The Eight limbs of yoga with particular focus on Yamas and Niyamas – how do they affect your life and your yoga practice?

The Eight limbs of Yoga are the ‘right means’ to achieve the aim of yoga: stilled senses, rested mind, with steady control of the sense and mind. These principles of the yoga philosophy, as collected by Patanjali, in his classical work the Yoga Sutras depict the ‘art of living’ and consists of 8 fields. This eight-fold path offers guidelines for a meaningful and purposeful life. It is a prescription for moral and ethical conduct, and self discipline. In Patanjali’s yoga sutra, the Eight fold path is called Ashtanga (which literally means Eight limbs, Ashta is Eight, Anga is Limb). These guidelines direct attention towards one’s health and help to acknowledge spiritual aspects of our nature. The Eight fields are:

(1) Yamas, five social ethics
(2) Niymas – five personal practices
(3) Asana, postures
(4) Pranayama, mindful breathing
(5) Prathyahara, turning inward
(6) Dharana, concentration
(7) Dhyana, de-concentration
(8) Samadhi, Pure bliss.

Utilising these eight right means helps to ‘poise the soul and enable one to look at life in all its aspects evenly’ (Mahadev Desai , Introduction to Gita according to Gandhi).

This essay will focus on the first two Yamas and Niyamas.

Yama is the first limb. One’s ethical standards and sense of integrity, focusing on behaviours and conduct of self. These five social ethics are the ‘do not do’ self – restraint rules. Yamas are universal moral commandments practices that relate best to the rule ‘do to others as you would have them do unto you’. The five parts of the Yamas will be explained as a principle and as they resonate in my own life.

A). Ahimsa – that means heart opening and non-violence. This means not to kill or be violent but also has a wider meaning of ‘to love’. This love embraces all creations (Iyengar, 1966, p.12). Men either kill for food or in order to protect themselves from danger
‘A vegetarian diet is necessary for the practice of yoga, but is not enough to guarantee that a man is not aggressive or violent, just because he/ she is vegetarian’ (Light on yoga, 1966, p. 12). In my personal life I am a raw vegan and do not wish to inflict death and violence onto animals. In my political affiliation I am left wing and do not support violence as a way to resolve conflicts between social groups or states. As a Jewish woman, Ahimsa reminds me of the commandment of ‘Do not kill’, the sixth from the 10 commandments in the Torah (the first part of the old testament). An example of an event that took place many years ago in Jerusalem, Israel: I was demonstrating with an organisation called ‘women in black’ in central Jerusalem for peace and against the occupation at the west bank, Israel, and some passer by spat on us. We did not react to the provocation.

B) Satya – Truthfulness. Mahatma Gandhi said: ‘Truth is G-d and G-d is truth’. Reality in its fundamental nature is love and truth and expresses itself through these two aspects. Satya presupposes perfect truthfulness in thought, word, and deed. It is echoing the 9th commandment in Judaism: “Thou shalt not bear false witness “ which implies “to be a witness of the truth at all times”. It is extremely important for me to stay honest and truthful, and as transparent as possible with family, friends and clients alike. This stems from a personal experience where in childhood, my biological father died in the Israeli army when I was age 16 months, and my mother’s trauma and shock meant that when she married my step-father, (I was age three years old) she concealed from me the fact that he is not my biological father. The ‘lie’ was revealed when I was 16.5 years old and had to have an Identity card with a surname I did not recognise… the impact of this revelation made me a warrior for truth for the rest of my days.

C) Asteya – Non stealing. The desire to posses and own what another person has drives a person to do evil deeds. (Iyengar, 1966, p. 14) This is also extended to misappropriation, breach of trust, mismanagement, and misuse. The yogi reduces his physical needs to a minimum, believing that if he gathers things he/she does not really need he/she is a thief. This third Yama corresponds to the fifth Yama ‘Aparigraha’.

It also exists in the Eighth of the ten commandments ‘You should not steal’. As a teenager I ‘experimented’ in stealing due to a friendship with an orphan girlfriend who stole. As I grew older I recognised the ethical values I held to more deeply, and acknowledged that no matter how small these offences were, someone worked for those items, and in essence it was fundamentally not inline with my principles to do so. When practicing as a psychologist I am extremely careful not to break the trust that my clients give me. I feel honoured to hold to their inner world secrets, and feel extremely strong about not committing ‘Asteya’ in the sense of breach of their trust. This means that confidentiality is above almost all other issues (apart from self harm).

D). Bramacharya – Means to know the Brahama, to reach the soul, so that the practitioner should practice yoga with complete involvement, with the purpose of reaching the Brahama within (Iyengar, 2001, p. 22). It also means the life of celibacy, religious study and self-restraint. However, it is not about forced austerity and prohibition. It is a man (or woman) who studies the sacred Vedic law and who sees divinity in all (Iyengar, 1966, p. 15). Patanjali lays stress on continence of the body, speech, and mind. This does not mean that the philosophy of yoga is only for celibates. On the contrary, the Smrtis (codes of law) recommend marriage, as without experiencing human love and happiness it is not possible to know divine love (Iyengar, 1966, p. 15). It is important to recall that observance of Brahmacharya brings knowledge, vigour, valour and energy (Iyengar and Iyengar, 2002, p. 88).

The ancient rishis divided life into four parts. The first twenty years of your life, you focus on acquiring knowledge. This is called Brahmacharya. The essence of Brahmacharya is that you should not run after pleasure. One who runs after pleasure cannot acquire knowledge (from:, 2018)

This rule can be interpreted as cultivating moderation, which is an important part of healthy functioning. For example, when a person is facing a lot of stress, finding a path of Brahmacharya will help them to maintain balance (Simpkin and Simpkin, 2011, p. 122). An example of this from my own life is that when I am stressed around work or other issues, I often eat too much telling myself that I ‘deserve it’ because I am so tired/over worked. However, with awareness, I try to be mindful of this, and eat in moderation, and not excessively. I find this practice challenging and that it requires awareness from moment to moment.

E) Aparigraha – Non greed/ covetousness, Non possessiveness, non-grasping. The last of the Yamas seems subject to a variety of translations some of which are included here. Most commentaries, however, seem to interpret this Yama in relation to material possessions and turning away from the seeking and holding of such possessions. In essence advocating a simple life with a lightness of attachment to ‘things’. (Retrieved from: Parighara means hoarding or collecting. …The yogi makes his life simple as possible’ ( Iyengar, 1966, p. 16). Often, the need to hold to objects is a transference of insecure attachment to main care givers who had vanished in early childhood of the individual. An example is my dear friends Suzie (name has been changed for confidentiality purposes) who was sent to boarding school age 7, and always wished she could have stayed nearer home. In adulthood after her parents passed away she went back to live in their home, (her childhood desirable ‘object’) and filled that space up to table level (70 cm) from the floor up with collected items such as old yogurt pots, old eggs cartons etc. (‘I might need it one day to create a work of art with my daughters’…, she is an art teacher by education). After this had hindered her life quite severely, and post a few conversations about how her obsessive compulsive hoarding might stem from the above described reasons she was able to start contemplating letting go of this behaviour. However, at times of stress this often returns as insecurity increases.

The Yamas and Niyamas encourage people to act according to values, such as not being greedy or stealing. When people can handle difficulties without violating their ethical principles, they come out of it stronger, with inner confidence. Likewise, therapy can show people how to draw from the strength of standing with their values (Simpkin and Simpkin, 2011, p. 123). I utilise Acceptance and Commitment Therapy that uses exploration of one’s values in order to align the patient with their inner wishes and beliefs and reduce psychological conflict.

The next five are Niyamas…. the ‘Do’ commandments.
Niyamas are the rules that apply to Individual discipline. The five Niyamas listed by Patanjali are: Saucha ( purity), Santosa (contentment), Tapas (Austerity or ardour), Svadhyaya (study of the self), and Isvara pranidhana (dedication to the lord).

A) Saucha – means cleanliness, purity. Purity of the mind speech and body is a basic rule that keeps humans on a path that leads to wellbeing. The practice of asanas tone the entire body, and remove the toxins and impurities caused by over indulgence. (Iyengar, 1966, p. 16). Pranayamas cleanses the lungs, oxygenates the blood, and purifies the nerves. Students of yoga should observe internal cleanliness and bath each cell of the inner body through good blood circulation and flow of energy (Iyengar, 2001, p. 22) . In my personal life internal purity via physical exercise includes meditation, yoga, running, walking mindfully, diet of live raw food. It all clears the mind and keeps the energy flowing.

B) Santosa – Contentment. This means acceptance of others and of one’s circumstances as they are. Good health derived from ‘Saucha’ leads to contentment. We need to be content in order to be able to concentrate. Tranquillity and contentment are states of mind. Differences between people create conflict, which destruct people (for example power imbalance between men and women, poor and rich, educated and uneducated). ‘The wind of desire tempers with the flame of tranquillity’ (Iyengar, 1966, p. 18). In my professional life I often witness power imbalances, and empathize with the conflicts it creates within my client’s minds and hearts. Yet, the golden dialectical rule is to accept the loss that had happened while still wishing to move forward into the desired change. Creating this dialectical space of acceptance while striving for change is in order to allow for relative ‘Santosa’, or contentment. For example while working with women or men who suffer from eating disorders that are highly linked to body issues, we work on acceptance of the body as it is, thinking of the body current shape as ‘good enough’. We are aiming to reduce negative behaviours such as bulimic eating, purging, and the like, and simultaneously striving to construct the desired thinner or healthier body that the client desires. The ‘Santosa’ arrives when the behaviours feelings and thoughts are in balance between the two states of acceptance and desire. It is important for me to stress out that Santosa does not mean acceptance equal to no change. It means acceptance while striving to change.

C) Tapas – (‘Tap’ means burn) Austerity, self discipline. ‘Burning effort under all circumstances to achieve a definite goal in life. ‘Character building’ is the practice of tapas. By tapas the yogi develops strength in mind, body and character. This relates to the three types of tapas: Body, mind and speech. He gains courage, wisdom, integrity, straightforwardness, and simplicity.

In my personal life I had to develop self-discipline due to the diabetes. I have to run or walk for my health, regardless of the weather outside, or my levels of tiredness/wish to exercise. Similarly, during the adoption process of the twins that took 2.5 years it was necessary to utilise perseverance, and carrying on doing our best, when often things went off the rails, and moral questions arose.

D) Svadhayaya – (‘Sva’ means self and ‘Adhyaya’ means education). Hence: study of the self, self-reflection, and introspection of one’s thoughts, speeches and actions. In my professional life my main pursuit and way to help others is assisting them to be self-reflective. In order to do this I have to be ‘hyper’-aware of my own issues, thoughts, and feelings. The premise of western psychology is that self-awareness is a necessary and helpful tool to connect the unconscious to conscious mind, in order to be able to have choice in our actions and reactions of the external (and internal) world. Hence counselling and clinical psychologists have to be in therapy during their training, and keep on being in supervision during their years of professional practice.

I used to write a diary that helped me keep in contact with my inner self, and use my partner and friends to be reflective while hearing myself talking to them about my conflicts. Painting, drawing and photography were also other creative tools that helped me to be introspective, as I was a designer for many years, and via theses creative arts I could stay longer in a reflective mode, around the people/places that were curious for me.

E) Isvara Paranidhana – Dedication to the lord of one’s actions and wills. ‘Attunement to the supreme consciousness’ (Iyengar, 1966, p. 19). ‘The practice and study of yoga with devotional attention on god is meditation’ (Iyengar, 2001 p. 22). As a secular Jewish woman, it is hard for me to relate to the word ‘God’ in its traditional meaning in a monotheistic western society. However, my own personal meaning is a transpersonal entity. I have a sense of attunement to a supreme consciousness ‘power’, and have felt connection to such power in particular existential junctions in my life. For example, when I lost my 39 weeks embryo and woke up into the A&E part of hospital, I felt connected to the universe/cosmos larger powers, and felt that this event/power that had created loss and had taken my fertility ability will also enable me to grow and develop as a result of it. I did not understand the rhyme or reason for it, but could feel that I will have the energies to go further with that or despite that loss.

Another moment in which I connected with this transpersonal consciousness was while sitting by my mother’s bed side during her last night of living. It was 3 am and I was reading Psalms for her, letting her go. It was a form of meditation for me, and I hoped that through the morphine drugs she could feel my presence, and go on her way with peace. In yoga terms I practiced devotional attention through these words of ancient Hebrew Jewish prayer. It was a moment of ‘Isvara Panidhana’.

The belief in higher power as encouraged in the fifth Niyama fosters positive expectations that can serve as a guiding light through dark times. (Simpkins and Simpkins, 2011).

In summary, the Yamas and Niyamas encourage people to act according to values, such as not being greedy or stealing. When people can handle difficulties without violating their ethical principles, they come out of it stronger, with inner confidence. Therapy can show people how to draw from the strength of standing firm with their values (Simpkins and Simpkins, 2011). This is where the convergence between my passion to practice yoga and my professional life takes place.

S R d S. 30 Sept 2018
Dr Shani Ram du Sautoy. C Psychologist.


Yoga, the path to holistic health, the definitive step-by-step guide. (2011) B.K.S Iyengar, Dorling Kindersley, UK.

Basic guidelines for teachers of yoga (2002), B K S Iyengar and Geeta Iyengar, Iyengar memorial yoga institute, Pune.

Simpkins A M and Spimpkins C A (2011) Meditation an Yoga in Psychotherapy, Techniques for clinical practice. Wiley, UK., retrieved: 23 09 18)

The ten commandments (According to the Jewish Torah)

  1. I am the Lord your God.
    “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery.” (Exodus 20:2)
  2. You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself an idol.
    “You shall not recognize other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth.” (Exodus 20:3–4)
  3. You shall not take the name of God in vain.
    “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain.” (Exodus 20:7)
  4. Remember and observe the Sabbath and keep it holy.
    “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant, your animal or your stranger within your gates.” (Exodus 20:8–10)
  5. Honour your father and mother.
    “Honour your father and your mother, so that your days may be prolonged in the land which the Lord your God gives you.” (Exodus 20:12)
  6. You shall not murder.
    “You shall not murder.” (Exodus 20:13)
  7. You shall not commit adultery.
    “You shall not commit adultery.” (Exodus 20:13)
  8. You shall not steal.
    “You shall not steal.” (Exodus 20:13)
  9. You shall not bear false witness.
    “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.” (Exodus 20:13)
  10. You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife or house.
    “You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife or his male servant or his female servant or his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbour.” (Exodus 20:14)