• Clare Camfferman

Yoga Philosophy 101 - The Yamas & Niyamas

So in the last blog here we spoke about Raja Yoga and it’s 8 practices for Self-Realisation/Enlightenment/Samadhi. 

In this blog we are going to look at the first 2 steps of this 8-fold path in more detail; the Yamas & Niyamas.

To re-cap the Yamas are ethical imperatives to enable “Living Right with Others” 1  or a list of Yogic Don’ts. 

The Niyamas are habits or observances; a framework of how to live your life within your own mind & body or a list of Yogic Do’s.

So let’s start with a simple discussion of these slippery little customers! As you will see, it’s easy to speak about & understand them on a cerebral level but much harder to put them in to practice in a consistent way that changes the way you behave & relate with others & yourself. 

But don’t panic, as we go through the next few weeks I will be visiting each of these Yamas & Niyamas in turn and hopefully showing you some ways I use to practice these in my everyday life. Remember, that with everything yogic, it’s about the practice & the journey, not the end result of ticking them off the list!


As I have said these are ethical imperatives to enable you to live a peaceful & quiet life with others but in my opinion they equally apply to how we live with ourselves. It is impossible to keep these observances with the outward world if we are unable to embody them within ourselves. 

For example, it is very difficult to practice ahimsa & be kind to others if you are constantly & consistently unable to be kind to yourself. You undermine your own foundation of kindness. This is why with the practices of metta or loving kindness mediation, as practiced by Buddhists, you always start with yourself & move outwards to loved ones, friends, community & the whole Universe. 

In addition, all of these practices must be combined to be effective.  When using satya or truthfulness you must use ahimsa “non-violence” because as Brene Brown says “truth without tact (or kindness) is just cruelty”.

Read on carefully, there is a Disney reference in here. Can you spot it?!

1) Ahiṃsā (अहिंसा): Nonviolence, non-harming other living beings or simply put “kindness”

“Raise your words, not your voice, 

it is rain that grows flowers, not thunder” 

- Rumi

Living with love & kindness, being kind to yourself, positive self-talk, self-care. Saying sorry.

Being kind to others, not hurting someone physically, mentally or emotionally.

Being kind to all beings whether they are human or not.

2) Satya (सत्य): truthfulness, non-falsehood

To thine own self be true, & it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man”

- Polonius, in Hamlet; Act 1 Scene 3, William Shakespeare

If you are honest & authentic with yourself & embody this in all you do you can’t then be anything but honest & authentic with everyone in your life.

3) Asteya (अस्तेय): non-stealing

 “When we feel connected to the vastness of life & confident in life’s abundance, 

we are naturally generous & able to practice asteya”

- Donna Farhi

Don’t steal but also don’t take more than you need. Turn the water off! Leave a tip. Be on time. Let go of jealousy, accept that what we have is enough. That we are enough.

Acknowledge what you have & be thankful for it. Remember that there are generations of people before us who have created this world; give thanks that they have, share what you have & remember the people who come after you.

4) Brahmacārya (ब्रह्मचर्य): chastity,marital fidelity or sexual restraint

“True happiness It Is Not Attained Through Self-Gratification but Through Fidelity to a Worthy Purpose” – Helen Keller

Love wholeheartedly, be restrained, don’t cause hurt & harm. Practice Fidelity which means that even though someone disappoints or hurts you, you stay & fix it. Having sex with consciousness, connection & kindness. 

5) Aparigraha (अपरिग्रहः): non-avarice, non-possessiveness

"Hell has 3 gates; lust, anger & greed"

- Bhagavad Gita

"There is a sufficiency in the world for man's need but not man's greed"

- Mahatma Ghandi

Don’t be greedy. No hoarding, clinging, trying to hold on to things too strongly. Let it go! Let it flow. Non-grasping. Don’t try to control people. 

Controlling our desires, not just physical but our need for excess, wanting & consuming.


1) Saucha (शौच ) - Purity/Cleanliness inside & out.

"Cleanliness may be defined to be the emblem of purity of mind"

- Joseph Addison

Keeping our living & work space clean & uncluttered

Keeping our bodies clean, being careful what we put in our bodies: eating & drinking good food, avoiding drugs & alcohol.

Keeping our minds clean; working to get rid of negative thought patterns, old habits that no longer serve us.

I have also found I am less interested in watching TV & movies, the news etc. I filter what I let in to my head & mind as it has an effect on how I feel physically, mentally & emotionally. In a world where we are constantly bombarded with images & stimuli it’s really good to try to filter that.

Keeping our environment clean; trying to use less plastic, living a greener life.

2) Santosha (संतोष) – contentment

"A harvest of peace is grown from a seed of contentment"

- Proverb

Accepting life as it is, being happy with what we have, how we are, that we are & have enough, not comparing ourselves with others. 

Cultivating a sense of contentment & acceptance. Seeing the abundance in our lives. Giving thanks for what we have. Practicing gratitude.

Every night I write down 3 sentences: What I am grateful for, What I have learnt today & How I have Grown. Gratitude is a practice. In a society that promotes excess & consumption as signs of success & also tells us that we live in scarcity where we don’t have enough money, time, sleep etc it’s easy to forget how much we actually have. This practice helps me remember.

3) Tapas (तपस्) – discipline

“Discipline is choosing between what you want now & what you want most”

- Abraham Lincoln

“Where the attention goes, the energy flows.”

- Tony Robbins

It’s the power & ability to channel our energy into projects & our intentions, to focus & direct our efforts to achieve our goals & to follow our heart’s wisdom. Self-Control is the balance of inner wisdom & outer action.

The work of neuroscientist Richard J Davidson has shown that with all of the constant digital input & stimulation in our modern lives, we are losing our ability to focus & maintain focus on one object or task. In standardised tests children of today are more easily distracted than those tested 50 years ago. We give up more easily & don’t follow through. The practice of tapas encourages us to focus our attention on a goal and build resilience to continue to practice until we achieve that goal, to readjust if we fail & start again.

4) Svadyaya (स्वाध्याय) –self-study/discovery.

“You are what your deepest desire is.

As is your desire, so is your intention.

As is your intention, so is your will.

As is your will, so is your deed.

As is your deed, so is your destiny.”

- Upanishads

Often a scary thing to do for many people but this allows us to become of certain behavioural patterns & habits that may not serve us and to let them go.

Asking questions of ourselves, what drives us, what truly makes us happy? How can we change the way we interact with ourselves & others?

This also can mean seeking outside help: reading books to increase your understanding & knowledge, speaking to a mentor or friend, speaking to a counsellor or therapist or teacher. Developing a relationship with someone who has more experience than you. Being open & humble and willing to learn hard lessons.

5) Ishvara pranidana (ईश्वर प्रणिधान) – surrender to God/The Universe/Life

“Let it go, let it go...”

- Ailsa, Frozen

Having faith & letting it go. Even when things seem dark & uncertain. 

Just believing that somehow it will all work out.

Seeing all of life’s experiences, the good & the bad, as a way to allow you to learn, change & grow as a person.

It can mean letting go of your expectations, acceptance of what is & also opening yourself up to the unknown & being adventurous.

So, there you have it, the first 2 steps on the 8-step path to Enlightenment via Raja Yoga.

What do you think? Which of these seem accessible to you as a practice? Which will be a challenge? Can you start to make some small changes in your life? Please leave any comments below.

Next week we will talk about Ahimsa in more detail. See you soon yoga friends!


The Yamas & Niyamas: Exploring Yoga's Ethical Practice by Deborah Adele


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