At the beginning of Patanjali’s eight-fold path of yoga lays the Yamas: the moral, ethical and societal guidelines for the practicing yogi. These guidelines are all expressed in the positive, and thus become emphatic descriptions of how a yogi behaves and relates to their world when truly immersed in the unitive sate of yoga. While we may not strive to reach such a pure state ourselves, the Yamas are still highly relevant and valued guides to lead a conscious, honest and ethical life.
Patanjali considered the Yamas the great, mighty and universal vows. He instructs us that they should be practiced on all levels (actions, words, and thoughts) and they are not confined to class, place, time or concept of duty (YS 2.31).
Ahimsa is the practice of non-violence, which includes physical, mental, and emotional violence towards others and the self. We create violence most often in our reactions to events and others, habitually creating judgment, criticism, anger or irritation. I have found the Buddhist practice of compassion to be an excellent tool to foster non-violence in my life. Compassion is the ability to accept events as they are with an open and loving heart. It is a letting go of reacting to a situation in a conditional and negative way, and replaces those thoughts or feelings with kindness, acceptance and love. At first practicing compassion is may be challenging, even frustrating at times, but the key is to have compassion for oneself, too! Rather than harming yourself with judgement for not having compassion, if it is lacking, smile at this contradiction.
Satya (truthfulness) urges us to live and speak our truth at all times. Walking the path of truth is a hard one, especially while respecting Patanjali’s first Yama, Ahimsa. Since Ahimsa must be practiced first, we must be careful to not speak a truth if we know it will cause harm to another. Living in your truth not only creates respect, honor and integrity but also provides the vision to clearly see the higher truths of the yogic path.
Asteya (non-stealing) is best defined as not taking what is not freely given. While this may on the surface seem easy to accomplish, when we look further this Yama can be quite challenging to practice. On a personal level the practice of Asteya entails not committing theft physically and/or not causing or approving of anyone else doing so–in mind, word, or action. On the level of society, Asteya would be in opposition to exploitation, social injustice and oppression. While not easy, practicing Asteya encourages generosity and overcomes Lobha (greed). And as Patanjali tells us, “when Asteya is firmly established in a yogi, all jewels will become present to him/her.” (YS 2.37).
Brahmacharya (continence) states that when we have control over our physical impulses of excess, we attain knowledge, vigor, and increased energy. To break the bonds that attach us to our excesses and addictions, we need both courage and will. And each time we overcome these impulses of excess we become stronger, healthier and wiser. One of the main goals in yoga is to create and maintain balance. And the simplest method for achieving balance is by practicing Brahmacharya, creating moderation in all of our activities. Practicing moderation is a way of conserving our energy, which can then be applied for higher spiritual purposes.
Aparigraha (non-coveting) urges us to let go of everything that we do not need, possessing only as much as necessary. The yogis tell us that worldly objects cannot be possessed at all, as they are all subject to change and will be ultimately destroyed. When we become greedy and covetous we lose the ability to see our one eternal possession, the Atman, our true Self. When we cling to what we have we lose the ability to be open to receive what we need.
In a practical sense, practicing the Yamas eliminates or reduces the accumulation of bad karma, and prevents the draining of our energy when we lead a false and/or unconscious life. When we practice the Yamas we are striving towards living a healthier, clearer, and more peaceful life, and at the same time we strengthen our powers of awareness, will and discernment. Engaging in these practices is not an easy task, yet by doing so we fortify our character, improve our relationships with others, and further our progress along the path of yoga.
The second limb of Patanjali’s eight-limbed yoga system contains the five internal practices of Niyama (observance). These practices extend the ethical codes of conduct provided in his first limb, the yamas, to the practicing yogi’s internal environment of body, mind and spirit. The practice of Niyama helps us maintain a positive environment in which to grow, and gives us the self-discipline and inner-strength necessary to progress along the path of yoga.
Shaucha (purification) is a central aim of many yogic techniques, and is the first principle of Patanjali’s five Niyamas. The yogis discovered that impurities in both our external environment and our internal body adversely affect our state of mind, and prevent the attainment of real wisdom and spiritual liberation. The practices of asana, pranayama and meditation cleanse and purify the body and mind, as well as strengthening their capacity to maintain a pure state of being. We must also consciously work at surrounding ourselves with a pure environment (including food, drink, friends, entertainment, home furnishings and transportation) to not add any external impurities back into our bodies or minds.
Santosha (contentment) is not craving for what we do not have as well as not coveting the possessions of others. The yogis tell us that when we are perfectly content with all that life gives us, then we attain true joy and happiness. It is easy for the mind to become fooled into thinking that we can attain lasting happiness through the possession of objects and goods, but both our personal experience and the teachings of the sages prove that the happiness gained through materialism is only temporary. Practicing contentment frees us from the unnecessary suffering of always wanting things to be different, and instead fills us with gratitude and joy for all of life’s blessings.
Tapas (asceticism) is a yogic practice of intense self-discipline and attainment of will power. Basically, Tapas is doing something you do not want to do that will have a positive effect on your life. When our will conflicts with the desire of our mind an internal “fire” is created which illuminates and burns up our mental and physical impurities. This inner fire can also be used as a source of spiritual energy; the yogis say the sole practice of Tapas can lead to the release of kundalini and attainment of enlightenment. Tapas transforms and purifies us as well as enables the conscious awareness and control over our unconscious impulses and poor behavior. Tapas builds the will power and personal strength to help us become more dedicated to our practice of yoga.
Svadhyaya (self-study) is the ability to see our true divine nature through the contemplation of our life’s lessons and through the meditation on the truths revealed by seers and sages. Life presents an endless opportunity to learn about ourselves; our flaws and weaknesses give us the opportunity to grow and our mistakes allow us to learn. Examining our actions becomes a mirror to see our conscious and unconscious motives, thoughts, and desires more clearly. The yogic practice of Svadhyaya also involves the study of sacred and spiritual texts as a guide to our interior world where our true self resides. Self-study requires both seeing who we are in the moment and seeing beyond our current state to realize our connection with the divine.
Ishvara Pranidhana (devotion) is the dedication, devotion, and surrender of the fruits of one’s practice to a higher power. This Niyama fuses two common aspects of yoga within it: the devotion to something greater than the self and the selfless action of karma yoga. Patanjali tells us that to reach the goal of yoga we must dissolve our egocentric nature and let go of our constant identification with ourselves. To do this, our yoga practice and all of the benefits we may receive from our practice must be seen as an offering to something greater than ourselves. Through this simple act of dedication we become reminded of our connection to our higher power, and our yoga practice becomes sacred and filled with grace, inner peace, and abounding love.
The foundation limbs of Patanjali’s eight-fold path of yoga, yama and niyama, create a solid foundation and strong container for the yogi to move into the deeper stages of yoga with focus, inner-strength, and success. Practicing the Yamas and Niyamas is a journey and process. Take one step, one Yama or Niyama at a time and proceed with compassion and without worry of perfection. As Swami Sri Kripalvanandaji said, ” When you pick one petal from the garland of yamas and niyamas, the entire garland will follow.”