Yamas and Niyamas are essentially a set of rules that represent the right way to live our lives in the most fulfilling way possible. The function of Yamas and Niyamas in yoga and Hinduism could be loosely compared to the Ten Commandments; while the consequences of ignoring the Yamas and Niyamas are not the same as the punishments of breaking a commandment, it’s believed that certain spiritual fulfillment will be unattainable if the Yamas and Niyamas are ignored. For ethical living in Hinduism and yoga, niyama represents the “shall do” in terms of the spiritual world, while yama represents the “shall not,” or what must be rejected in the material world.
Traditionally there are 20 traditional Yamas and Niyamas (10 of each), but only 10 Yamas and Niyamas (5 of each) are used in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. In yoga, if the Yamas and Niyamas are observed and followed then you are better able to maintain a healthy mind, body and spirit. The 5 Yamas and Niyamas of the Yoga Sutras are as follows:

The 5 Yamas of Patanjali

(yama: restraint, suppression; commandments or rules)
  • ahimsa(non-violence) harmlessness, safeness, security; one of the most important tenets of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism that requires the respect of all living things for a non-violent, peaceful unity. In yoga this does not only apply to violence towards others, but also to the self. Comfort levels should always be considered before pushing yourself to the next step.
  • satya(truth) true, sincere, faithful; the unchangeable and ultimate Reality; the practice of being true and honest as act of moral discipline. In yoga and all areas of life, honesty is important in order for physical, spiritual and mental growth to actually take place.
  • asteya(not stealing) the avoidance of taking what you want because you cannot earn it yourself, often a result of jealousy, envy and desire. This can be applied in yoga by understanding personal limitations.
  • brahmacharya(spiritual training and chastity) state of chastity; composed of the words Brahma, or God, and charya, meaning “practice” or “occupation with,” roughly translating to “following the teaching of God.” Refers to controlling energy, particularly sexual impulses, and channeling them into a more spiritually, physically and emotionally productive use through the practice of yoga.
  • aparigraha(deprivation, limitation of worldly possessions) similar to asteya, aparigraha refers to the desire to have what is not ours or be something we are not, heavily rooted in jealousy and envy. By accepting ourselves, we can stop comparing accomplishments and limits with others. Even in a class, yoga practice should be treated as individual; the talents and skills of others should not be considered when performing yoga.

The 5 Niyamas of Patanjali

(niyama: limitation, restriction, law)
  • shaucha(cleanliness, purity) not only in terms of physical cleanliness, but also cleanliness of the mind and spirit. Can be applied in all areas by maintaining positive, clean thoughts and keeping your energy separate from the energy of others’. In yoga practice, this can be observed by acknowledging the distinction of other people’s energies and practice space while learning to respect and appreciate your own, taking whatever steps necessary to ensure clean eating, breathing, thinking and exercising.
  • santosha(contentment, satisfaction) refers not only to self-acceptance but also self-treatment and self-control; accepting things as they are, unclouded by personal desires and expectations. In yoga (and in all areas of life), this can be implemented by being neither proud nor disappointed with personal results and not allowing the personal situations of others influence self-perception.
  • tapas(spiritual austerity) has a variety of definitions, including: warmth, heat, fire; suffering, self-inflicted torture, penance; deep meditation, concentration or religious observances. Refers to self discipline in all areas, such as fitness, diet, behavior and indulgences.
  • svadhyaya(self study, study of the soul) being fully aware and educated on the topic of self in body, mind and spirit. By seeking and attaining self knowledge and understanding, honesty with yourself and others is perpetuated and a feeling of overall contentment achieved. In yoga, self-exploration of the body is rooted in performing poses (asanas) and learning breathing technique techniques (pranayama), while spiritual exploration is rooted in meditation (dhyana).
  • ishvara pranidhana(surrender to God through dedication and duty) the acceptance of a higher spiritual being, energy or force; the understanding that while self growth and knowledge are important to reach the transcendental self, the individual self is insignificant in comparison to the “bigger picture.”
If the 5 Niyamas of PatanjaliIf are followed during the path for self-fulfillment through yoga, it’s believed that a higher level of happiness, acceptance and spiritual understanding can be achieved. By following the Yamas we are able to give up worldly desires and reject the superficial aspects of the physical world, which allows us to make use of the Niyamas. This will ultimately guide us to the path of spiritual fulfillment, keeping the mind and body healthy and fit in the process.