Exploring the yamas & niyamas

Exploring the Yamas & Niyamas, the ethical and moral guidelines of yoga, which lay out a path for living yoga on and off the mat. Coursework written by teacher training graduate Lesley Collinson

|    Teacher Training, Yoga

On our 200-hour yoga teacher training, our module on Yoga Ethics is without doubt the most important part of the training. These ten guidelines lay the foundations for the course and set the expectations to take yoga beyond the mat. This thought provoking essay by one of our graduates explores these simple, yet infinitely complex tenets.

Initial Exploration of the Yamas and Niyamas

by 200-hour graduate Lesley Collinson

The Yamas and Niyamas can be found in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and form the first two limbs of the eight-fold path of yoga. They offer ethical and moral guidelines; a way to live life off the mat in our words, actions and thoughts. The Yamas or restraints/virtues support how we interact with each other and the Niyamas relate to our Inner life. Both aim to bring about harmony internally and externally. They are seen as integral to the yogic journey and provide the ethical foundation and self-knowledge and awareness to help us on our spiritual pathway. Resonating with the moral frameworks of major influential religions and belief systems, they have a timeless, universal quality and yet they are ‘live’ and as such can be interpreted in a current context, making them real in the present. As a yoga practitioner and aspiring yoga teacher, reflection on the Yamas and Niyamas and how they interweave in and relate to one’s life can bring about integrity and depth to both practice and teaching. Reflection serves to strengthen the personal qualities of anyone who would like to share the art, science and discipline of yoga.


Ahimsa | non-violence

Seen as the cornerstone of yogic philosophy, which places so much value on peace, love, compassion, patience, courage, kindness and understanding. These qualities help us to overcome violence, which is caused by fear and anger; not just towards other beings and the environment but towards ourselves. As Deborah Adele states:

‘Our ability to be non-violent to others is directly related to our ability to be non-violent with ourselves’

Most of us have had or have an inner critic. Mine used to be incredibly harsh at times, even when I did something well, it would still find fault. Over the years it has subsided and practising yoga has helped to soften the edges even more. Yoga brings about the clarity needed to discern between constructive useful feedback and unnecessary judgement. This is an important skill to develop in this world of constant evaluation and it is especially useful on the teacher training course, where we can reflect on ways to improve in a safe, supportive, non-judgemental environment.

Satya | truthfulness

Truthfulness is more than expressing what you feel to be true. It’s an expression of love and when thoughts, actions and words are expressed from a loving standpoint to both yourself and others they are more valid and authentic. I remember hearing a saying ‘The truth never hurts’ and really thinking about this for years, wondering if this really is the case because it seemed to me that on many occasions it did hurt. However, if we team truth up with love then those words or thoughts that bloom from these themes lead us in a good direction and can be a source of strength. Truthfulness is founded on the quality of honesty and sometimes it’s a challenge, to be honest, and loving with both yourself and others, especially if you are in a difficult situation or you do not agree with people. Sometimes the loudest person gets their point across but it’s not necessarily the truest point. Words can be exaggerated, come from a place of wishful thinking, not be entirely accurate, disguised criticism, lack transparency. I know I have done all of the previous. When I’m practising mindfulness my words feel more accurate in relating to what is actually happening. Yoga helps me to be truthful in my thoughts, gives me the strength to look at myself honestly, look at my past, accept it and be compassionate about mistakes I’ve made. In this way, it helps me to be compassionate towards others and this for me is living more truthfully.

Asteya | non-stealing

Asteya or non-stealing calls for us to overcome greed and covetousness. It is closely linked to Aparigraha and Santosha. If we are contented we will not want to grasp or seek out that which we do not have. This, in turn, links to the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, where suffering is caused by wanting or craving.

There are more subtle aspects to this virtue than simply not stealing material goods, which can happen for a whole range of reasons. It can also imply not stealing from the Earth and just as importantly not stealing your own and others time, space, energy, present and future potential. Being generous with time, space and energy can prevent them from being stolen and when reciprocated enhances social connectivity as well as our present and future potential; Sharing energy is a good reason to practice yoga in a class as well as by yourself.

Looking back at how I used my own time and energy, I would sometimes work 60 or 70 hours a week. This would benefit the school I worked in and be very rewarding but was not conducive to a well-balanced family and social life. Deliberately making room for yoga practice in my life has definitely created more space, time and balance. Yoga helps me prioritise my choices more so one part of my life isn’t stealing from another part but more often feels like a harmonised whole.

Brahmacharya | non-excess

Literally translated as ‘walking with God’ and traditionally interpreted as celibacy, Brahmacharya in a modern context is seen as non-excess of any sensory need or want. It’s knowing when enough is enough. ‘The point in life is to know what’s enough’ Gensei ( Buddhist Monk). Deborah Adele brings both ideas together when she states:

‘Seeing with the eyes of holiness shifts how we act as well as how we see. When gratitude and wonder sit in the heart there is no need for excess’

When we do anything to excess, the overindulgence can bring us into a tamasic state and have a negative effect. We have so many temptations in our world of abundance that it’s understandable why so many of us find it a challenge to resist overdoing it. Being grateful for enough sits well with Aparigraha and Saucha but it also ties in with Svadhyaya and Satya accepting the truth of a moment. Whenever I’ve tried to alleviate an uncomfortable emotion with an excess of food or drink, for example, it’s never paid off. Yoga has definitely helped me to cut down on excess. As it reveals your patterns of behaviour, you can start to change the ones that do not benefit you.

Aparigraha | non-grasping

Aparigraha is closely linked to Asteya and means non-grasping, non-possessiveness and non-attachment. This acknowledges that we live in a world of change, transition and impermanence. I relate this very much to my yoga asana practice. I notice that when I grasp too hard at postures, it feels as though I am pushing too much. When I meet the posture and accept where I am then the practice flows well and I even surprise myself physically. We can compare this to our approach to life. Meeting life where it is and being open to the possibilities. I plan a lot and am becoming increasingly aware that I can not control every aspect of these plans. There are many factors which influence what is happening and what will happen so it’s important for me to remember to be flexible and agile so to adjust and adapt where needed. I think you can apply this to any yoga class you might be teaching, be willing to change, adapt and adjust your plan to suit the needs of the students that day.

Aparigraha can also allude to hoarding and collecting. I have a theory about this as I went through it myself. When my mother passed, I couldn’t throw anything away or change anything for a long time. It was as if I wanted time to stand still. Change brought about higher levels of anxiety and at the time I feared the grief would be too painful to experience. Over time, I’ve been able to let go of her items more and more and it feels like a weight lifting; an acceptance of sadness for loss and physical separation and an acknowledgement of the joy and love of her spirit


Saucha | purity

Saucha asks us to clean our body, mind and thoughts. Detoxing through asana, purifying the subtle body through pranayama and cleansing mind and intellect through self-study. Traditionally there are numerous techniques, which yogi’s used to cleanse the body and internal organs and they are still practised today. This also includes what kind of food we put into our bodies. In modern society, we are well informed about healthy living and eating. I used to work with school lunch teams to help measure the nutritional value of school dinners. You really noticed how the children’s behaviour changed after they had eaten certain food. We took many items off the menu and replaced them with more nutritional options ( not popular to begin with) I notice myself if I don’t drink enough water each day or I have too much dairy or sugar. Eating well for your body makes an incredible difference to how you feel emotionally and physically.

Fasting is also recommended as a way to detox and purify. When I was 19, I spent time with an octogenarian who looked the picture of health; it radiated from his eyes and skin. He told me his life story which included practising yoga and fasting. I remember thinking how I’d like to be able to go on long rambles in the lower foothills of the Pyrenees when I’m in my 80’s. It taught me that we can be vibrant and energetic throughout life but we have to treat ourselves well. Fasting is something that I’ve started to think about and practice from time to time. My neighbours are Muslim and I’ve spoken to them about what it’s like to fast as it is definitely an area I would like to explore more.

‘Being pure with ourselves means we are not afraid of our thoughts and our feelings and we do not have to hide anything from ourselves’

This links very well to Ahimsa, Satya ( being truthful in the moment and acknowledging how you are feeling), and Svadhyaya, which can take away our ignorance and break down our negative patterns so we are free to think more positively. I will expand on this later in the Svadhyaya section.

Santosha | contentment

Swami Rama states:

‘ Contentment is falling in love with your life’

When you’re happy to be back home after a wonderful holiday when it’s raining, and the sky is a blanket of grey and you can smile, when the bus is packed but you feel good; then you are living in contentment.

Santosha enables us to practise gratitude, acceptance and appreciation of what we have. This is all about finding contentment from within and not being reliant on external circumstances. From this point of view, it links with surrender and the kind of content you can feel from opening up to being connected to the universe and something bigger than yourself. This is a way you can live in the present and be contented with the moment no matter what it brings, instead of yearning or longing for something you do not possess.

‘It is our need to satisfy our preferences that keeps us from contentment and makes our day difficult’ Deborah Adele

I kept this in mind as I was asked to teach in a school in Walthamstow. The journey took an hour and a half each way. I remember feeling initially upset about the length of time it was going to take and how I might feel tired at the end of it. I actually read Deborah Adele’s section on Santosha on the train. I had a wonderful journey, really connected to each moment and enjoying each human interaction along the way. When I got to the school, the children were in this very small classroom. Although it was a tight squeeze for them, they were really enjoying learning and getting the most out of what they had. The day unfolded for all of us in a beautiful way and I came back from Walthamstow understanding more about Santosha and all the Niyama’s than I had before. It was a good example of how your attitude can change your experience.

As a yoga teacher, Mark Stephen’s approach to his class reflects this Niyama

‘Being content with students and classes liberates you from expectations’.

Tapas | self discipline

‘Makes us glow like the sun so we can offer warmth and light to our fellow beings’

Derived from the word ‘tap’ meaning to blaze, burn or shine this observance refers to self-discipline and can be accessed through asana practice. I see the self-discipline of yoga asana practice as a gift, which builds up and magnifies your consistency. This is a beautiful quiet quality that underpins reliability, stamina and strength. Consistency is like a rock, a solid foundation supporting your life choices. I remember when I first started yoga, building up the self-practice slowly. Starting to practice 3 times a week then building up to 4 then 5 and now 6 times a week. This has been a steady slow build up with many of the postures worked on slowly. Sometimes they go then come back again. It hasn’t been a linear journey. I’ve continued my practice on holiday and enjoy the rhythm of it. It was quite a shock to start with getting up at 5:30 in the morning and initially, I would feel tired in the afternoon. It’s amazing how you build up stamina both mentally and physically. Sometimes if I’ve not slept well, it can be a challenge but in the morning I love the first step out of the door into the stillness of dawn. Practising at this quiet time has a simplicity. Practising Yoga at any time connects me to life and gives me breathing space. I use it as a time to thank the universe, dedicate it to a person or people, contemplate Peace, or a thought. Mainly I meditate, tune in or zone out, sometimes I’m in a bliss state other times I’m meeting an emotion full on and have to try my best not to run away. It passes. It’s a discipline I feel blessed to share with the people I practice with. It can be joyful, sweet, light, energetic, deep or slow. It’s live so it will continue to grow and change, revealing more of its vastness. If I happen to turn up with any negativity, it burns away in that session. I remember the first time I hurt my back (lifting heavy objects in a basement) then going to yoga and my back just recovering in two sessions. It has a beautiful holistic healing quality that keeps on giving and when I leave the mat and go into the world I am able to be there more authentically and positively, which benefits those around me. What a difference it has made! I still have challenges but this discipline is now weaved into my life and sits with me and I’m very grateful for it.

David Swenson states:

‘Through regulation of practice, the eight limbs are nourished’

Svadhyaya | self-study

Study compliments the practical discipline’ ‘ No effort is wasted’ George Feuerstein

Svadhayaya refers to the study of sacred text in order to lift the veil of ignorance. Through self-study, we can remove the layers caused by social conditioning, environmental shaping, individual experiences, personality traits and characteristics we have identified with, beliefs that we have gathered about ourselves in order to reveal our true nature; our divine nature. Linked to both Satya and Saucha, it requires us to have courage, patience and self-compassion as we embark on our journey to find our true self.

George Feuerstein recommends the 7 stages of psycho-spiritual awareness as a framework to support this journey from self-observation all the way to self-transcendence. On the journey, we will have to be brave enough to look at our less pleasant sides and the obstacles we meet on the way. Although these obstacles are part of that journey and can be seen as a gift to enable growth. He suggests that it is just as important to not dwell on more negative traits but to look at them dispassionately (this ties in with the concept of a witness in Eastern philosophy). This way you can alter the future without getting caught up too much in the past and what has already happened. Deborah Adele suggestions for self-study come from a slightly different angle. She advocates that any emotional disturbance experienced, should be traced back to the source so you are able to figure out what caused it therefore not looking to blame external circumstances but seeing these disturbances as an opportunity to find out more about your inner self.

Finding out about aspects of yourself that are difficult can be humbling but ultimately this experience connects us as human beings and develops our empathy skills and compassion. The phrase ‘We’ve all been there’ comes to mind. It is better to accept them and try to work with them rather than deny they exist. As a three-year-old once said to me when I asked him how do you practise being brave.

‘Make friends with the bear’

When I’ve been upset and traced it back, initially it’s easier to look outwards. You have to train yourself to look inwards. When I have done this, it has given me an insight into the situation. Working on your ability to remain dispassionate gives you a ‘panoramic view’ and not ‘tunnel vision’ as George Feuerstein points out.

Ishvara Pranidhana | surrender

‘As the Ego surrenders, the heart expands’

‘Surrender is knowing ourselves to be part of the Divine Oneness’ D. Adele.

This Niyama is a celebration of the spiritual; something bigger than yourself, embracing what you don’t know, the mysteries, the Divine, the Universe; however, you want to see it and what it means to you.

It can be overwhelming and therefore brings out the qualities of trust, fearlessness, open-heartedness and a gentleness. I remember when I first started practising how it felt that yoga enabled you to be selfless. It literally is ‘Self-practice’. Through surrender, you can get in touch with your higher self and in the world, this translates as accepting we are not in control. Immersion in this Niyama enables you to understand all the others.

I am interested in the theories of dualism and non-dualism and like how George Feuerstein suggests that we can veer from one to the other. I particularly like the tantric view of non-dualism and how we are connected to everyone and the idea that our self is in every being

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