The eight limbs of yoga: Yamas and niyamas

Many people in the west are first introduced to yoga by way of a yoga asana (posture) class in a yoga studio, gym, or community centre. If they continue on with their asana practice, they may learn a little about breathing techniques and meditation, but unless they seek out deeper studies in yoga, the emphasis will mostly be on the asana practice. However, if you think of yoga as a tree (and it’s often thought of that way), asana is just one limb on that tree. In fact, there are eight limbs on that tree. They are:

Yamas: 5 restraints, free up energy by practicing these restraints
Niyamas: 5 observances, free up energy by cultivating these behaviours
Asana: poses, physical practice of yoga
Pranayama: breathing techniques to control the prana (life force)
Pratyahara: control of the 5 senses, drawing the focus inward
Dharana: concentration on a single object
Dhyana: meditation
Samadhi: union with the divine, bliss

How many of these do you recognize? Are you surprised to see asana is third on the list? What comes before asana? The yamas and the niyamas do. There are five yamas and five niyamas, and you can imagine that each yama is one leaf on its branch, as is each niyama.



Ahimsa: non-violence, least harm, compassion
Satya: non-lying, commitment to honesty
Asteya: non-stealing, non-coveting
Brahmacharya: non-excessiveness, moderation
Aparigraha: non-attachment, non-grasping, non-aversion


Saucha: purity, cleanliness
Santosha: contentment
Tapas: discipline, austerity
Svadhyaya: self-study, study of sacred texts
Ishvara Pranidhana: surrender to a higher power

Some people talk about the yamas and niyamas as the “do’s and don’ts” of yoga, or compare them with the Ten Commandments. Personally, I don’t find that very helpful. I don’t like to think that if I get them right, I’m being good, and if I get them wrong, I’m being bad. I don’t want or need any new scales on which to measure my goodness. Instead, I like to think of them as ways to make my life simpler, or ways to free up energy for myself. Take satya (non-lying), for example. Have you noticed how much energy it takes to lie? Have you noticed how much energy goes toward creating the lie and trying not to get caught? You have to remember whom you’ve lied to, who knows the truth, and to keep the people who know the truth away from the people you’ve lied to. And you have to remember all the little details of your lie so you don’t get caught contradicting yourself. It’s exhausting! A practice of satya is going to free up all that energy. Telling the truth can also take energy, but in my experience, it’s still the better choice.

I’m for anything that promises to simplify my life, so I’ve always been interested in studying and practicing the yamas and niyamas. Over the next few months I’m going to dedicate a series of posts to these yogic principles, discussing how we can use them to navigate difficult times in our lives. Stay tuned! And make sure to leave your questions in the comments section below.

Images © 2016 Erin Bidlake

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  1. Liz Skarvelis

    Hi Erin!
    I have found your imagines and your writing about the 8 limbs so helpful. I am a yoga teacher and am teaching a 4 week workshop on the 8 limbs of yoga. I am emailing to ask you permission to use your tree and leaf images and your permission to read your paragraph to my students wherein your talk about how they have been compared the 10 commandments and your “take” aunthood comparison. You can visit my website to read more about me. If you do give me your permission, I will cite you in my Works Cited page that is included in my workbook.
    Liz Skarvelis, RYT500