The Yamas and Niyamas in Practice

Fields (2001) defines yama as moral self-restraint and niyama as moral commitments. Each has five subcategories as follows:

  • Ahimsa (non-injury)
  • Satya (truthfulness)
  • Asteya (non-stealing)
  • Brahmacarya (restraint of sensual and sexual enjoyment)
  • Aparigraha (non-acquisitiveness)


  • Sauca (purity)
  • Santosa (contentment)
  • Tapas (self-discipline)
  • Svadhaya (self-education)
  • Isvara-Pranidhana (surrender to god) (Fields, 2001, p. 106-112)

The yamas and niyamas are habits recommended to assist in reaching liberation and reduce suffering. Each concept works with and builds upon another without rank in a heterarchy style. There are countless ways to incorporate each into daily life. Below are a few examples of how to facilitate working with each.

We can begin by looking at the first two yamas together as they relate to the physical yoga practice. By practicing ahimsa, one would be altering their yoga practice daily to support their physical state. The student would be taking care of their own body, preventing injury, by not forcing him or herself into postures. Additionally, by practicing satya, practitioners would acknowledge if they experience pain and verbalize that to their teacher instead of ignoring it.

The next three yamas can be viewed with a literal translation or by taking a broader view, which may be more applicable to 21st-century living. Asteya’s literal translation non-stealing could be viewed simply by not taking physical goods from a store without paying for them. However, taking a broader view, one could consider the idea of stealing energy or time, a problem that seems to be more apparent in today’s society.

Brahmacarya is often viewed as abstinence and dealing with sexuality, which is limiting. It is not necessarily the absence of the activity but the attachment to it and the energy given or lost from it. A broader view of brahmacharya could include general energy conservation and ideologies associated with its actions or lack thereof. Practicing time-management skills and not overcommitting would be a form of brahmacharya.

Lastly, aparigraha is the practice of non-attachment. A literal translation often implies eliminating material goods, which is impractical in today’s society. The current world is one of material, and thus possessions are part of living in that world. Practicing aparigraha takes and uses the material items one needs without excess or definition to one’s character.

As we transition into the niyamas, it is helpful to view each concept as it relates to a single task. Let’s begin by looking at the job of washing dishes. Sauca, which is purity, applies directly to the task. The process of cleaning dishes is to eat from clean dishes to prevent illness due to bacteria that would build on soiled dishes. Santosa, contentment, would be completing the task of washing dishes without self-praise or deprecation. It would also include doing the dishes without expecting one to receive anything other than clean dishes. If one does the dishes to earn perceived accolades or favors from a spouse, one would no longer be practicing santosa.

Tapas is the discipline to clean the dishes regardless of preference or desire. For example, some days, one may not mind doing the dishes; one may even enjoy it. Other days there may be a dread or avoidance to do them. Regardless the task is completed, which is tapas. Now, by studying and investigating why one experiences varying degrees of desire or avoidance in doing the dishes, that would be svadhaya.

Last is the concept of isvara-pranidhana, another idea often with a limited view, surrendering to god. The philosophy is not merely about devotion to a higher being; it is about relinquishing the ego. Life is no longer about self-fulfillment; but instead, life is a process that can bring about liberation when done wisely.

Fields, G. (2001). Religious Therapeutics: Body and Health in Yoga, Ayurveda, and Tantra. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press