The kingdom of heaven…you don’t die into it; you awaken into it.” Cynthia Bourgeault

The foundation of yoga practice, the first two limb's in Patanjali's eight fold path describing the spiritual technology of yoga, is a set of ethics and ethical practices called the yamas and niyamas. This ethical foundation is what distinguishes yoga as a spiritual practice, something more that just exercise. Often referred to as “jewels” the yamas and niyamas guide not only the physical practice of asana, but also have application for our lives off the yoga mat. There are many similarities between the yamas and niyamas and the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes of our Judeo/Christian faith. But rather than try to equate them, we invite you to explore how your faith beliefs inform and deepen your understanding of this yoga philosophy and visa versa. We have found affirmation and insights into our faith, when we study the yamas and niyamas.

The yamas describe right action or principles. Perhaps the most important yama is that of ahimsa, non violence. Ahimsa encourages us to practice non violence on our yoga mats by listening to our bodies and modifying yoga shapes so as to do no harm. Off the mat, ahimas encourages us to practice the Golden Rule--to do unto others as we would have others do unto us: to practice non violence in our relationships and towards the earth. The next two yama “jewels” are satya or truth, and asteya or nonstealing. Keeping our asana practice grounded in the truth of our own bodily limitations and not comparing ourselves with others, are ways that we practice satya and asteya on the mat. These jewels encourage us to delve deeply into our faith teachings and share what we find. In our relationships, satya and asteya encourage us to communicate truthfully, from our own experience and perspective.

The next yama jewel is brachmacharya or moderation. Brachmacharya is also interpreted as self-restraint. When explored, we find in brachmacharya the directive to simplify our yoga practice as well as our lives—to keep our “eyes on the prize” and love God first and foremost. The fifth and last yama is aparigraha or non attachment. In particular, aparigraha encourages non attachment to our own ego: setting aside judgment and competition when practicing on our mat. Off the mat, aparigraha encourages us to be fully alive in the present, undistracted and open to God's presence.

The niyamas describe right practice or observances. Saucha or purity describes the practice of preparation and intention. We clean our mats, and we set aside time for our yoga practice, meditation and prayer. We purify our thoughts by redirecting them from criticism to praising God. Santosha, or contentment, is one of our favorite niyamas and is manifest in the practice of gratitude: for our lives, our relationships, our planet, and our many blessings. On the mat, we practice santosha when we curiously explore the present sensations and abilities of our body, rather than strive for accomplishment. The niyama of Tapas, self discipline, reminds us of the daily rising of the sun, and is what fuels us to practice our yoga and faith religiously, even when we just don’t feel it. Tapas is tied to ritual and the spiritual habit of continually showing up for prayer, for movement, for our life.

Syadhyaya is the niyama jewel of self study through sacred text and wisdom literature. Syadhyaya encourages reflection on how we might apply sacred wisdom to our own lives. Syadhyaya is what we practice every time we pick up the Bible, Torah, or a book of devotions or daily meditations. The last niyama jewel is ishvara prandihara or surrender to God, to our higher power. On the mat, we explore surrender in rest, in savasana. And off the mat, each time we pray to understand God’s will, rather than our own, we practice ishvara prandihara. Letting go, letting God, is what this niyama jewel of surrender is all about.

The yamas and niyamas guide our yoga practice and are a rich source of inspiration in our lives. We encourage you to learn more about the yamas and niyamas and pay attention to how each jewel supports your own faith traditions and teachings. As you study the yamas and niyamas, we would love to hear from you about how the yamas and niyamas enrich your yoga practice and spiritual journey. Please send us an email at godbreathbooks@gmail.com or comment on your experiences and insights on this blog or any of our social media sites including facebook, twitter, and instagram.


As a reference and for further reading, we highly recommend Deborah Adele’s book, The Yamas and Niyamas, Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice.