Deborah Adele says that the yamas and niyamas (the ethical precepts that are the first two foundational limbs in Patanjali’s eight-limbed system of classical Yoga) offer us tools to help us stay centered in the midst of the ups and downs of life. She’s written a book on the subject and in this article, gives us an overview of the transformative power of each of the yamas and niyamas.

To practice the yamas and niyamas means seeking that which creates harmony in the moment for myself and for others. The question I continually hold for myself is: What is kind, correct, has integrity and authenticity?

When I am considering the first yama, ahimsa, I ask myself: What makes me a trustworthy member of the human race? It’s a question of paying attention to how I’m violent, when I’m violent and what precipitates it. Actually, I have begun to use the word “kindness” rather than nonviolence.

Generally I find that when violence or unkindness arises, it’s because I am afraid or feeling powerless. If I watch myself and become aware of the moments I burst out in anger and trace that back, it’s almost always because I’m in fear or I feel I have no choices. Neither is true. If I can begin to unpack the fear or feeling of powerlessness, I begin to create my life in a different way and I can tap into competency and courage.

Ahimsa is something to be applied to ourselves as well. I’m always surprised by how I can be mean to myself and think I am being kind to others. In reality, whatever is happening inside me, others can feel. So, when I am unkind to myself, I have to ask myself, “What are the leftovers people are getting from me?”

For example, I tended to be a perfectionist and taskmaster to myself. Family, friends and coworkers were getting the demands of perfection I put on myself. They were feeling my whip on myself. I wore myself out and then brought others into that. I began to see that and the need to apply ahimsa toward myself. This fostered a sense of compassion toward myself and others.

I view satya (truthfulness) as paying attention to what we think and feel and being courageous enough to tell the truth in the moment. The other four yamas are “nots”— non-violence, non-stealing, non-excess and non-possessiveness—but satya is not “not.” It’s truthfulness. So I asked myself why? What’s the extra thing being asked for that’s more than not lying?

I think satya is about authenticity but also vulnerability. It’s calling us to being willing to show up in both those capacities. Our language is so superficial and quick in our culture. We ask each other, “How are you?” when we don’t care. We reply, “I’m fine,” when we don’t mean it. I think that satya is more than doing something correctly in the moment—it’s about being authentic, vulnerable and real.

A few months ago, as I was being interviewed, I was shocked to hear myself lie in answer to a question about what I read before I go to bed. I hadn’t meant to lie, but I gave an answer that was more about the image I had of myself rather than the authenticity of my truth. So I began paying more attention to who I wished I was versus who I really am.

I find that it helps to take periodic retreats in order for me to stay current with myself. Life can move so quickly that we don’t have time to catch up with ourselves. Last October, I turned 60, so I decided to do a self-retreat. The day before my birthday I started journaling and I realized that I needed to get current with the last decade—my 50s—before I could really move forward into my 60s.

I spent the whole day identifying the little things that could grow into bigger things that wouldn’t take me where I wanted to go for the next decade. I created a theme for the next decade and I woke up the next day and felt free. I was really in my next decade. I had gotten current with myself. I had thanked and let go of what I needed to, taken what would serve me in the next decade and had let go of baggage. Journaling and reflection is such an important part of truthfulness for me.

Asteya is not only non-stealing but it’s about reciprocity. It’s a sense of everything being a gift and nothing being mine. I’m a visitor to this experience, this earth. As a visitor, I need to be conscious to leave something for future generations every time I take something. Asteya is the sense of treading lightly, which flies in the face of the advertising that tells me I deserve and need so many things.

Stealing gets wrapped up in our cultural sense that we are lacking something—there’s one more thing missing in our lives that if we had, then we’d be satisfied, content or happy. When we embrace asteya, we begin moving away from looking at what others have and what we lack to really attuning to the gifts and richness of our lives. There’s a quote from Brooks Palmer’s book, Clutter Busting, that says it all: “The store was closed and so I went home and hugged what
I owned.”

Seeing the sacred in everything, at every moment is brahmacharya, or seeking Brahman. I understand that one of the meanings of Brahma, a word for God, is “to burst.” I have this sense of God bursting into creation, and I like to have that sense for myself—what’s bursting from me? An artist has to paint—they can’t not do it. They have this overabundance of joy that can’t help but express itself. I think that’s the real opportunity that is ready to burst forth from this guideline.

Brahmacharya also means to pay attention to when nourishment stops and dullness begins. Recently I’ve been thinking about an Ayurvedic concept, the “just-right point.” There’s a sense that life nourishes us through exercise, work, friends and loved ones—up to a certain point. When we move beyond the “just-right point,” into excess, it starts producing lethargy and dullness. Aliveness doesn’t come from overindulgence.

Overindulgence just dulls us. Most of us move right through nourishment into dullness by overeating. The question is: “Where are we dulling ourselves?” Overwork is a big one for me. When I am dull, mystery disappears. When I’m not dull, everything is so beautiful; there’s such a cosmic giggle and joy to life. I think we’re asked to not only walk around in the sacredness of all things but, to walk around juicy and in a vibrant way. I like to ask, “Are you living your passion or your dullness?”

Aparigraha means non-possessiveness. It’s okay to possess things, but it’s a problem when they possess us. I see this yama as an instruction to allow each moment to be itself rather than holding expectations and attachments for that moment. This plays out for me with my husband. If I come home at the end of the day and he’s very attentive, the dishes are done, trash is taken out, I recognize an expectation forming in which I want him to be this way all the time. It may or may not happen the next day, and I want to be able to let the next moment be what it is and to have that be okay. I often watch my expectations arise and I have to ask myself, do you want to possess and be possessed or do you want freedom? I want freedom.

We now come to saucha (purity), the first of the five niyamas. Yoga is so much about purification. We purify the body and mind so that our true nature can be revealed. Through cultivating awareness we begin to see the ego’s fingers on everything.

Saucha helps us to move away from self-centeredness to selfless service. In our culture, we place great value on outer cleanliness—what’s in our hearts and minds and what’s on our lips is not as important as taking a daily shower and putting on deodorant. If we paid as much attention to our inner purity as we do to outer cleanliness, we’d make great spiritual leaps.

Swami Rama defines contentment (santosha) as falling in love with your life. I found that just looking inside the fence rather than over it, helped me make great strides toward contentment. Every day I find richness in my life I hadn’t noticed. I think gratitude plays out here.

The sadhus in India are renunciates who accept whatever comes. If nothing comes, they say, “Thank you Mata Ganga, today you give me fasting.” If you don’t need anything then you are free. Mataji Narvada Puri said, “Practice needing less, not more. There’s a lot more that makes you content when you need less.”

Tapas (self-discipline) is the third niyama. It’s so easy to escape in our culture so we have to be dedicated and intentional about practicing tapas. We think we can get by so easily without it. Mataji used to say, “Take your medicine now.” That’s how I think about tapas. Do the work now, because all the fruits will come later. But, we want the fruits now.

It almost seems anti-American to do any discipline. We’re very soft and this is most apparent when I travel to India. At Mataji’s ashram we sit for long hours on a pretty hard floor. The people who live there can sit and not move even if mosquitoes land on them. The westerners are restless, swatting, moving all over. It’s comical. It’s such a gift to grow strength in body, mind and character so we’re ready to meet the real challenges of life—the ones we don’t get to pick. Discipline is a great opportunity.

Svadhyaya (self-study) is about developing a sense of introspection, of knowing the stories and habits that run us. It’s so important to be able to make different choices because we know these habits and know we are more than these. One year for Christmas, my brother and I gave my father a diamond ring. We hid it inside seven boxes and delighted in watching as my father opened box after box until he came to the last one that held the ring.

That’s the image I have of self-study: We have to unwrap all the layers until we reach the diamond that is the true Self within. That’s also a reminder to our western minds that there’s nothing to attain; it’s here within us. It’s a letting go process that I think we really see in self-study.

All the other yamas and niyamas get us ready and are a foundation for Kriya Yoga and the door of devotion and surrender—Ishvara pranidhana, the last niyama. Ishvara pranidhana presupposes that there is a divine force. Devotion is central for me. It keeps me at the feet of what is so much greater than I am. It takes me out of myself. It opens my heart in love.

The phrase that has been coming to me as a mantra is, “God’s got it.” That changes the whole ground of being of how we live our lives. We get to dance in life with our own flair, while life leads. It’s not being mindless or not being in control, it’s engaging each moment with integrity while being soft enough to flow with the current of life.

I would love to encourage everyone to experiment with the yamas and niyamas and to do so with a beginners mind. They are the first steps toward freedom from bondage. As such, they deserve our attention, contemplation and practice. I sit in great gratitude to Patanjali and to all the great ones.

About the Author:

Deborah Adele, MA (ERYT500), is co-owner of Yoga North studio and teacher training center in Duluth, Minnesota. Initiated into the Himalayan Tradition, Deborah has done extensive studies in Yogic philosophy, including several trips to India. She is author of The Yamas & Niyamas: Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice; 2 CDS, “The Art of Relaxation” and “The Practice of Meditation” and numerous published articles. Deborah lives in constant gratitude for the message of Yoga and its ability to bring deep healing and joy to each moment of our lives. For further information: