Beyond The Mat - Understanding the Yamas and Niyamas

With everything happening in the world right now I have been doing a lot of self-reflecting and trying to unlearn and relearn the ways in which I look at the world. I thought that this was a good time to look at my personal yoga practice and the deeper aspects of yoga that may get lost in day to day life.

When we talk about Yoga many of us think of our yoga mats, the physical practice, moving from pose to pose, perhaps we think of meditation and breathing. But those aspects are only a small part of this ancient practice. It is an entire lifestyle.

In my previous post I spoke about the reasons we may be drawn to yoga. Yoga can provide us with many tools and teach us lessons to help us along our journey. What we might not have realised is all these tools and lessons can be found along the same path, and as we seek one, we are likely to discover others. The more we can collect, the better equipped we are at realising our goals and achieving a healthy, balanced and meaningful life.

Where do we start?

Let’s start at the beginning of our path. If we want to make our own personal world, and the world around us a better place to live, we need to understand the Yamas and Niyamas.

The 8 Limbs

Yamas and Niyamas make up the first two limbs of the eight limbs of yoga - a practical guide to understanding our true self and reaching a higher level of consciousness or bliss.

‘Eight limbs’ is taken as a translation of the word ‘Ashtanga’. Ast meaning eight and Anga meaning limb. Ashtanga is the ancient system taken from the Yoga Sutras – 196 sutras to be exact, on the principles and practice of Yoga, written by Patanjali, a sage in India. These texts date back around 2000 years.

Ashtanga can also be recognised as two forms of yoga – Hatha Yoga, which comprises of the first five externally oriented limbs, and Raja Yoga, the practice of the higher, more spiritual, internally oriented limbs.

By practicing each limb, we can remove both the impurities in our body and mind, and the obstacles to discovering our true self. This in turn leads us along the path away from suffering towards liberation and bliss.

The eight limbs are as follows

Yamas – self-restraint

Niyamas - observance

Asana – physical postures

Pranayama – breath control

Pratyahara – sense withdrawal

Dharana - concentration

Dhyana - meditation

Samadhi – oneness, bliss

It is our desires, needs and expectations that can cause us to suffer. If we can learn to break down the ego we can alleviate this suffering.

This starts with self-restraint and self awareness. Yamas and Niyamas.

The Yamas and Niyamas

These are essentially rules that should form the foundation of our whole practice. It can be difficult to look into each of these and apply them to yourself as they may bring up subjects that you feel uncomfortable delving into, but this is why they form a very important part of yoga. Know that as you work through these you are moving further along that path to bliss.


The yamas are moral codes that regulate how we interact with our external world. Patanjali states that these codes are universal and apply to everyone, no matter who you are or where you’re from. There are five Yamas:

Ahimsa – non-violence

This is non-violence in all aspects of life. In our thoughts, words and actions, to ourselves, others and nature. Learning to live in harmony.

Satya – truthfulness

To be honest and true in our words and actions. We must learn to be honest with ourselves and seek the truth in the world by pushing through fear and ignorance.

Asteya – non-stealing

To not steal others possessions, wealth and ideas. We must not feel greed and instead fill that empty want with faith.

Brahmacharya – abstinence

To not waste energy on desires but instead conserve that energy and direct it towards spiritual development. We must listen to our bodies and make the right use of our energy.

Apiragraha – non-possessiveness

To not seek to possess things and grasp what we do not need, but to only keep what serves us in that moment.


The Niyamas are personal diciplines. There are five Niyamas:

Sauca – purity

To keep our bodies, minds and spirits clean and pure. To dispel negativity and bad habits.

Santosha – contentment

To accept and appreciate what we have and who we are. It is fine to have a goal but do not let this get in the way of your true peace and happiness. Do not forget what is truly important.

Tapas – self-discipline

To create discipline and passion to burn away the impurities that stand in the way of us becoming our true self.

Svadyaya – Self-study

To look past the ego and discover the 'Self', the divine inside. By looking at our thoughts and actions we can uncover our true selves, the essence of who we truly are and our place in the universe.

Isvara Pranidhana – devotion to the divine

Dropping the ego and surrendering to the supreme being or higher Self. Becoming one with the universal energy. By offering up our actions to the ‘divine’ we tap into that sate of collective consciousness, understanding that we are all one and our actions affect all.

Now perhaps grab your journal, make a cup of tea, and sit with these thoughts and ideas. Ask yourself how you are, or can, apply each of the yamas and niyamas to your life on and off the mat. Take the opportunity to learn, to grow, and to make your body, mind and soul, and the world around you, a beautiful place.



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