Yamas & Niyamas Intro & Overview

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, we introduce the yamas and niyamas and provide an overview of each.

Objective

Become familiar with the general subject matter of yamas and niyamas as a whole and individually.

Description

Describe the yamas and niyamas as a whole. Define yama. Explain what, in general, the yamas describe. Define niyama. Explain what, in general, the niyamas describe. Provide considerations for teaching the yamas and niyamas related to ethics, morality and internal vs. external effects. Note which sutras describe the yamas and niyamas. Define and succinctly describe each yama and each niyama. Provide considerations for teaching yoga philosophy in general, and the yamas and niymas in particular.

Introduction

Here you’ll find a summary and overview of the yamas and niyamas as two of the Eight Limbs. The yamas and niyamas are the first two limbs of the Eight Limbs as outlined in Book Two of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.

  • The yamas are principles of behavior in relationships and may be translated as “restraints.”
  • The niyamas concern relationship with self and may be translated as “observances.”

Ethics + Morality vs. Internal Effects

The ten guidelines that make up the yamas and niyamas are sometimes called the Ten Commandments of yoga or the “ethics” of yoga, but these may not always be the most effective ways of considering them.

  • Some teachers (including Nicolai Bachman, a respected Sanskrit and yoga philosophy scholar) use the word “ethics” in their description of the yamas and niyamas. So, clearly, this translation is accurate. However, in modern usage, the word “ethics” is often thought of as “moral should’s” which are then easily dismissed as an attempt by an outer authority to control another’s behavior.
  • A different perspective comes from the teachings that focus on the personal results obtained from engaging in these practices.
  • For example, as the yamas and niyamas teach, when we cause harm or we lie, the consequences are not just external, but internal: our own peace of mind is disturbed. Therefore, causing harm and lying are not being held up as behaviors of a bad person. Rather, they are being shown to be contrary to the purpose of yoga which is to calm the fluctuations of the mind.
  • As with all yoga teachings, students are not asked to believe anything about yoga philosophy, but rather to practice and experience the teachings for themselves.

More Teachings

  • Similarly, the yamas and niyamas may be described as realizations of what allow us to form “right relationship” with — or respect for — others and self.
  • They may also be expressed as natural outcomes of spiritual evolution, demonstrating our true nature.

Context

The yamas and niyamas are part of the Eight Limbs of Yoga as outlined in Book Two of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.

  • Sutra 2.29 introduces the 8 Limbs of Yoga including yamas and niyamas.
  • Sutra 2.30 introduces the five yamas; Sutra 2.32 introduces the five niyamas.
  • Sutras 2.35 to 2.39 cover each yama; Sutras 2.40 to 2.45 cover each niyama.

Yamas

The yamas (restraints) are principles of behavior in relationships. They are ahimsa, satya, asteya, brahmacharya and aparigraha.

Sutra 2:35 – Ahimsa (Nonviolence)

  • Ahimsa teaches non-harming, non-violence, non- killing, compassion.
  • It is often taught as refraining from causing harm to any beings, including oneself.
  • Nearly every source cites ahimsa as the most important or fundamental yama, the basis from which all decisions should be considered. Ramaswami even notes, “All other aspects of yama are there so that the yogi will be a harmless person.” (Yoga for the Three Stages of Life 2000 p 88

In the presence of one firmly established in non-violence, all hostilities cease. 

Sri Swami Satchidananda

Sutra 2:36 – Satya (Truthfulness)

  • Satya is the teaching of truthfulness in thought, word and action.
  • Many teachings point out that ahimsa (nonviolence) must be also considered to determine whether a truth need be spoken. If someone may be needlessly harmed, silence can be a more skillful choice.

To one established in truthfulness, actions and their results become subservient. 

Sri Swami Satchidananda

Sutra 2:37 – Asteya (Nonstealing)

  • To not steal or misappropriate that which belongs to another, whether possessions, ideas, shared confidences, or credit for accomplishments.
  • It is ultimately a feeling of lack that causes a craving to possess or enjoy what others have.
  • Ramaswami clarifies: “Not taking anything that is not the result of one’s own honest work is asteya.” (Yoga for the Three Stages of Life 2000 p 88)

To one established in non-stealing, all wealth comes. 

Sri Swami Satchidananda

Sutra 2:38 – Brahmacharya (Energy Moderation)

  • The teaching of brahmacharya is self-restraint, moderation and mindfulness in expending energy.
  • The teaching advocates wisdom and avoidance of indulging in sexual excess that drains energy from one’s spiritual devotion.
  • We might consider T.K.V. Desikachar an ideal expert to speak to the different interpretations of moderation vs. abstinence. He writes clearly on this topic on p 99 of The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice 1995 In summary, he notes, “Brahmacharya does not necessarily imply celibacy. Rather, it means responsible behavior with respect to our goal of moving toward the truth.”

By one established in continence, vigor is gained.

Sri Swami Satchidananda

Sutra 2:39 – Aparigraha (Non-Attachment)

  • Aparigraha is the social restraint or yama that teaches non-attachment, non-grasping, non- possessiveness.
  • It involves releasing clinging and greediness. Most teachings express that having things is not a problem; rather, it’s our relationship to things that can be a problem.
  • We learn that aparigraha is the result of trusting that we will have what we need and of our ability to enjoy possessions without being defined by them, and the ability to let them go.

When non-greed is confirmed, a thorough illumination of the how and why of one’s birth comes.

Sri Swami Satchidananda

Niyamas

The niyamas (observances) concern relationship with self. They are saucha, santosha, tapas, svadhayaya and ishvara pranidhana.

Sutra 2.41 – Saucha (Cleanliness or Purity)

  • This teaching is focused on cleanliness/purity of body and mind to allow Self-Realization.
  • It has both external and internal practices. External saucha refers to keeping the body clean and healthy. Internal cleanliness refers to healthy organs and a clear mind: “keeping the mind free of haughtiness, jealousy, or being unduly touchy.” (Srivatsa Ramaswami, Yoga for the Three Stages of Life 2000)

When cleanliness is developed it reveals what needs to be constantly maintained and what is eternally clean. What decays is the external. What does not is deep within us.

– T.K.V. Desikachar

Sutra 2:42 – Santosha (Contentment)

  • Santosha is the teaching of being at peace in the moment; being content with what we have.

By contentment, supreme joy is gained.

Sri Swami Satchidananda

Sutra 2:43 – Tapas (Zeal, Austerity)

  • Tapas is the teaching of enthusiasm, effort, self-discipline, burning off impurities.

By austerity, impurities of body and senses are destroyed, and occult powers gained.

Sri Swami Satchidananda

Sutra 2:44 – Svadhyaya (Study)

  • This teaching is about gaining self-reflection through study of self and spiritual texts, “an incessant examination of our inner weaknesses; a joy in exposing them and routing them out.” (Geshe Michael Roach)

Study, when it is developed to the highest degree, brings one close to higher forces that promote understanding of the most complex. – T.K.V. Desikachar

Sutra 2:45 – Ishvara Pranidhana (Surrender)

  • This sutra explores surrender in relationship to whatever higher power or source we relate to.
  • While Ishvara translates as “Supreme God,” the concept is based on respect for each person’s right to access the Divine in his or her own way and need not imply that students are being asked to convert to a particular type of worship.
  • People of any spiritual orientation can practice surrender.
  • Another way this concept is sometimes taught is to give up (surrender) the fruit of our actions.

By total surrender to God, samadhi is attained.

Sri Swami Satchidananda

Teaching Considerations

Address Varied Perceptions of Relevance

  • Avoid making assumptions about students’ current knowledge and their perceptions around the validity and relevance of philosophical concepts.
  • In other words, while some might be familiar and interested, others may not be aware of Sanskrit terms; they may have different associations with such words as “surrender;” or they may otherwise assume such teachings are irrelevant to their lives.
  • Thoroughly consider why you care about the topic, reasons that students might care, and how to make the teachings as real and as useful as possible.

Avoid Extolling Morality

  • Teaching yoga philosophy in general — and yamas and niyamas in particular — is more likely to be successful when teachers carefully consider their approach.
  • Otherwise, teaching these principles can easily sound like a touting of moral platitudes.

Teach Experiencing vs Believing

  • Arguably the most powerful and impactful aspect of yoga is its inspiration not to believe anything but rather to experience the practices for oneself.
  • Neither belief nor non-belief will bring results. Rather, these teachings (like asana) are available to be experienced and evaluated by individuals for themselves. And only in the experience are the results obtained.
  • In other words, we know that having a conversation about asana won’t make us feel grounded, fluid, empowered, open, relaxed and energized. Only *doing* asana can bring such results.
  • Stay mindful that everything you teach related to yoga utilizes this perspective: yoga is not something that needs to be “believed.” Rather, it provides a path and tools that can be tried on for size.

Practices

On the Mat Practices

One way to feature yamas and niyamas during class is to provide a thoughtful reading early in class as an introduction to class or during warm-ups.

  • The reading can explain the particular theme with or without directly linking it to the Yoga Sutra.
  • You may wish to include personal stories or a relationship to the material in some way.
  • Ideally, the reading will have a question or invitation for students to be able to work with the teaching throughout their practice.
  • If the reading is more than a sentence or two, being able to pull out a “nugget” from the reading is helpful for carrying the teaching throughout class.

Off the Mat Suggestions

  • One way that has been used to make the yamas and niyamas relevant is to use their guidance as a way to practice yoga continuously and thereby expand the good results we’ve gotten on the mat.
  • Within each teaching tools page for the individual yamas and niyamas, you’ll find ideas for helping guide student toward off-the-mat practices.

Task:  pick 1 yama and 1 niyamas and live by its principles for 14 days. Journal each day about your experience.

Going Back to Your True Self

Although we may enjoy our personal yoga practice, it is only when we make yoga’s foundation a part of our daily lives that we will be transformed. It is important to understand what transformation means in relationship to your inner life. At first blush, it would seem that transformation is about changing. However, it does not mean that you use yoga to change into something different. Rather, yoga takes you back to your true Self. – Judith Lasater, Living Your Yoga 2000 Introduction 

From the Experts

Not an Attempt to Control Behavior Based on Moral Imperatives

The Yoga Sutra is not presented in an attempt to control behavior based on moral imperatives. The sutras don’t imply that we are “bad” or “good” based upon our behavior, but rather that if we choose certain behavior, we get certain results. If you steal, for example, not only will you harm others, but you will suffer as well. – Judith Lasater

Not a Set of Shoulds

All spiritual and religious traditions encourage people to live ethical lives. Yoga agrees but concedes that living a life in perfect harmony with your environment is difficult from the level of morality—through a prescribed set of shoulds and should-nots. Patanjali describes the yamas as the spontaneously evolutionary behavior of an enlightened being… We see [niyamas] as the qualities naturally expressed in an evolutionary personality… Again, these qualities do not arise by making a mood of moral self-righteousness, but they emerge as a result of a person living a natural, balanced life… Like ideal social conduct, evolutionary personal qualities derive from your connection to spirit. – Deepak Chopra & David Simon 

They Impart Their Own Benefits

These limbs impart their own benefits, even if one is not able to achieve the ultimate goal of yoga in this lifetime. – Srivatsa Ramaswami 

The Foundation of Skillful Living

The Yamas & Niyamas are the foundation of skillful living. [They] are like a detailed map, telling you where you are and how to look for the next landmark. The Yamas and Niyamas free you to take ownership of your life and direct it towards the fulfillment you seek. Gaining the skills to choose attitude, thought and action may be the grandest adventure you can choose. – Deborah Adele