The First Two Limbs of Yoga: The Yamas + The Niyamas

Our practice of yoga is so much more than just the poses we make the the movement we feel in the body. Yoga is an 8-limb lifestyle. Developed by the Hindu mystic and writer, Patanjali, these 8-limbs were created to find ultimate freedom within the moment. The limbs of yoga aren’t a step-by-step process but an invitation to explore different areas of ourselves at different times. Like the limbs of your body, one does not lead to the other, they all have their own wisdom, technique, and importance. All are needed, but depending on the task, some limbs become more important than others.

The first two limbs are the Yamas and the Niyamas. We look to these as the structure of our life and our practice. (Not rules but structure).

Limb One: The Yamas

The Yamas are the practices, or disciplines, that teach us to cope with the world and our realities. Each one of the five Yamas is a principle to live by that will help us relate to the universe.

First Yama: Ahimsa–Non-Violence

As with all Sanskrit, the meaning of ahimsa has several perspectives. It is not just refraining from literal violence, but negativity in general. Practicing ahimsa is practicing compassion for the world around us: people, animals, and nature. We also practice ahimsa in thought: avoiding all negative thought patterns and narratives. We can practice ahimsa in speech: avoiding gossip, criticism, and judgment. Obviously, we can practice ahimsa in action by non-harming.

Second Yama: Satya–Truthfulness

Satya describes your practice of telling the truth and living the truth. Beyond truth, it is your commitment to clarity and purity. In a sense, Satya is an intention towards impeccability. Not in the sense of perfectionism, in the sense of “do your best.” Satya means “unchangeable.” The practice of Satya can be interpreted as seeing things as they really are, instead of by the fluctuations of our emotions, thoughts, and circumstance.

Third Yama: Asteya–Non-Stealing

This concept speaks to the obvious — don’t shoplift. But as with all Sanskrit vocabulary, we can go deeper. Asteya is generally the practice of not taking what doesn’t belong to you freely. More specifically, it means not taking advantage of people who trust us. It means having consideration for the time and attention of others — if we aren’t considerate of someone’s time and are habitually late, for example, then we are “stealing” their time. Envy can also be a form of stealing. When you are envious of another’s situation you are effectually stealing the joy from their situation.

Fourth Yama: Brahmacharya–Best Use of Energy

Perhaps one of the most debated Yamas, brahmacharya classically refers to abstinence and channeling your sexual energy towards spiritual goals instead of sex. Modernly, we realize that this Yama has a wider application of general “energy conservation.” This practice refers to where we spend our time and energy, and whether or not this spending aligns with our greater and deeper goals for life. For example, spending your energy on anxiety and worrying does detract from your ability to spend energy filling up your own cup, or giving to others. If energy was a currency, where would you invest it?

Fifth Yama: Aparigraha–Non-Hoarding

This practice means taking just what you need, and leaving the rest. In a way, it’s a practice of minimalism. Aparigraha operates on the assumption that if we take more than necessary, we are taking advantage of somebody else (which goes against ahimsa and Asteya). It is also a larger practice of non-attachment to material things, which ultimately distract us from our greater and deeper goals for life. Practicing Aparigraha means embracing change, and understanding that change is the only consistency we have — there is nothing in this physical world that stays forever.

Limb Two: The Niyamas

While the Yamas are disciplines–things we can constantly be doing or our state of being–the Niyamas are about our internal wisdom and are seen as personal observances, laws or rules. Think of it this way, the Yamas are about the outside world and how we relate to it while the niyamas are about our inner world and teach us how to succeed with inner wisdom.

First Niyama: Saucha–Cleanliness

You can think of saucha as cleanliness and purity of the body: internal and external. We keep the physical body clean in numerous ways, from our asana and pranayama practices, to other exercise routines. The way we nourish our bodies with food and water is also relevant here. But in addition to cleaning the physical body, with saucha we also clean the mental/emotional body for purity of mind. Cleansing the body of negative emotions like hate, anger, greed, etc., is also a practice of saucha.

Second Niyama: Santosha–Contentment

Santosha is our general attitude of gratitude! It is the cultivation of joy and contentment separate from the actual circumstances of our life, trying as they can be. Practicing santosha means accepting that everything in your life, good and bad, is happening for a reason within the large picture of your life story. Santosha is modesty, peace, and patience.

Third Niyama: Tapas–Heat

Tapas literally means to heat the body. In this practice, we heat the body to cleanse the body. We heat the body to burn away all of the physical toxins that stand in our way from purity (saucha). But tapas also entails burning away all of the desires and distractions keeping us from our goals. Within the practice of tapas, pay attention to your habits and patterns. Which ones are serving you, and which ones can burn away?

Fourth Niyama: Svadhyaya–Self-Study

Anything that has to do with clearing the lens of introspection is within the course of svadhyaya. This is the practice of applying self-awareness in all that we do. Keeping an awareness of Self throughout the trials and tribulations of our days keeps us grounded and centered. From a state of balance, we are less reactive toward life’s inevitable challenges, and more responsive. There-fore, our likelihood of engaging in negativity/violence (ahimsa) is lessened.

Fifth Niyama: Isvarapranidhana–Surrender

This word translates to, “to lay all of your actions at the feet of the Divine.” Essentially, this practice is the “awareness of something bigger” out there, however you define that. Whatever you do believe, isvarapranidhana is the practice of keeping it in the forefront of your mind, and within the intentions of all your actions. This practice is living in a constant celebration of what you believe.

The First Two Limbs of Yoga

The Yamas and the Niyamas are our guide to finding bliss. Through observance and discipline we can clearly see our lives for what they are. When we become non-violent, truthful, don’t steal, don’t hoard, and use our energy in a wise way, we can better align with the world around us. And when we cleanse, find contentment, build heat, study ourselves, and surrender we can align within ourselves.

Together these two limbs of yoga allow us to find alignment and create a strong foundation for the rest of the limbs in order to find whole bliss.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Yamas and Niyamas you can see all these classes in their entirety with our Yamas + Niyamas program. Or join us for our next Yoga Teacher Training where we’ll dive deeper on all 8-limbs of yoga.