At one point or another, we’re sure you’ve heard your yoga teacher mention something or other about the yamas and niyamas of yoga. But if you’re really focused on not falling over in Chair pose during class or aren’t as well-versed as you’d like to be in your yoga philosophy, these words might not have meant much to you. That’s perfectly ok! We’re here to help break things down for you.

So what are the yamas and niyamas of yoga?

The Yoga Sutras

If you’ve ever thought that there might be more to yoga besides feeling great during and after practice, then you’re absolutely correct. Yogic philosophy stems from a text called The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Usually shortened to just the Yoga Sutras, they are typically divided into 8 parts, or limbs:

  • Yama
  • Niyama
  • Asana
  • Pranayama
  • Pratyahara
  • Dharana
  • Dhyana
  • Samadhi
  • We’re sure you’re pretty familiar with both Asana and Pranayama, but somewhat surprisingly, they’re not the most important part of a yoga practice. The first two limbs, yama (moral discipline) and niyama (observances) can be seen as the two major limbs to guide a yogi’s life. The yamas and niyamas of yoga are often seen as a kind of “moral code,” and if we let them, can really guide our practices to becoming more meaningful, spiritual, and connected.

    The Yamas

    Yama can be translated a few different ways, but you’ll generally seen it translated as meaning restraint or moral discipline. The Yamas form the base of a solid yoga practice, and life as well. One of the things that’s special about the Yamas, is that Patanjali says they apply to absolutely any and everyone. No matter your background or where you’re headed, moral discipline can aid you and guide you along the way.

    There are five Yamas:

  • Ahimsa, or non-violence
  • Satya, or truthfulness
  • Asteya, or non-stealing
  • Brahmacharya, or right use of energy
  • Aparigraha, or non-greed
  • The Yamas can be used to help guide us in the outside world, but also can help to guide us along our own inner path. Take Ahimsa, for example. The practice of non-violence is, of course, extremely important in the outside world. But how often do you practice Ahimsa with yourself? Do you ever criticize yourself, asking why you don’t or can’t compare to others? Do you ever call yourself dumb or stupid? Then you aren’t practicing Ahimsa with yourself.

    Adding the Yamas to your own personal yoga practice can deepen it in ways you never thought possible, both on and off the mat.

    The Niyamas

    Niyama is often translated as observances or positive duties, and according to Patanjali, are recommended habits for daily living that help to guide our spiritual practice.

    There are five Niyamas:

  • Saucha, or cleanliness
  • Santosha, or contentment
  • Tapas, or discipline
  • Svadhyaya, or self-study and study of the texts
  • Isvara Pranidhana, or contemplation of a higher power
  • The Niyamas benefit us most in our spiritual practice and spiritual study, which means that if you think your yoga practice has been needing a little extra “oomph,” it might be time to look to the Niyamas. Try adding a spiritual element to your practice (if you haven’t already), or maybe dedicate a little more time to meditation rather than the physical practice.

    Yoga can do so much more for you than just giving you Madonna-arms (which of course, is great, too), and studying up on some yogic philosophy just might be the key you’ve been looking for to move forward in your practice. Why not start with the Yamas and Niyamas and see where that takes you? You may be surprised by the results.