Yamas and Niyamas: Quintessential in the path of yoga

Updated: Jun 8, 2021

The sharp rise in yoga’s popularity and demand in the modern world has come at a high cost.

While the ancient wisdom of yoga continues to exist due to its benefits, yoga’s rapid expansion into the lives of millions of people has also led to confusion and misinterpretation in the practice.

Let’s first comprehend the actual meaning of the word. “Yoga” is etymologically derived from the root, “yujir,” which means union or yoking of ātman (individual consciousness) and the paramātmā (universal consciousness). One more meaning mentioned by the authority of Sanskrit Grammarian, Panini and Patañjali yoga darshana is samādhi (yujir samādhau) – a state of mind with supreme valid knowledge where the vrittis (whirlpool of our countless thoughts) is at the attenuated state and the citta (mind) is in an unsullied condition. Yoga is believed to be close to a 5,000-year-old practice, but its history goes back more than 10,000 years with its teachings transmitted by an uninterrupted chain of gurus to their disciples. Many ancient texts like Vedas, Upinshads and the Bhagwat Gita (Bhagavad Gita) have presented the yogic thoughts in their own unique ways. In Bhagwat Gita, the primary written text lauded as Yoga Shastra, Bhagwan Krishna removes Arjuna’s Vishada or misery by teaching him yoga. Yoga as an attitude for all the crises human beings faces in their day-to-day life. He describes yoga as “yogaḥ karmasu kauśalam” – Yoga is skill in action, “samatvaḿ yoga ucyate ” – Yoga is equilibrium, “yoga-sthaḥ kuru karmāṇi” – remaining in yoga do all the actions.

All the ancient texts have emphasized that “mind” is the cause of bondage and freedom, “mana eva manushyanam karanam bandha-mokshayoh.” This means that all our thoughts, emotions and actions backed by this ignorance lead to misery and bondage, but if we train our mind and unite all our thoughts to equanimity, it can lead to freedom. Even if the goal is not freedom, the controlled mind can help a person lead a healthy and happier life.

In one of the verses of Yoga Vashistha, it is said, “Even if one sits in the lotus pose (padma āsana) holding the hands in the prayer position, how can one attain samādhi if the mind is restless.”

The need to bring the mind to a calm or controlled state by emphasizing discipline in life is always seen as an important component of yoga. With gradual disciplined practise, when the mind becomes free from all the negative thoughts/emotions like anger, passion, jealousy and hatred, yoga becomes a means to rise above one’s limitations.

Around 2,500 years ago, Patañjali systematically laid down the Ashtanga Yoga/eight-limbed path – yama, niyama, āsana, prānāyāma, pratyāhāra, dhāranā, dhyāna, samādhi – while organizing the ancient teachings in the form of the Yoga Sūtras. This Patañjali yoga darshana is seen as a primary source and holds a special place in the history of yoga where yoga is described as samādhi – a state of mind where there is supreme valid knowledge free from citta vrittis. The first seven limbs are the means to achieve the final eighth limb, samādhi. In this process, the first two limbs –yamas and niyamas – hold a very important place. Yamas and niyamas are an individual’s mental attitudes or behavioural patterns. According to Patañjali, every vikșepās (distraction) which causes a disturbance in the body and breath has its root in citta/mind (“dukha daurmanasyāngam ejayatva śvāsa praśvāsā viksepa saha bhuvaha” - I:31). Thus, culturing the mind is a very important practice for anybody who wants to progress on the path of yoga, including the advanced practitioners having a refined knowledge of āsana, prānāyāma and bandhas. The yamas are – ahimsā/non-violence, satyam (truthfulness), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacharya (control of sexual activities) and aparigraha (non-possessiveness). Among the yamas, non-violence is the basis of all other practices and is considered to be the highest dharma. Here, non-violence does not merely include the tendency to kill/harm somebody at the physical level, but also encompasses this tendency at all three levels of word, thought and action. Due to such importance, even Hathapradīpikā, one of the major texts of hatha yoga, mentions ahimsā as one of the important aspects.

The niyamas are shaucha (purity of both mind and body), santosha (contentment), tapas (self-discipline), svādhyāya /mantra japa (chanting/studying of literature that would help in self-realization) and ishvara pranidhāna (surrender to God principle).

The last three niyamas – tapas, svādhyāya and ishvara pranidhāna – are included in the Kriyā yoga (yoga of action) as one’s nitya karma (everyday ritual) to purify the mind. Ishvara pranidhāna or surrender/devotion to the will of God’s principle, one of the most important niyamas, is also mentioned in Bhagwat Gita, with Krishna emphasizing that all our actions should be performed as an offering to the lord. This would lead us to inculcate the niyama of santosha or contentment, ultimately leading us towards peace of mind with a feeling of gratitude towards the ishvara (God).

These yamas and niyamas can be compared to the roots of a tree which enables its growth and expansion. That is why they are called the Great Vows or mahā vratas by Patañjali, which have to be followed everywhere, at all times, irrespective of caste, colour, creed and nationality. The aim of these vratas (behaviour) are to progressively cultivate vairāgya (dispassion) and viveka (discrimination). They can be referred to as the dos and don’ts for a sādhaka (a spiritual aspirant) forming an ethical code of conduct.

Even for an average person, these psycho-physiological attitudes are important to lead a happy and healthy life since they are not merely philosophy, but a way of life which refines one’s relationship with society and oneself. In the beginning, they sound impossible and difficult, but when such behaviour is adopted, it gradually makes new neural pathways in the brain which help the individual to get rid of old behavioural patterns.

This trains the autonomic nervous system in such a way that any sensory inputs don’t affect the individual, thereby helping create new habits. This approach is very important, even if a person takes up yoga for therapeutic reasons.

Swami Kuvlayananda emphasized how correct psychological attitudes have a high significance in Yoga Therapy – “one’s attitude towards things in general and towards one’s circumstances in life have an important bearing, direct or indirect, on the genesis of not only psychosomatic and chronic, metabolic or other disorders, but also the infectious ones.” When the mind is free from the thoughts of worldly possessions and negative emotions, the mind becomes pure and can focus on its true nature.

Apart from Patanjali yoga darshana, these psychological attitudes have also been referred in āyurvēda as “sadavritta,” the moral, ethical, behavioural code of conduct to be followed by an individual to lead a healthy life. Some other texts like Yogayajnavalkya and Hatha yoga of Charandas include 10 yamas and 10 niyamas, some of them being -

compassion, sincerity, forgiveness, fortitude, moderation in diet, generosity, chanting of mantra, tapas and santosha.

Swami Kuvalayanada explained how “the conscious emotional conflicts can be tackled by yamas and niyamas and unconscious emotional conflict by āsana and prānāyāma.” An aspiring yogi practising yoga without incorporating yamas and niyamas in their daily life would only be able to get the physical benefits.

Yoga is a discipline not just for the human body, but human being as a whole. The best way for an aspirant to progress in yoga is to live these yamas and niyamas.

This story was published by the Yoga Association of Alberta in the Yoga Bridge,2019 Autumn issue.

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