The yamas and niyamas are ten simple principles that help us live with more peace and purpose. They are relevant to adults and children alike, and are the inspiration for my Mangrove Place children’s book series and YogaYama! family yoga classes. As we get to know the principles, it is clear how embracing them brings more ease to daily life. More “ease” equals less discord (with others and internally), less resistance, and less hardness in our bodies and hearts. With this ease comes more openness, more willingness to give and receive love…an experience of greater connectedness.
The yamas and niyamas are NOT a checklist of virtues against which we should judge ourselves or others. According to author Donna Farhi, the yamas and niyamas are “ten qualities of goodness” that we all naturally possess. Translated as “inner restraints” (yama) and “outer restraints” (niyama), she explains “What we restrain, however, is not our inherent badness or wrongness but our inherent tendency to see ourselves as separate. It is this inherent tendency that causes us to act outside our true nature”[i]. Through practicing these principles, it’s not so much that we create more connectedness, but rather we remember and embrace the connectedness that is always there, always available to us.
The Five Yamas
Yama #1: Ahimsa ≈ non-harming, kindness
The first step in cultivating positive interactions with others is to not harm them. This seems obvious. However, how often do we hesitate to offer kindness or tenderness to others? What about self-kindness? Do we beat ourselves up for falling short of arbitrary (and perhaps unrealistic) standards?
Yama #2: Satya ≈ truth
A natural next step in cultivating positive relationships is satya, truth. Untruths include spreading lies, misrepresenting our intentions, covering up our actions, or otherwise trying to make the world believe we are something we are not. We can all relate to wanting to be liked and the urge to sweep our flaws out of sight, but at what point do we start damaging our ability to relate authentically to others?
Yama #3: Asteya ≈ non-stealing
After non-harming and truth, we next consider asteya, non-stealing. When stealing does harm it is already ruled out by ahimsa. It is further discouraged by satya, because it typically involves dishonesty. What about cases of stealing that do not violate ahimsa or satya? Consider this example in a school cafeteria: “Your mom packed my favorite chips!” *snatch*. This can be done with an intention to be playful and the chip-owner might laugh and steal them right back. Playful interactions strengthen the connection between friends. However, if the lunch-table-neighbor grabs the chips just because he or she wants the chips, whether the chips-owner was excited to eat them or not, this same action promotes mistrust and disconnection between the two individuals. We can see here that intention matters.
Yama #4: Brahamacharya ≈ self-restraint
In this wonderful world we have many choices. So many delightful people, places, activities, foods…we should enjoy ourselves! Yet we all know mindless indulging can have negative consequences. When our intentions and goals are clear, we can more easily avoid temptation and make choices that support those goals.
Yama #5: Aparigraha ≈ non-hoarding
Cluttered space = a cluttered mind. Stuff accumulates quickly, and it’s hard to make time to sort through it all (especially with growing kids in the house!) This is a reality of family life. At the same time, honest self-inquiry sometimes reveals an impulse to cling to things for no good reason. This impulse often comes from a fear of not having enough. It can also be hard to let our kids or other loved ones have a life of their own. When we remember our interconnectedness, there is much less need to grasp at and hold tight to objects or people.
Whereas the yamas show us how to elevate our interactions with others, the niyamas constitute personal practices that help us develop greater clarity, purpose, and inner stability.
The Five Niyamas
Niyama #1: Saucha ≈ cleanliness, purity
While keeping our homes clean and organized has many practical benefits, the niyamas are about our inner space. Saucha refers to keeping the body and mind clean. Eating nutritious food, moving our joints and exercising our muscles enables our bodies to function optimally. Regarding cleanliness of the mind, one commentator suggests that “internal cleanliness is to be accomplished by benevolence—exuding a friendly attitude toward all”.[ii] This allows the mind to be fresh and unfettered by negativity. Friendliness also is a natural result of seeing others as part of a human family, instead of seeing others as out-of-network robots whose wellbeing is entirely inconsequential to our own.
Niyama #2: Santosha ≈ contentment
The most valuable thing we can learn from santosha is that contentment is a practice, not something we attain when all our “ducks are in a row.” We experience contentment in each and every moment that our attention is focused in the present. Therein lies the sweetness of yoga practice—it is ultimately a practice of being present. Notice that discontentment usually arises from wanting something to be different than it is, as in hoping for future gains or lamenting the past. Even in times of deep pain or heartache, putting our thoughts aside and breathing into whatever is happening in the present moment has a soothing effect.
Niyama #3: Tapas ≈ perseverance
Tapas is about accepting the fact that discomfort and hardship are a part of life. We can resist this reality, get angry or depressed about it, or we can accept it and persevere. An unexpected obstacle can at first eclipse everything else from view and seem insurmountable. Yet when we remember that we are part of a vast network of resources, it becomes easier to remain open to the many possible solutions and find a way forward.
Niyama #4: Svadyaya ≈ self-study, study of sacred scripture
Ongoing self-study keeps the garden of inner stability free from weeds. Then our life’s purpose or goals can more fully take root. In a traditional yoga practice, the ultimate goal is “enlightenment”, so naturally the recommended reading would be sacred scriptures that offer guidance to that end. My intention as a yoga teacher is not to challenge anyone’s religious (or anti-religious) beliefs—it is only to offer life-enhancing skills. The practice of svadyaya one of those skills. Study any topic that offers meaningful guidance and inspiration, and carefully reflect on the ways in which that guidance is a good fit for you. This is svadyaya.
Niyama #5: Isvara Pranidhana ≈ surrender or humility
If you’ve come this far, having embraced these nine principles, you might be feeling pretty awesome about yourself. Isvara Pranidhana is a final reminder that you have not accomplished this on your own. It is a reminder that this was never just about you in the first place. If feeling separate and disconnected were pleasant, we might as well throw these ten principles in the garbage. Humility means “right sized”—not self-deprecating, not self-aggrandizing—we are each but one lovely speck in a sea of life. The fear that keeps us safe from danger is the same fear that tells us we need to be “special” to (hopefully) be loved and provided for. Our work here is to understand that while being special might afford us greater protection, it does not offer greater happiness. Only connection does. Genuine connection comes from meeting as equals, recognizing our sameness, and seeing the shared light that shines in each and every one of us.
[i] Farhi, Donna. Bringing Yoga to Life. P. 29. Harper Collins, 2003.
[ii] Bryant, Edwin. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. P. 253. North Point Press, 2009.