The Powerful

yet Ignored

Limbs of Yoga

I had previously written about how the word yoga has, in last half-century, become synonymous with asanas in the article, "Yoga: Then and Now- A lighter look at this ancient inward gazing practice". In another article I wrote, I discuss yoga in the larger scheme of things and how various forms of yoga like pranayama and meditation are more suited in certain stages of life, than asana. In this article I would like to talk more about the foundational limbs of yoga- the Yamas and Niyamas- and how they provide the stable platform for other limbs of yoga like asana, pranayama and meditation. I also quote a few sutras from Patanjali and how he uses uncharacteristically emphatic language to emphasize the importance of these two foundational limbs of yoga .

The Yamas and Niyamas: Cliches or Powerful Instruments

The Yamas refer to restraints and the Niyamas to observances. There are five Yamas and five Niyamas. They are discussed in detail in this slide deck on "Ashtavangani: the eight limbs of yoga (part-1)". The five Yamas (Restraints) are Ahimsa(Non-violence), Satya (Truthfulness), Astheya( Non-stealing), Brahmacharya (Continence, moderation), Aparigraha (Non-greed). The five Niyamas (Observances) are Shaucha (Cleanliness), Santosha (Contentment), Tapas (Austerity), Svadhyaya (Study of scriptures), Ishwara Pranidhana(surrender to Ishwara, a higher force).

At the outset, to a lay reader of the Sutras, these look like cliches. After all, aren't we taught in kindergarten to be truthful and maintain cleanliness ? But Patanjali, uses a language that is uncharacteristically emphatic for the sutras, given that the Sutras are more like a scientific doctrine than a poem, and calls the Yamas great vows to drive home their importance. On Shaucha (Cleanliness), Patanjali says something very profound in Sutras 2.40 and 2.41. He says that when one starts maintaining internal and external cleanliness (this includes cleanliness of the mind and the internal organs like the stomach and intestines), a disinterest in one's own body arises and the interest to have contact or union with the body of the others also ceases. Then he says that the mind is purified and is fit to see the self. That is, the path to freedom (Kaivalyam) is established.

How the Yamas and Niyamas enter the lives of Asana practitioners

In modern times, very often people enter the world of yoga through asanas, sometimes swept away by the aesthetic aspects and elegance in various yogic poses. But slowly, they begin to understand the importance of diet and realize that to become proficient in asanas through the use of bandhas a light diet is important (Shaucha). They then find grounding and joy in asana practice and therefore practice asanas every day (tapas) while sacrificing other things like TV. Once they are able to turn inward in their asana practice, they realize that they cannot be free if they eat meat and cause suffering to animals. Many therefore become vegetarian or vegan (Ahimsa). They find a sense of integrity in their asana practice and stop over-consuming and start leading an eco-friendly lifestyle to the extent they can (Aparigraha).

Great asana teachers and practitioners like Kino Macgregor (picture on the left, above) and Harmony Slater (right) are vegetarian and discuss the importance of this lifestyle is youtube videos and their websites.

Susan Aharona Shackman is an Ashtanga yoga teacher who lives in Santa Cruz. A former student of Nancy Gilgoff (one of Pattabhi Jois’ earliest Western students), Aharona is one of few people currently practicing both the 3rd and 4th series (Advanced A and Advanced B) of Ashtanga yoga in the “old-school” way, as they were originally taught by Pattabhi Jois in the 1970’s. She is an advanced yoga practitioner who has, for decades, experimented with various internal cleansing practices as well as diets including liquid and pranic diets, as she describes in her website. She says that her many years of internal cleansing and now her current pranic diet have not only helped her with the energy, strength, and flexibility required for such advanced yoga practice but also, amongst many other benefits, have provided a sustained clarity of mind and connection to true Self that nothing else has.


This article is written to bring to attention the two limbs of yoga, the Yamas and Niyamas, which are often overlooked and get very little interest initially from yoga asana practitioners. Some examples are given from the yoga sutras about the importance of these limbs. Examples are given of what some yoga teachers and advanced practitioners say about these limbs as being critical to their asana practice.