Yoga has become an international phenomenon. There are more people practicing yoga these days than ever before. Giving yoga practice its own day of celebration is a fitting honor. But as practitioners know, it’s the practice we do every day, over months and years, that allows the benefits of practice to integrate.
For most of the yoga tradition’s history, aspiring students didn’t start their yogic journey with asana (posture) practice. Instead, they learned the foundations of yoga, the yamas and niyamas, before embarking on the rest of the path.
The yamas (ethical precepts) and niyamas (daily life yoga practices) are the foundation of the path. They are the first two limbs of the Eight Limbs of Yoga. What makes the rest of the limbs—the physical practices, the breathing practices and the meditative practices—yoga is the intention to practice from this foundation.
Just because most Western practitioners have skipped over the foundational practices doesn’t mean we’ve lost the opportunity. In fact, the yamas and niyamas are practices we can continue to refine as we evolve and learn. They are the essential daily life yoga practices that can, over time, transform our lives.
What are the yamas and niyamas? I’ve described them below, but please be aware that a paragraph description can’t do any of them justice. Each one is worthy of a lifetime of study and practice!
Daily Life Yoga Practices: Yamas and Niyamas
- Ahimsa (non-harming): This is really the foundation of the entire practice. Alistair Shearer calls ahimsa “dynamic peacefulness.” This suggests an active intention to cultivate qualities such kindness, generosity and compassion, and to be aware of how our actions and intentions affect the world around us, so that we can live in a way that creates peace and harmony.
- Satya (truthfulness): Satya is an absolute commitment to truthfulness in our relationships with ourselves and with others. The practice helps us develop humility and authenticity.
- Asteya (non-stealing): Asteya is an act of respect for others’ property and boundaries. But it is also a way to develop appreciation for the many gifts we already enjoy in this life.
- Brahmacharya (wise use of sexuality): Brahmacharya continues to be a huge issue in the yoga world. Most readers have likely heard about the periodic controversies involving teachers crossing sexual boundaries with students. The yoga world is just a microcosm of the larger culture. Wise use of sexuality doesn’t mean celibacy—although it could mean that in certain traditions. It means using this powerful energy in ways that are constructive.
- Aparigraha (non-greed): According to Buddhist practice, greed is one of the foundations of suffering. On the other hand, generosity is one of the foundations of happiness. Practicing generosity teaches us to become less attached to material goods, perceptions and beliefs, inviting us to relax into the flow of our lives.
- Saucha (cleanliness): Saucha can apply to all aspects of our lives: our living space, care of our bodies and where we choose to focus our minds. Clearing our physical and mental space helps us see our lives more clearly.
- Santosha (contentment): Santosha is the practice of developing contentment with our lives as they are. Practicing santosha, along with asteya and aparigraha, deconditions the tendency to grasp after what is outside ourselves.
- Tapas (energy): Tapas is the quality of inner fire that both inspires us to practice and allows our practice to continue to evolve.
- Svadhyaya (self-study or study of inspiring literature): Svadhyaya has two branches. The first is self-study, developing awareness of our own beliefs, perceptions and motivations, so that we can choose what to cultivate and what to release. The other branch is the practice of opening our minds to new perspectives by reading the words of wise teachers.
- Isvara pranidhana (dedication of our practice to something larger than ourselves): Most of us practice yoga, at least initially, because we recognize the physical/mental/emotional benefits on a personal level. But isvara pranidhana invites us to share these benefits in a way that creates a more compassionate and peaceful world.
Daily Life Yoga: How to Make it Happen
These practices are profound, and can have a transformative effect on every aspect of our lives when we take them to heart. Every one of them is worthy of a lifetime of dedicated practice. Here are some suggestions for practicing the yamas and niyamas:
- Start slow: Decide which yama or niyama resonates most for you at this time, and commit to working with it for at least a year.
- Integrate: Play with discovering ways to practice both on and off the mat.
- Check in: Keep a journal. Writing about your practice can help reinforce your commitment. Note what worked and what didn’t. Reflect on ways you can refine your practice.
If you’re interested in daily life yoga exploring further, my book Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life: A Guide for Everyday Practice describes the yamas and niyamas in much greater detail. I also give suggestions for practice on and off the mat.