What are Yamas and Niyamas?

Yamas and Niyamas are the first 2 steps of the 8 Limbs of Yoga which are the eight steps of yoga according to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. They are both 'steps' and 'limbs' because one has to be followed by the other, and in a set sequence to grow (steps). But they are not only steps: they are limbs of the body of yoga. They have an internal unity, as well as an organic unity; as is the meaning of limbs.  

‘The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali'

The sutras within the text present not only the philosophy and science of yoga but the actual practice, through which the ultimate goal of yoga – Samadhi (enlightenment) is reached. 

Although called the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, it is unlikley that he wrote all of the sutras by himself,many people believe the texts are a culmination of what a group of Patanjali’s disciples wrote over a period of time. 

Although some believe the texts to be a deep and philsophical book, they act more like a manual on how to live in order to advance along a spiritual path towards enlightenment. 

The Eight Limbs of Yoga

There are eight ‘limbs’ to the Yoga Sutras, each describing a different aspect of the yoga practice, and a different step on the ladder to liberation and enlightenment. 

  • Yama - moral discipline
  • Niyama - observances
  • Asana - physical postures
  • Pranayama - breathing techniques
  • Pratyahara - sense withdrawal
  • Dharana - concentration
  • Dhyana - absorption or meditation
  • Samadhi - enlightenment or bliss


The yamas are five self-restraints or behavior patterns of relationships between the individual and the outside world. Yama means control, not suppression and this control is reached through accessing higher consciousness and being aware of your own actions. You learn to react only when absolutely necessary and this action is more of a response than a reaction. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra 2.0 states ‘ahimsa satya asteya brahmacharya aparigrahah yamah’, which translates to the following yamas. 

1. Ahimsa – Ahimsa literally means ‘non-violence’. This yama asks that you do not injure or show cruelty to any creature or person. Ahimsa is, however, more than just lack of violence, it means kindness, friendliness and a gentle nature for other beings.

2. Satya – Satya means ‘to speak the truth’ and be be truthful in our actions and thoughts. However, speaking the truth should not compromise acting in accordance to ahimsa and so be considerate of how the truth may hurt someone. 

3. Asteya – Asteya means non-stealing and also includes refraining from misappropriation, accepting bribes etc. Stealing comes from a sense of lack within ourselves and following asteya helps to develop a sense of completeness and self-sufficiency, and leads to freedom from a misktaken identity of lack. 

4. Brahmacarya – Brahmacarya is often translated as abstinence from sex, or celibacy. It is not, however, a repression of sexual urges – repression only leads to frustration and an unhealthy mind. Brahmacarya means control of and freedom from sexual cravings, through a higher sense of awareness. The bliss that accompanies self realization is far greater than any sensual pleasure.

5. Aparigaha – Aparigaha means non-possessiveness. This has been misinterpreted to mean denying oneself of all material possessions, which time and time again is proven not to help with the path of enlightenment. The problem arises when one gets addicted and dependent on the material world and sources their sense of self from their belongings. By practicing the yama of aparigaha one realizes that a life without the addiction of worldly comforts, possessions, status, wealth, etc. is freeing for the spirit. 


The word ‘Niyama’ often translates as ‘positive duties’ or ‘observances’, and are thought of as recommended habits for healthy living and spiritual existence. The five components of niyama should be practiced for purifying the physical and mental body. 

1. Sauca - Purity, act of cleaning and purification of both the inner and outer body. One example of a method of cleansing is Kapalabahti, a pranayama (breathing) practice. 

2. Santosa – Santosa is contentment: to be contented and happy towards every situation in life. Full acceptance of yourself and the present moment bring peace and happiness. 

3. Tapas - Tapas means simplicity. It means action from the authenticity for your inner growth and personal journey and not to show off. There is no desire to become extraordinary, but the simplicity of the self is accepted. 

4. Svadhyaya - Meaning the study of self. Asking questions about the nature of who you are opens up the space for personal wisdom and insight. 

5. Ishvara Pranidhana – Dedication, complete surrender to a higher power. This is the final stage of niyama and involves a complete surrender to 'God' - whatever that means for you. In this stage, the yogi has to give up all sorts of desires and passions and must develop qualities like tolerance, love for all and selflessness.


Yamas and Niyamas are not about right and wrong, they are about living in alignment with our higher truth and complementing our outer life with our inner development. They help us to lead a conscious and kind life, focused on the goal of enlightenment. 


Do you incorporate yamas and niyamas into your life? Let us know in the comments!

By: Katrina Scales


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