Yamas and Niyamas In Yoga Practice

Yoga and Meditation

by Jayaram V

Summary: Can you ignore the Yamas and Niyamas in Yoga and directly proceed with Asanas, Pranayama and Meditation? Can Yoga be complete without the practice of these two important limbs of Ashtanga Yoga? Is it possible to achieve any semblance of success in Yoga without practising them? This essay is about the significance of Yamas and Niyamas in the Ashtanga Yoga of Patanjali and why they cannot be ignored.


Yamas and niyamas constitute the first two limbs (angas) of the Eightfold Ashtanga Yoga. Their primary purpose is to refine character and conduct and purify the mind and body for self-transformation, without which the mind cannot be stabilized in the contemplation of the Self, nor engaged in Samyama (concentrated meditation) to experience self-absorption (Samadhi).

Yama means restraint, or what you are not supposed to do. Niyama means what you are supposed to observe or follow. They are like do’s and don’ts of the Yoga System. The yamas are meant to restrain the negative behavior and impulses, and the niyamas to enhance the virtues or positive qualities and traits. Both are meant to transform the initiate (sadhaka) and prepare him or her for self-realization of liberation.

Patanjali identified five yamas and five niyamas in the second part of the Yoga Sutras. He not only listed them but also explained their importance and the way to practice them, counteracting the negative thoughts (vitarkas) that stand in the way of their practice. Whenever one is assailed by negative thoughts due to greed, delusion, anger or any other internal or external cause, he suggested that one should counter them with the help of yamas and niyamas, remembering that such negative thought only intensify suffering, ignorance and bondage.

The five yamas are non-violence (ahimsa), truthfulness (satya), non-stealing (asteya), celibacy (brahmacharya) and non-possession (aparigraha).

The five niyamas are cleanliness (saucha), cheerfulness (santosa), austerity (tapah), self-study (svadhyaya) and devotional attitude (Isvara paridhana).

Traditional commentators of Patanjali Yoga such as Vyasa, Vachaspati Misra and Vijnanabhikshu elaborate upon their meaning and importance for the benefit of the yogis. In the following discussion we explain the importance of both Yamas and Niyamas and their place in the practice of Yoga. After reading this, you will realize why Yoga practice is incomplete and ineffective without them.

Yamas, the don’ts

The yamas are universal restraints. They are universal because they have to be unconditionally practiced and without any interruption, exception or excuse. Patanjali considers them part of the great vow (sarvabhauma maha vratam) and NOT exempted by any consideration such as caste or class, place, time and circumstances. In other words, you cannot take any liberties with the restraints or use any excuse or justification since the practice of Ashtanga Yoga is incomplete without them.

It may be noted that Hindu Dharmashastras prescribe laws according to the caste of the person and circumstances surrounding his actions. The same is not the case with the yamas. They are universal and equally apply to all people and in all circumstances. Therefore, Patanjali allows no lenience in their practice and leaves no scope for ambiguity. The five yamas are briefly explained below.

Nonviolence: In the classical (ashtanga) yoga of Patanjali, nonviolence is the highest virtue and the root of all other virtues. Nonviolence means not harming or injuring anyone or any being, intentionally or unintentionally, anywhere and at any time in thought, word and deed. Accordingly, all yogis are expected to shun eating meat without any exception or excuse. They should live and act as if they do not exist or cause any disturbance whatsoever to others or to the environment.

Truthfulness: In classical yoga, truthfulness encompasses simple honesty and transparency in all aspects of life, character and conduct. One’s words, thoughts, knowledge and wisdom must strictly confirm to the triple Pramanas (standards) namely perception, inference and scriptural knowledge. While speaking, one should carefully consider these aspects and avoid deception and falsehood by all means. Some believe that one may avoid speaking truth if it is going to hurt or harm others or contravene the first Yama.

Non-stealing: In a simple sense, non-stealing means not taking things that belong to others, without their permission. However, in a broader sense it means not desiring anything since everything belongs to God who is the true owner and inhabitant of all that exists here. The idea of non-stealing therefore is deeply connected to the idea of detachment and renunciation. One should not clam anything as one’s own. Even the things that are fortuitously found should not be taken since they may belong to others.

Celibacy: The practice of celibacy (brahmacharya) is prescribed for yogis to help them conserve and sublimate their energies for self-purification. Such practice is not limited to abstaining from sexual intercourse only. It has to be practiced both mentally and physically. Vachaspati Misra prescribed abstention from eight types sexual activities as a part of celibacy namely thinking, talking, joking about sex, passionately looking at the opposite sex, secretly talking about sex, planning to engage in sexual intercourse, attempting to do so and actually doing it.

Non-possession: Yogis are expected to lead simple lives and not possess things. From a spiritual perspective possession of worldly things is a problem since their ownership requires selfish effort to acquire them and maintain them, which will lead to attachment, loss or gain, and karmic consequences. Besides things are subject to change and destruction, which can cause great suffering and mental modifications. Hoarding is also a grave sin because to possess things which one does not require or which others may require denotes selfishness and lack of compassion. Therefore, yogis are advised to refrain from hoarding things and keep only those that are strictly required for their survival and practice.

Niyamas, the do’s

Some believe that the order of the eight limbs of Yoga has a significance. The yamas are the first in the order because their mere practice produces positive results without the need to practice the other limbs of yoga. However, the same is not the case with niyamas and other practices. They depend upon the yamas to be effective and require their sustained practice. The niyamas are also not universal in the sense that their practice may be subject to time, place, circumstances, exemptions, conditions, etc. The following is a brief account of the five niyamas.

Cleanliness: In the context of yoga, cleanliness means both external and internal cleanliness. The place where one lives or practices yoga should be kept clean and free from bad smells, impurities and distractions. At the same time, one should also focus upon personal hygiene and cleanliness of the mind and body, taking regular bath, eating healthy sattvic food, and avoiding unclean, tamasic food such as meat or stored food, and intoxicants which numb the mind and body. The mind should also be kept free from unwholesome and impure thoughts.

Cheerfulness: Contentment is one of the most cherished virtues in yoga. Whatever may be the problems and circumstances, a Yogi is expected to remain contended and happy with what he or she has, even if it may not be truly sufficient enough. The attitude of cheerfulness is a great virtue because it denotes absence of desires or control over them, and freedom from attraction and aversion. Besides, it creates positive vibrations in the mind and body and facilitates peace and happiness.

Austerity: Tapah is the traditional practice of engaging in austerities to gain control over one’s mind and body, and prepare oneself for the severities of ascetic life. More specifically it is an effort endure hardship and suffering, and remain equal to hunger, pain and thirst and the pairs of opposites such as heat and cold or pleasure and pain. Yogis are required to endure difficulties and suppress their natural urges and their physiological and psychological needs such as the need for security, belongingness, recognition, approval, physical comfort and dependence upon people and things.

Study and recitation: Svadhyaya means self-study. Its essential purpose is to cultivate knowledge which is related to one’s spiritual practice and attainment of liberation and involves the study and recitation of scriptures that are relevant to one’s practice. Some scholars include reciting mantras and devotional prayers and uttering or remembering God’s name in the practice. The purpose of Svadhyaya is to train the mind and free it from tamasic ignorance and delusion, so that one can practice Yoga with right knowledge, awareness and attitude.

Devotion: The traditional concept of God as the creator, preserver and destroyer of the worlds is absent in classical Yoga. Patanjali identified and acknowledge only the Self as the Lord of the body, not the world. However, the Isvara of Patanjali is divine, eternal, indestructible, blissful and the cause of liberation. He may be drawn into Samsara, but he is not affected by it. Patanjali also allows the practitioners to identify the Self with the deity of one’s choice. The Yoga Sutras prescribes devotion to the Self or the chosen deity (ista devata as in YS 2.44) and engaging the mind in his contemplation as an essential part of Yoga Sadhana for liberation.

The Benefits of yamas and niyamas

Yamas and niyamas constitute the first two limbs of Ashtanga Yoga. They have been placed before all other limbs such as Pratyahara, Pranayama, Asana, Dharana, etc., because the practice of Yoga is incomplete and ineffective without them. They help us overcome the negative thoughts (vitarkas) and stabilize the mind in contemplation and concentration. They also help us attain certain perfections and mystic powers, which are stated below, without which one cannot advance in Yoga or experience Samadhi.

The Yogasutras explains the benefits of practising yamas and niyamas so that they will not be taken lightly or ignored by the initiates. The following are the important benefits that accrue from the practice of yamas and niyamas. Many practitioners of yoga ignore this part and focus upon asanas and meditation. However, as can be seen from below, they are important and cannot be ignored.

Yamas

1. Negative feelings such as enmity (vairam), hostility or anger disappear in the yogi who is fully established in nonviolence and in those who come into his presence.

2. When a yogi is fully established in truthfulness, whatever he or she says becomes true, which is why people seek the blessings of enlightened masters and seek their advice.

3. When perfection in non-stealing is achieved, all the best things in the world come to the yogi such as best people, best resources, best opportunities and facilities, so that he can put them to right use.

4. Perfection in celibacy results in the accumulation of vigor (tejas) in the body and brilliance (medhas) in the mind, whereby one may acquire mystic powers to create, heal, improve, conceal or transform.

5. With the attainment of perfection in non-possession or non-covetousness one gains knowledge of the causes and effects of the current birth and all the past births, as he gains access to the memories which are stored in his latent impressions (purva Samskaras).

Niyamas

1. By cultivating cleanliness one develops distaste (jugupsa) for the body and physical pleasures that are associated with bodily contact and sexual intercourse.

2. When one attains cheerfulness through the purification of the mind and intelligence (sattva suddhi) one develops concentration (ekagrata), sense-control, direct knowledge of Self and supreme happiness.

3. Through perfection in the practice of austerities one overcomes the impurities and attains the perfection of the mind, senses and body.

4. Through the study or recitation of scriptures, when the knowledge is fully established, one gains a deeper and intimate connection with the chosen deity.

5. Perfection in devotion to God or Self results in Samadhi (self-absorption). In other words, devotion to Isvara is imperative to achieve success in Yoga since he facilitates as well as hastens the process.

Conclusion

From the above, it is clear that the yamas and niyamas occupy a prime place in the practice of yoga. Being the first two limbs, they are the support for the rest and cannot be ignored. In today’s world, many practitioners of yoga ignore this important rule and directly proceed with yogasanas and meditation. By that, they may gain temporary relief from certain physical and mental problems, but they do not fully benefit from the practice. The limbs of the Yoga are interrelated. They enhance and augment each other. It is also wrong to assume that Yoga is a secular practice. As can be seen from this discussion, Isvara Paridhana (devotion to chosen deity) is also of utmost importance, since it is very essential for Samadhi.

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