Yoga teachers often talk about “taking yoga off the mat,” but many Western yoga students have no idea how. It helps to understand the first two limbs of yoga, the yamas and niyamas, which are ethical guidelines for daily life. While there are many divergent yogic texts and philosophies, this explanation of the yamas and niyamas comes from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, which forms the basis of much of modern yoga.
The five yamas are social observances that govern how we interact with others and the world around us. However, you’ll see that they also apply to how we treat ourselves.
- Ahimsa, meaning non-harm or non-violence, is the first principle of yoga. Any thoughts, words, or actions that cause harm to others – or to ourselves – violate ahimsa.
- Satya, or truth, encompasses more than simply not telling lies (although that’s part of it). It extends to not misleading others in any way and not misrepresenting yourself, as well as being honest with yourself.
- Asteya means non-stealing, but not burglarizing someone’s home is only the beginning. It also refers to things like wasting people’s time, taking from the planet, and supporting policies that exploit others.
- Brahmacharya is often translated as celibacy, but it doesn’t necessarily require remaining abstinent. Instead, it’s about practicing moderation and not wasting energy. This means moderating our diet and media consumption and not wasting energy on unhealthy behaviors.
- Aparigraha, meaning non-attachment or non-greed, requires releasing attachment to physical things, other people, accomplishments, and even our own bodies. It’s about accepting things as they are but remaining unaffected if they change.
The niyamas are personal habits that help us live a healthy and spiritually fulfilled life. You’ll notice there is some overlap with the yamas.
Saucha means cleanliness or purity, and it refers to both the body and mind. Keeping the body clean is a sign of respect to ourselves, but saucha also requires avoiding or removing anything that’s harmful or unnecessary. That can mean getting rid of excess possessions, eating a healthy diet, and limiting TV or gossip.
- Santosha, or contentment, isn’t something we do. Instead, it’s something we can work to cultivate at all times. It means appreciating what we have and maintaining contentment even as things around us change. For many, a regular gratitude practice helps with the cultivation of santosha.
- Tapas, meaning self-discipline, requires us to do beneficial things we don’t necessarily want to do. This might include exercising, eating healthy, pushing ourselves, not wasting time, and anything else that requires discipline.
- Svadhyaya is usually translated as “study,” referring to both study of the self and study of texts. Reading about philosophy is part of svadhyaya, as is journaling, reflection, and other practices that help you better understand yourself.
- Isvara pranidhana, meaning surrender, can be interpreted in many different ways. Some see it as surrendering to their higher power, but it also means surrendering expectations, letting go of what’s outside of our control, and accepting things as they are.
There’s a lot more to unpack when studying the yamas and niyamas, but there are simple ways to incorporate all of them into daily life – and that’s how we can start taking yoga off the mat. In a teacher training program here at Vikasa, we teach these concepts and their application in depth to give you a solid foundation for bringing this ancient wisdom to life and seeing the benefits!
Want more on the philosophical side of this amazing practice? Check out our recent blog article on how to start exploring Yoga beyond the asanas (postures) and dive in!
About the Author
Jen is a freelance writer, blogger, and yoga teacher who left her office job in Boston to travel the world with her husband. She previously worked in international development and academic research, and served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Rwanda. Some of her biggest passions include promoting responsible and mindful travel and helping her students develop their personal yoga practice.