The Yamas and Niyamas: Ethics And The Guiding Principles of Yoga

The yamas and niyamas are, in a nutshell, the ethical foundation of yoga.

Now, that might not sound very exciting, but let me tell you why it can rock your world in the best possible way.

First of all, I’ve never been a big fan of rules.

Growing up I pretty much rebelled against anyone telling me what to do if I didn’t want to do it. That didn’t make me a particularly respectful student or daughter sometimes, but that’s how I was.

These days, I’m still not a fan of arbitrary rules and laws. I understand why we have them, but if everyone simply lived lives of integrity and allowed themselves to be guided by ancient wisdom, such as the yamas and niyamas, we could effectively govern ourselves in many ways.

But this isn’t a discourse on politics and legal procedures. And that’s actually WHY I think you’ll find this an enlightening exploration into how you interpret the yamas and niyamas.

Classical Yoga vs. The Philosophy of Tantra

First of all, lets talk about perspective, since your relationship with the world is based on your point of view.

When I first started studying yoga, I found many teachers and books that offered information from a Classical viewpoint, mainly influenced by the great Sutras of Patanjali. Basically, Classical yoga seeks the freedom of enlightenment by practicing yoga to overcome the distractions of the mind and body.

Though much of yoga has evolved from this perspective, it didn’t quite jive with my inner rebel because it felt like parts of me (my body and mind) were problems, less divine or pure than my spirit.

That just didn’t feel quite right, so I took what made sense to me and put the rest on hold.

Then came my first class of Anusara® yoga with John Friend, and my world, literally, changed overnight.

Why? Well, because the philosophy that is so beautifully woven into the principles of Anusara yoga absolutely, completely, and delightfully resonated with me.

There wasn’t anything to rebel against, because it welcomed me as the unique, somewhat strange and radically creative person that I am.

This philosophy is called Shiva-Shakti Tantric philosophy, and it basically describes the entire Universe (including you and me) as an infinite creative expression of the conscious, blissful, essentially good, perfectly and completely free pulsating energy that is All That Is.

Tantra teaches us that ALL of who you are is divine.

Even those parts of you that can be distracting, fearful, or frustrating.

Why? Because there is nothing other than the Divine. So even those shadows that we deal with as human beings are, at their very essence, good.

Which makes transformation SO much easier, because you can say, “Well, even though I have to work on aligning my body with what I consider ideal, and getting my mind to somehow quiet and focus, and even though I make mistakes, I’m still okay!”

Now, to be clear, Classical and Tantric practitioners are both going for the same aim, which is to be in full awareness of the Oneness of existence, which brings all kinds of good things like deep peace and ecstatic bliss, its just that the constructs of belief they use as they go about it are quite different.

Comparing Classical and Tantric Perspectives on The Yamas and Niyamas

My first exposure to the yamas and niyamas came from the Classical point of view, which didn’t really make me jump up and down with excitement.

Here’s what the great yoga master, B.K.S. Iyengar says about the yamas and niyamas in his book “Light on Yoga,” which is required reading for pretty much every yoga instructor in the world:

“These commandments are the rules of morality for society and the individual, which if not obeyed bring chaos, violence, untruth, stealing, dissipation and covetousness… …The niyamas are the rules of conduct that apply to individual discipline, while the yamas are universal in their applications.”

Iyengar does an excellent job in being clear about what happens if we don’t each choose to live lives of integrity, which has got us into this situation where we have thousands of laws and enormous government, legal, and policing institutions worldwide.

But the rebel inside me goes, “Commandments? RULES? Discipline? Obey? Ugh.”

Heavy words to a free spirited girl.

Enter the clear kindness of Tantra, this straight from the Ethical Guidelines of Anusara yoga.

“Yamas: (Behavior restraints) Ethical guidelines for the yogi pertaining to her relationship with others in society, the outer environment, or Nature. All the yamas apply to actions, words, and thoughts. Niyamas: (Internal restraints) Ethical guidelines for the yogi pertaining to her daily activities. Observances of one’s own physical appearance, actions, words and thoughts.”

Okay, so the word restraint is in there, but it’s slightly more palatable than ‘commandment’ to me, especially before I learned how discipline can actually serve delight… But that’s for another time.

You see that the Classical and Tantric views agree on the basic premise, they just deliver the information in vastly different tones.

Here are the straight translations, coming from a more Classical view (“The Yoga Tradition” by Georg Fuerstein), and then the Tantric perspective of Anusara yoga.

Classical translations:

The Yamas:

Ahimsa (non-harming)
Satya (truthfulness)
Asteya (non-stealing)
Brahmacarya (chastity)
Aparigraha (greedlessness)

The Niyamas:

Shauca (purity)
Samtosha (contentment)
Tapas (austerity)
Svadhyaya (study)
Ishvara-pranidhana (devotion to the Lord)

A Tantric Perspective (How I’m Teaching Them):

The Yamas:

Ahimsa as Loving Kindness (non-harming)
Satya as Living Your Truth (truthfulness)
Asteya as Owning Your Experience with Gratitude (non-stealing)
Brahmacharya as Unconditional Love and Highest Integrity (walking/having ethical conduct like God)
Aparigraha as Living Simply (non-clinging).

The Niyamas:

Shauca as Clarity and Purity (purity)
Santosha as Deep Contentment (contentment)
Tapas as Discipline Serving Delight (heat)
Svadhyaya as Deep Study of the Self and Yoga (study of the Self)
Ishvara Pranidhana as Deep Devotion and Joyful Surrender (devotional offering to the Lord)

Again, often the two agree, and other times the perspective differs. Same goes for the actual application of the concepts in daily life.

Getting Excited About the Yamas and Niyamas

Because Tantra takes what works and weaves it artistically into a relevant, innovative, workable thing of beauty, when you study the yamas and niyamas from this point of view they open up to you in a whole new way.

And, because Anusara yoga is so radically, playfully profound, it can actually be fun to study something that translates with the word ‘ethics’ in it.

When I realized how beautifully and perfectly these guiding principles apply to every situation, actually making life’s challenges easier, I became a better person.

The yamas and niyamas invite you to raise your level of integrity in a way that enhances, enriches, and empowers your relationship with yourself and the world.

And so I’m doing something I never would have considered when I first rebelled inwardly at Iyengar’s frank translation of these concepts as commandments; I’m teaching a juicy, expansively enjoyable and inwardly rewarding series on the yamas and niyamas.

Take this journey with me, experiencing each theme as it is lovingly portrayed via the philosophy of Shiva-Shakti Tantra.

Feel it in your body during each yoga practice.

And feel it in your life, noticing the subtle, freeing shifts that occur as this wisdom of yoga becomes more accessible, more supportive, and becomes a guiding light to you in each moment.

The Yamas and Niyamas Course: From a Tantric Perspective

If you live in Kamloops, BC, come to class each week this Autumn to receive immense fulfillment as we dive into these juicy themes with the Universal Principles of Alignment of Anusara yoga. The series begins September 26th, and continues through until Winter Solstice.

Click here for the Kamloops yoga class schedule.

If you live elsewhere, I invite you to enjoy the blog posts that will emerge each week on individual yamas and niyamas. Ask yourself how they show up in your life, and how they help you.

Finally, I intend to make the full course available via video online sometime in the early New Year, so be sure to sign up for Daily Doses of Delight or my yoga newsletter, and I’ll notify you when it’s ready.

Brightest blessings to you! May your enjoyment of life and your contribution to the world around you continue to evolve as you live with the highest integrity.