These are my own notes from my teacher training, and I hope you find them useful in helping you to understand the yamas and the niyamas. They are quite long but you can always come back to them for reference if you want to deepen your knowledge.
Yamas and niyamas are the first two of the eight limbs of yoga. They are ethical rules for the right ways of living, forming the foundation behind yoga and can be taken into everyday life. If the ethics are honoured as we progress along the path we are mindful of each action, cultivating a more present and aware state of being. Everyone can practice these teachings.
The sutras list five yamas and five niyamas. Yamas are our attitudes towards the environment and niyamas are our attitudes towards ourselves.
We can understand the whole practice of yoga as a process of examining our habitual attitudes and behaviours and their consequences… The attitude we have toward things and people outside ourselves is called yama in yoga, and how we relate to ourselves inwardly is called niyama.
Yama translates as restraint, abstinence or moral discipline. Although the yamas are seen as practices concerned with relationships with others they also show how to act towards ourselves. These principles are universal and Patanjali calls them great vows, which can be modified according to the position of someone in their life. The five yamas are Ahimsa, Satya, Asteya, Brachmacarya and Aparigraha.
Ahimsa means non-violence or not causing pain. Not just talking about physical non violence; it is non violence in thoughts, words and actions. It is about practising thoughtful consideration to other people, environment and also towards your own self. There is a realisation that everyone in the universe is equally important.
When non-violence in speech, thought and action is established, one’s aggressive nature is relinquished and others abandon hostility in one’s presence.
Ahimsa relates to my own yoga practice through respecting my body by carefully working through poses safely and not allowing the ego to take hold. Having awareness of thoughts and realising that thoughts, words and actions need to be practiced with the view of kindness being the underlying influence. I encourage students to take responsibility for their own bodies by listening to themselves and to be aware of what the yoga brings up without judgement.
Satya translates as truthfulness and leading a life of honesty. Words and actions are considered to see how another being may be affected. Truth cannot be practiced without Ahimsa. The quote from the Indian epic Mahabharata illustrates Satya,
Speak the truth which is pleasant. Do not speak unpleasant truths. Do not lie, even if the lies are pleasing to the ear. That is the eternal law, the dharma.
Satya is relevant to me by being aware of what I say to people. In my yoga practice I try to work with honesty within poses, being truthful to the present moment, knowing my limitations and I encourage students to do likewise. If we start being honest with ourselves first then we can go on to be honest with the outside world.
Truth is victorious, never untruth. Truth is the way: truth is the goal of life, reached by sages who are free from self–will.
Asteya is translated as non-stealing. This does not only relate to stealing physical objects, it may be stealing from the environment without realisation and gratitude. It can be stealing people’s ideas without acknowledgment and not allowing other people to use something that we possess. Once the realisation is there that we are all living in this universe, we all breathe the same air, and we consider everything and everyone we are practising Asteya.
Personally Asteya, means being considerate to the people and environment around me. I’m aware of the time element that may affect people. I try to appreciate and respect the environment especially nature. Working not to hoard by looking at what things I really need. In my teaching it is making people aware of the space that’s around them, respecting others when they enter, practice and leave the class. I am conscious of trying to spend my time equally with the students, and I’m aware of my timekeeping and not stealing time away. If I use other teacher’s quotes or techniques then I acknowledge this.
Brachmacarya translates as continence, moderation, self restraint and celibacy. In observing Brachmacarya energy can be built up and stored. It is getting the balance right in life so that we use and conserve the right amount of energy that is needed to do something.
At its best, moderation produces the highest individual vitality.
Brachmacarya doesn’t just imply celibacy, in the Upanishads students are advised to marry and raise a family straight after finishing their studies. This is acting with responsible behaviour with limitations in life. B.K.S Iyengar in the Light On The yoga sutras suggests that with brachmacarya you can respect sexual energy and can turn it into spiritual energy.
For me Brachmacarya means looking at how to use and direct my physical energy efficiently. In yoga it’s about getting that balance so you’re not pushing yourself over the edge, but moving the energy so that you don’t feel lethargic. Students are encouraged to notice their own body, feelings and sensations and work with that energy. Modifications and props are used to let the practice serve you and your body. Awareness is noticed that every time we come to the mat we may feel different to another day.
Aparigraha translates as non-greed, non attachment and non possessive - not being greedy, not hoarding, letting go of what isn’t needed and not seeking to possess more than we need. Problems can relate to what comes after greed; deceit, violence and attachment. Holding onto thoughts and ideas is a form of possessiveness.
In the Bhagavad Gita practising Aparigraha is one of the lessons, advising giving up possessions and attachments that hinder their yogic path.
Those who aspire to the state of yoga should seek the Self in inner solitude through meditation. With the body and mind controlled they should constantly practice one – pointedness, free from expectations and attachment to material possessions.
Aparigraha in my life is buying only what I need, not wasting or eat too much food and practising non-attachment to my personal possessions. Students are encouraged to become aware of their body’s capabilities and respecting limitations. It is acceptance of the pose without striving for the end result.
The Niyamas are Saucha, Samtosa, Tapas, Svadhyaya and Isvara-Pranidhana. They are observances and more personal, looking at the attitude we develop towards ourselves through individual discipline and link in with the outside world too.
Saucha translates as cleanliness or purity. Purifying by being clean and healthy on the outside body is outer cleanliness of the body. Keeping the bodily organs healthy and clarifying the mind is inner cleanliness. Asana and pranayama help to cleanse the body internally and cleanse the mind and thoughts. In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika shatkarmas are purification techniques (dhauti, basti, neti, trataka, nauli and kapalbhati) which result in freeing energy through the body.
These shatkarma which effect purification of the body are secret. They have manifold, wondrous results and are held in high esteem by eminent yogis.
Saucha through my teachings is making sure the environment I’m using is clean, incorporating pranayama techniques to move the energy and kriyas as a cleansing practice. Generating heat through asanas and pranayama creates internal fire which is cleansing. Students can nurture themselves having self respect for the body. Keeping the home clutter free, being mindful of what you eat and drink and being aware of thoughts and words relate to Saucha.
Samtosa translates as contentment and modesty. Being happy with what you have at the present moment and being content to be happy within without looking to external factors. Life is constantly moving so being able to allow and be acceptable to changes. Happiness is within you and non attachment is needed for freedom and acceptance.
In my teachings working to be comfortable where you are in a pose without judgement or criticism and finding gratitude and respect for strengths and limitations. Students are encouraged to use modifications and props. In order to find peace and accepting yourself just as you are, let go of whatever doesn’t serve you.
One who looks equally on friends or enemies, honour or dishonour, heat or cold, happiness or distress, praise or blame, who craves nothing, is silent and satisfied in any situation, who has no home, who is even minded and filled with devotion- such a person is dear to me.
Tapas translate as self discipline and austerity with the direct meaning to burn. Tapas can relate to the body, the speech and the mind. Ahimsa and Brachmacharya are Tapas of the body. Paying attention to what you eat is Tapas. Tapas are positive if you need to fire up some energy or courage. Passion or desire are linked with transformation and burning away the desires that stand in the way of our life goal to realise the true self. In the Bhagavad Gita, tapas are broken down into discipline in the body, speech, and mind.
To offer service to the gods, to the good, the wise, and to your spiritual teacher; purity, honesty, continence, and non-violence; these are the disciplines of the body. To offer soothing words, to speak truly, kindly, and helpfully, and to study the scriptures; these are the disciplines of speech. Calmness, gentleness, silence, self-restraint, and purity: these are the disciplines of the mind.
With yoga, poses, breathing and kriyas they create heat, burn off toxins and remove impurities. Moderation makes sure the body is respected and not letting the ego rule. Students are encouraged to use energy efficiently, noticing when fear might arise when facing challenging poses. The breath is very important to keep it smooth and steady.
Svadhyaya translates as study of sacred texts or self study. Sri Swami Satchidananda translates studying scriptures that are personal to our beliefs. Self knowledge is attained through studying and discovering the true Self. Self awareness can be discovered in activities, efforts, strengths and weaknesses. The Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads, illustrate discovering the self and the True Self.
There are two selves, the separate ego and the indivisible Atman. When one rises above I and me and mine, the Atman is revealed as one’s real Self.
In my teachings Svadhyaya resonates with me by quoting from ancient texts. Students learn about themselves by listening to their own bodies and paying attention to what the yoga may show. The way someone practices is an indication about themselves and how situations are dealt with outside yoga.
Isvara-Pranidhana translates as devotion to the Lord. A life of dedication but not just purely though religion. If awareness is kept in the present moment with gratitude this increases the ability to choose how we may act. Appreciating the universe and nature, connection is made with the whole world and the underlying universal energy.
The Upanishads describe a higher Self and surrendering, and the Mundaka Upanishad describes Self Realisation. In the Bhagavad Gita, bhakti yoga is spiritual devotion and a path to self realisation where you experience an oneness with everything. Surrendering the results of actions with non-attachment. Karma yoga links with selfless service.
Strive constantly to serve the welfare of the world; by devoting to selfless work one attains the supreme goal of life :do your work with the welfare of others always in mind.
In my yoga and teachings trusting my body and making the practice serve the body through surrender. At the start of a practice an intention can be made dedicating the yoga to something and students are reminded that they are part of bigger picture. Yoga nidra is a practice where you surrender by consciously relaxing the body and mind.