The yamas, literally "restraints" pertain to our relationship with others and the earth. Consisting of non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, non-excess, and non-possessiveness, they invite us into an adult relationship with the world where we can see past our own needs and into the collective good. In one sense, we can think of them as social disciplines guiding us into peace, harmony, and right relationship with the world. The yamas pull us back from needing so much that is external and point us towards the unique expression of our own life. It is here that we feel the excitement and joy of living.
The niyamas, literally "non- restraints" or "observances", shift our attention from an adult relationship with the world to an adult relationship with ourselves, and from a social focus to an internal focus. Consisting of purity, contentment, self-discipline, self-study, and surrender, the niyamas are like seeds to plant and care for in our inner being. As these seeds begin to bear fruit, we will become unshakable as we experience an inner essence of deep harmony and strength.
Hmmm. I have yet to have them explained to me in this way and the result is palpable, like a little a-ha moment.
For instance, considering the yamas as that which enables us to consider collective good, cultivating this level of awareness within us as we navigate the social world and the niyamas as that which cultivates a more meaningful relationship with self, is very helpful in my comprehension and incorporation of both into my daily life.