Yama and Niyama

What constitutes, Raja Yoga, is listed in the second chapter, Sādhana Pāda in the YogaSutraSādhana Pāda means laying out the practical hints so a seeker can actually practice to make any progress on the yogic path.

यमनियमासनप्राणायामप्रत्याहारधारणाध्यानसमाधयोऽष्टावङ्गानि॥२.२९

Yama-niyama-āsana-prāṇāyāma-pratyāhāra-dhāraṇā-dhyāna-samādhayo’ṣṭāvaṅgāni||29||

According to this sutra the eight limbs, aṣṭāṅga are: Yama, Niyama, Āsana, Prānayāma, Pratyāhāra, Dhārana, Dhyāna and Samādhi.

This post is only an introduction to the first two limbs: Yama and Niyama. In Samskritam, Yama may be interpreted as restraint, discipline, self-regulation. Although, Niyama means observance, it can also considered as a form of discipline. There are five restraints and five observances; ten principles that operate on every action, word and thought.

Partaking solely in academic discussions or acting on pretense without strict adherence to Yama and Niyama is not conducive to put each principle into practice. The main object of this relentless ethical code is to eliminate completely all mental and emotional disturbances which charactize the life of an ordinary human being (Taimni). This prepares serious seekers to journey safely on the spiritual path.

At the outset, it is important to remember that morality discussed through yoga philosophy (principles) is not of the conventional type or even the ordinary religious type. Here, however, it is a transcendental morality aimed at liberating an individual from the bonds of illusion and ignorance. Consequently, the virtues expected from a seeker is of a much wider scope and has a deeper significance than what appears on the surface. Each virtue, then, has to be practiced to a higher degree of perfection. (Taimni)

Eknath Easwaran said taking “my life is a school” approach would provide numerous opportunities to experiment these priniciples. Whether it be marriage or rearing a child, graduate school or corporate life, phase of life – midlife or teenage; each provides its own challenges to practice all the ethics. This was what I needed to hear to bring the 8 limbs to life. With this attitude, obstacles became opportunities. When I did catch myself practicing any ethic, my nightly reflection was filled with gratitude. In this way, each conclusion – success or failure, charted my progress, deepened my faith in the tools and boosted my confidence to continue on the path.

Since it is difficult to find exact translations for Samskritham terms, I have included multiple meanings for each of the Yama and Niyama, in an attempt to preserve their authenticity.

Yama

अहिंसासत्यास्तेयब्रह्मचर्यापरिग्रहा यमाः॥२.३०॥

Ahiṁsā-satya-asteya-brahmacarya-aparigrahā yamāḥ||30||

The first limb, Yama, यम, restraint, deals with those behaviors that show respect for self and others. As we slowly begin to understand how we are all connected, we realize in caring for others we are also taking care of ourselves. Our daily choices create effects in the world that we may never know. This may be the most important reading for embarking on this path of awakening. (Charlotte Bell)

Yamas are guidelines, a framework from which we can begin a process of inquiry. Practicing the Yamas mechanically as commandments or simply because they are written in the sūtras does not lead to greater wisdom. (Charlotte Bell) Applying them to each context that arises in daily life and learning from the consequences of our actions furthers our inquiry and refines our practice.

Using the word restraint as Yama, may imply taking away certain privileges to be in a yogic frame of mind. On the contrary – it is so much more. I discovered that cultivating restraints is really cultivating the ability to manage my feelings – in essence – to recognize the urge to act or not act, and to stop myself from doing or saying things that are not sensible or correct.

Jack Kornfield describes the evolutionary process of practicing the precepts: “At first, precepts are a practice. Then, they become a necessity, and finally they become joy.”

यम

Restraints

अहिंसा       (Ahimsā) Non-Harming, Non-Violence, Kindness, Dynamic Peacefulness
सत्य          (Sathya) Truth, Authenticity, Sincerity, Benevolence
अस्तेय       (Astheya) Non-Stealing, Honesty, Abundance
ब्रह्मचर्य      (Brahmacharya) Moderation, Continence, Dedicated to the Divine
अपरिग्रह     (Aparigraha) Non-Hoarding, Self reliance, Renouncing, Simplicity, Generosity

For example, the first Yama is Ahimsā, non-harming.  Alice Christensen stated that Ahimsā is listed as the first discipline because the practice of the other nine ethics depended on it. According to her, when trying to practice the second ethic, Satya, truthfulness, lying to myself is a form of harming; or in the practice of the third ethic, Asteya, non-stealing, wasting my time is stealing from myself which is harming.

In Rāja Yoga, the traditional practice of Yamas is equated to taking a vow, an earnest promise of dedicated practice. Patanjali refers to it as a Great Vow, Mahavratham, in the Yoga Sutra (2:31). This implies the seriousness of accepting the responsibility of the practice of Yamas, (Niyamas too!) without the limitations of time, space, season, family, country, etc.; implying – although forgiveness is paramount when I fail, excuses are not entertained when Mahavratham, the Great Vow has been activated.

Niyama

शौचसन्तोषतपःस्वाध्यायेश्वरप्रणिधानानि नियमाः॥२.३२॥

Śauca-santoṣa-tapaḥ-svādhyāya-eśvarapraṇidhānāni niyamāḥ||32||

Niyama, नियम, Observances, the second limb, are those behaviors that convey positive, uplifting self actions. Charlotte Bell attributes these ethics towards conscious everyday living. She expresses how it helped her begin the process of shifting daily habits to align with what would become a lifelong commitment to yoga. As good as āsana practice made me feel, performing poses for an hour a day and stowing my mat and sleepwalking through the rest of my life was no longer an option.”

Niyama, is the act of perceiving and respecting the requirements of the laws of nature while recognizing our human imperfections and self-centeredness. “How we express the niyamasvten years from now may bear killer resemblance to how our practice looks today,” assures Bell.

As long as we apply ourselves to the practice of niyamas, it helps us cultivate gratitude and sacredness towards daily duties and activities, and makes us rely on the tools to bring us a step closer to discovering our true selves possibly through Samādhi, spiritual bliss.

नियम

Observances

शौच                 (Shaucha) Purity, Cleanliness, Clarity
सन्तोष               (Santosha) Contentment, Peacefulness
तपस्                  (Tapas) Effort, Heat, Discipline, Sacrifice
स्वाध्याय             (Svadhyaya) Self-Study, Reflection, Introspection
ईश्वरप्रणिधान      (Ishvara Pranidhana) Surrender, Faith, Gratitude, Devotion, Higher Purpose

For example, the first Niyama is Shaucha, Purity or Cleanliness, refers to both external and internal. The external concept of Śaucha suggests a clean body through daily ablutions, clean surroundings (owned and public), fresh and clean food to purify the body. Anger, hate, prejudice, greed, pride, fear, negative thoughts are known toxins to body and mind. Hence, purity of speech, clarity of emotions and dusting the cobwebs of the mind is internal Śaucha.

Wisdom

It is imperative to study each ethic and the eight limbs in detail to progress towards mastery. However, struggling to cultivate them may indicate that they are not present within or perhaps the opposite qualities exist. Since the eight limbs work together as one entity, gurus suggests that while you practice āsana, observe the behavior of the body. Regardless of what posture you are doing, the whole body participates; the inner intelligence restores balance and comfort (Swāmi Venkateshānanda).

When this happens ‘self-discipline’ begins to manifest effortlessly. In other words, practice eventually becomes effortless and even unnecessary when these qualities become the ground on which we live and grow. (Bell)

Next Post: First Yama: Ahimsā – Non-harming or Dynamic Peacefulness

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Bell, Charlotte.2007. Mindful Yoga Mindful Life. Rodmell Press

Christensen, Alice. 1998. Yoga of the Heart: Ten Ethical Principles for Gaining Limitless Growth, Confidence and Achievement. American Yoga Association

Kriyananda, Swami. 2011. The Art and Science of Raja Yoga. Crystal Clarity Publishers

Venkateshānanda, Swami. 2011. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Motilal Banarasidass Publishers, New Delhi, India.

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