The Yamas and Niyamas (part 1 of 2)

The Yamas (restraints) and the Niyamas (observances) are part of Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga – widely considered as the path and goal of authentic yoga.  They are not, however, intended to be taken as rigorous sets of “do’s and don’ts” but rather as guidelines on how to treat ourselves and the world around us.

The Yamaspatanjali, yamas and niyamas

The Yamas identify five behaviours where mental and emotional turmoil arise from and aims to teach us a better way of managing and avoiding these turmoils.  The Yamas pertain to how we regard ourselves and the world around us.  To visualise this relationship, imagine yourself standing with your arms outstretched horizontally – the Yamas teach us to treat ourselves with respect and kindness first, which will eventually radiate outward to affect how we interact with people and situations.


The first Yama has been translated to mean “non-violence” or “non-hurting”.  I have also heard that it is the realisation of the first illusion, which is separation.  This explanation illuminates that we live very individualistic lives.  Individually and as a society, we are solely concerned with things that have a direct impact on our lives. We are even separated from ourselves.  You may have heard it in yoga classes that one of yoga’s goals is to help us get back in touch with our true selves, our own true nature.  An aspect of this is when we achieve a sense inner peace, stillness of the mind and perceive ourselves as part of everything around us.

Because of this illusion of separation, we are disconnected from ourselves, each other and everything else.  We then don’t hesitate to inflict harm on ourselves and each other;this is where pain and suffering originate from.  If we believeand live in this separation then another person’s lifewill have no meaning to us.  The infliction of suffering – in any form, be it physical, verbal, mental – on an individual or societal scale will mean nothing to us so long as: 1) we get what we want and 2) it doesn’t happen to us.

If we recognise that, in fact, we are not separate but are all connected, that we are all made of the same energy, just manifested in different forms, then, I believe, suffering can cease.


Truth.  To practice Satya is to practice honesty towards ourselves and others without the need to exaggerate, minimise, conceal or embellish.  It is a state of accepting and stating what is without doubt or delusion. This applies not only to words but to intentions and actions as well.

But how do we act with truth? I think it should be clear that Satya should not be used as an excuse for stagnation of the mind and body.  One can not say “This is who I am” and stop in his or her development.  Growth of the mind, body and spirit cannot be falsehood unless if what you are doing causes harm to yourself or others.

Before becoming a yoga teacher, I was attempting to establish a career in recruitment.  I had a couple of years in a national recruitment agency in Brisbane, money in my bank account and a bad taste in my mouth.  I never had a taste for sales, and recruitment is hard-core sales.  One agent, during a clandestine interview I went to, even said to me “Don’t kid yourself, Aileen, recruitment is sales.  Not human resources and definitely not social work.”  When we moved to Melbourne, I found myself on a crossroads – I was offered a place at a recruitment agency which specialised in the advertising and design industries, my former career, and at the same time got accepted to the yoga teacher training.  To throw another wrench in the pot, both opportunities where located within mere metres of each other.  I was afraid that whichever I choose, I would always be reminded of the path not taken and the possible opportunities I have lost.  I knew that choosing recruitment would fulfil me financially, but I would have to give up more – peace of mind, a settled spirit and time away from my family and these are values I hold dear to me. I wanted to be true to myself and my values, so I took a leap of faith and chose the yoga teacher training.  I chose the course of action that I knew was true to me and would not cause me emotional and mental harm.

Words, intentions and actions go together if we want to live in truth.  We can not say “I want to do this or that” without any genuine intention nor action.  For example, we can say to ourselves “I want to be enlightened”; when our intension is pure and we actively participate in attaining this goal, then we are being truthful.  If the intention is there but without action, then it is a falsehood.

There is a delicate balance between Ahimsa and Satya.  We’ve all heard the phrase “the truth hurts”.  So how do we live in truth without causing hurt?  As with the previous discussion, Satya should not be used as an excuse to say and act in ways that would cause harm to us and others.  The truth should be tempered with compassion, kindness and common sense.  For example, you found out your friend’s partner is cheating.  Do you just blurt this out in a room-full of people; or possibly in front of their children?  Perhaps tell your friend in an email, text message, Facebook?  All of these are ways to tell your friend the truth, but are you” just being honest” or hurtful?


Stealing, in this sense, isn’t as clean cut as “Do not take what is not yours”, which is culturally (as in humanity) associated with material things.  In recent times, this has extended to intellectual properties as well – a concept that straddles the tangible and intangible.  This is a good jumping point to explain Asteya, because Asteya not only refers to the theft of the material, but also the emotional, mental and spiritual.  For example, when one is being unduly critical of another, that person is stealing the other’s sense of self confidence, drive, focus and faith in him/herself; or when someone is insisting on having things their way, they are stealing other people’s right to choose a different course of action.

Asteya also teaches us not to acquire for the sake of having – the illusion that we are in need or giving in to desires and wants.  Acquisition should be based on a genuine need.  This is not to say that we should live ascetic livesor deny ourselves “stuff” that makes us happy.  By all mean, go on that holiday, buy that gorgeous top, that new gadget,or that cute bag you’ve been eyeing for weeks!  But pause for a moment and ask yourself: Can I afford it? Do I need it now? Do I really want it, or am I just being jealous of the people who do have it? Will it be used or just forgotten as soon as I buy it?  Will it be a holiday I want to enjoy with family or friends or just another Facebook update?  If we get for the sake of having, we are stealing from people who might have a genuine need for it, whatever “it” is; or perhaps stealing from ourselves other opportunities or choices that may come our way.


The most popular definition of Brahmacharya is celibacy.  This maybe because when we talk about controlling desire and its excesses, the popular assumption is sex.

I believe Brahmacharya is the practice of assessing and controlling one’s desires – whatever they may be.  This does not mean we are forbidden to “want” for something.  Above, I mentioned that the practice of Asteya guides our acquisitions.  However, we should also acknowledge that as humans, especially in this age of easy access to whatever we want, it is normal to “want” for things that are not necessarily essential.  The practice of Brahmacharya in this instance is the practice of tempering our wants and desires.  By itself, desire is not something to be shunned.  It is a good motivator, with the object of our desire as our goal.  But when desires go into excess, it turns into an obsession and we are thrown out of balance.

Applying this idea sex and celibacy, the practice of Brahmacharya teaches us to hold respect for oneself and our partner in higher stand than that of physical gratification.  When the act of sex is done through mutual respect and a genuine desire to share a deeper devotion to each other, then the act is pure and without malice but when there is any source of suffering present – intimidation, force or violence of any kind – then the act of sex loses its purity.  I’ve heard sex described as a “divine act”; so when this most intimate connection between two people is sullied by anything one could possibly think of, then it loses its “divinity” and becomes a source of pain and suffering inflicted on ourselves or our partner.


Aparigraha has been defined as non-greed, but again, this does not only apply to the material.  Greed is the outward manifestation and action of attachment; so it is our propensity to become attached to things, thoughts and actions that we should look out for.  When we “dig our claws”, as it were, into something, then we are going against Aparigraha.

Over-attachment breeds fear of losing the subject of the attachment; and from fear comes pain and suffering.  When there is pain and suffering, our mind and spirit is in constant flux; there is no stillness in the mind and peace in the spirit; there is only separation because there is no balance.  Aparigraha liberates us from overly attaching our minds and spirits to anything and frees us to come in to balance.


Read Part 2: The Niyamas


Article written by Aileen David.

Owner & teacher, Yoga Sadhaka. Aileen’s yoga journey started as a way to manage a stressful career.  After some time, the reason changed to a longing to find her purpose.  Now she teaches in the Hatha Yoga tradition, specifically the Vinyasa Flow style.  She specialises in general, mixed level vinyasa classes, specialty classes for prenatal and plus-sized students and a unique Kids and Parents yoga class.

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