The Yamas and the Niyamas

Jim Tarran

We have begun to see how Patanjali's asthanga (eight parts) yoga can be taken as a progressive, interdependent or constituent path and we have seen that the yamas and the niyamas come at the very beginning. It is a position that implies their function as foundational to the path as a whole and to its individual parts. Taken progressively one could posit that it is no more possible to proceed along the path without being grounded in yama and niyama than it is to trek to the top of a mountain without having first to ascend the foothills. As expressions of the truth, as well as means through which to explore and connect to it, the yamas and the niyamas all express a part of reality. It is as if each were a window through, any one of which, one could look into the flowing, interdependent, infinite depth of reality.

The 5 Yamas

To anyone who has taken an interest in the East, its philosophy, its teachers or some of its well known contemporary representatives, ahimsa is likely to be a familiar term. It means non-violence or non-harming and its modern exponents such as the Dalai Lama or Mahatma Gandhi have expressed, politically, their faith and conviction in the principle.

This then is the obvious level on which ahimsa operates, there are few intelligent people who would argue that war, torture, violent crime, or physical aggression were ever desirable or conduced to any kind of positive end. There are many ways to express this principle; on a personal level, many choose to become involved in anti war marches or take up vegetarianism. There are others who instead of giving up meat-eating, insist that the animals, that provide the meat that they eat, have had the best life possible, choosing free range and organic products, over others.

All this is subject to debate of course and one has to be mindful of the difference between big M morals (indiscriminate universal dictates that allow little scope for personal responsibility) and small m morals (a personal moral code that is based on one's internal locus-we normally have a strong sense of where we are acting from – heart or head). Its best if we chose our actions which means acting with awareness, so that at least we are ready to take it on the chin if we have not acted from the heart.

Ahimsa has, of course, more subtle levels still and these more subtle areas hold the maximum potential for pointing the mind towards the liberation of samadhi (integration). When we act from grasping, grabbing or gripping, we act with violence, whether that be in a yoga-asana, sitting for meditation or even when looking out on a beautiful view. Acting in this way, involves a certain shutting down, a desire to get rid of or annihilate. This can be on the level of a thought, feeling, emotion, memory or even an idea.

It is not difficult to see how this reaction to our sensations soon creates problems and often leads to missing out on opportune circumstances that we refuse to see just because they do not accord with our preconceptions. In short himsa (violence) is a quick step into ignorance (avidya - literally not seeing).

Not seeing can occur when we neglect our last yama and seeing things as they are is the foundation of this yama - satya. Satya which means truthfulness comes from the beautiful Sanskrit root sat or 'is-ness. Again there is an obvious level to this and a more subtle.

On an obvious level lying rarely leads to self respect and often leads to terrible complications in life and in the psyche. But to be truthful externally one has to be so first internally and this is an area where our previous yama is invaluable. If there is a violent tendency, perhaps manifest as being judgemental towards self or others, then it can be very hard to see things as they are.

We might swear that we are being truthful when spouting the negatives about an annoying boss, work colleague or public figure or even about ourselves. Most of the time our judgements are based on presupposition more than fact and further more the very act of being judgemental may preclude our opportunity of ever really getting to anything like the truth.

It is of course undoubtedly true that there are negative qualities and actions expressing themselves all the time from within and without, but it is rarely true that we have the final word on things, or that there are not factors that we have not seen. In other words it's possible to remonstrate someone or yourself about a negative behaviour without making judgements about the whole person. In short making healthy judgements and being judgemental do not equate to the same thing.

Again this principle has a highly practical use as a tool for exploration and for finding out what our hearts are telling us. Exploring satya provides a way to facilitate deeper connection and understanding with our life experience. This results, consequently, in more appropriate behaviour including in yoga posture, seated meditation as well as interaction of any kind.

This yama presents us with the same tiered potentials as ahimsa and satya. On the obvious level non stealing or not taking that which is not freely given is a bit of a no brainier, we know that we are not supposed to steal and understand that this kind of behaviour brings about social disharmony and carries with it the disapproval of society and law with its threat penalty and punishment. Most people therefore try to avoid, at least, the obvious forms of stealing especially where there is a chance of being caught.

On this level we vary in the way we take this yama from following with our internal locus or from a more simple abstinence based on fear. Either way on the obvious level most of us do all right with this yama. But it has increasingly subtle levels of operation and sensitivity and it is just this sensitivity that asteya can help to promote. For instance you may know people who, when phoning you, always check that your OK to talk and then there are those who don't! Its a tiny for instance and without needing to become prescriptive, we can see how one is potentially more sensitive than the other.

In yoga postures, or meditation, satya is irrevocably linked with truthfulness and non-violence, for if you decide to take only what the body freely gives in a pose you will need to find where and when it resists (satya - truthfulness) and how it releases (ahimsa - non-violence). This in its turn reveals all kinds of truths and revelations and leads into our next yama.

This yama is often translated as celibacy, and as such seems a rather polarised area, so a direct translation could be useful here. If we take the word into its constituent parts we find brahma and archarya meaning respectively; higher states of awareness or consciousness and following in the footsteps (of) or even beneath the shade of the parasol!(of). This is not to say that the term cannot or is not used to describe the practice of celibacy but that for one to practise this yama one does not have to think in terms of this basic polarity.

From our previous yamas individually, and from the set so far, we can see that all the yamas are indeed pointing at a common reality, acting as different windows onto the same view. Brahmacharya's emphasis on higher consciousness alludes to the development of a certain subtlety. It's like the other yamas in that it effects a kind of loosening-and-merging with experience.

This increased subtlety, of course, will lead naturally to being more sensitive in all areas including sexuality, making one more loving in one's relationships as one becomes more willing to let go and see more. The release of the aggressive and judgemental mindset both inwardly and outwardly will enable one to be more straight forward, firstly with oneself and also consequently in our relationships with others.

Our final yama fits well as an end to the sequence, although there is no consensus as to what order theses yamas are placed in, nor does there need to be. It does, however, act as quite a good culmination of what we have been looking at thus far as aparigraha means non-covetousness or non-grasping and it immediately points us towards our next set of five by pointing at the niyama - santosha (contentment).

Letting go of grasping brings us straight into a place where violence is negated (when asked what is the cause of violence the Buddha said 'man raises rod to man because of what is dear') and it also allows us to receive into consciousness things as they are (satya - truthfulness). The practical upshot of this is apparent, on any level, but let's just take the example of practising seated meditation. Its not hard to imagine a scenario whereby during a session of seated meditation one experiences a distracted thought perhaps even a negative one. It is also not hard to imagine oneself seizing that thought as an undesirable element 'I don't want to be thinking this I only want to think pure and good thoughts, I wish I could be like the Dalai Lama!

The agitation that one creates in the mind is tantamount to violence, all be it on a subtle level, and produces attachment. One ends up using up one's time and energy wrestling with a thought because of one's desire or covetousness towards certain preconceptions of what should be happening. From a yogic point of view we will never see our true selves while we are identifying with such transitory and conditioned phenomena as thoughts, memory, feelings and emotions. The irony of craving, hankering and desiring for enlightenment, which is by its own declaration a freedom from craving, hankering and desire, hardly needs pointing out!

The 5 Niyamas

Whilst clearly coming under the category of the 5 niyamas tapas also forms the foundation to a subset mentioned at the beginning of Patanjali's second section of the yoga sutras the Sadhana-pada. Together with swadyaya and ishvara pranidhana they are described as the foundation for yogic action (kriya-from the same root as the word karma which means a similar thing). We will explore how these three pillars might support yogic action shortly but first what does tapas mean?

Tapas has as its root the Sanskrit particle tap, which means heat or to heat up and is often translated as austerity. To do so however is to fly in the face of the obvious Buddhist influence and cross pollination on the yoga sutras. The Buddha was very keen to emphasise the middle way which was a path that neither saw physical hardship or deliberate deprivation as a path to freedom any more than it saw sensory overindulgence as one. Because of its connection with heat tapas, then, is often more usefully translated as fervour for practice, we could break that down again into passion, zeal and enthusiasm.

It is not hard to see how zeal acts as a first foundation for yogic action and we will see how yoga action soon transfers into other niyamas and how there is within them a central group of three that represent the next natural step from the one proceeding.

Shaucha means purity or cleanliness, it's as if the fire of tapas, or our deep and over riding passion for authenticity and its principal bedrock integration (yoga), started to effect a cleansing on our lives. Again on an obvious level personal hygiene is essential for health and a reasonable level of health is essential to fund us with the energy we need to be engaged with life. A later yoga movement Hatha Yoga strongly emphasises 6 cleansing practices (shatkarma). But the kind of cleansing that can really purify the system is even more total than that of the shatkarmas and again it represents a choice or a fork in the road. Once we become clear that we want to realise our potential we begin to see what holds us back and what sets us free. From there it becomes easy to make the right choices, these choices then are our purification. Much of this is a case of actualising the yamas, truthfulness being an obvious case in point.

Whether we are talking about non-violence, non-coveting, non-stealing or simply the ability to be truthful it is not hard to see how santosha is a foundation for making all of them possible. Contentment is a fundamentally wise stand point and is not synonymous with being content with the status quo or with something worse. Contentment like all the yamas and niyamas before only really works when it is not partial. In other words it allows us to be content with what arises in consciousness and what reactions arise in response, in a nutshell it allows us to see and choose.

Contentment does not imply a wishy-washy surrender to whatever life throws at us but an ability to meet life unflinchingly and a chance to recognise when life and our wishes are compatible or whether life maybe offering us something unforeseen yet opportune. It leaves us not fighting life but seeing it as it is so we can see how to best work with it. Santosha and ahimsa are synonymous with one another and both conduce not to weakness and folly but to strength and wisdom.

This is the second of our subset of three and is translated as self-study. When we recall that tapas or enthusiasm serves as a starting point for the three foundations for yogic action - it is easy to see how a passion for something naturally develops into self study. If we recall anyone with real heartfelt passion for something (Sir David Attenbourgh for example) one can see that enthusiasm naturally express' itself in study. Perhaps a more descriptive word for this kind of engagement could be fascination as it is a total commitment and not simply sort of scholarly application to picking up information. On a practical level svadyaya might express itself as an intuitive investigation, a kind of playful exploration, that serves to tune in on something. Very young children are a great example in this regard, they are not constructing intellectual questions and answers, as such, about the world around them, but they learn masses of information through play and refinement. Each action conditions and refines the next investigative-probing into life, and so on.

Svadyaya does not mean that study in the more familiar form is precluded, and it can be of course of tremendous help to read, study with teachers, go to lectures and the like, but this should always be tested against reality; look at the effect on your modes of relating when studying. Simple questions like do I feel more content, authentic  less aggressive can help steer your choices when looking for inspiration. Art, music, literature, conversation, observing nature all can constitute study if they point your heart back to itself.

Ishvara Pranidhana From Svadyaya we are lead to Ishvara pranidhana which means something like total giving to God. It is our third and final step in our three-fold subset and the final niyama as well. There are of course several things that need dealing with straight away when dealing with this niyama, not least of these is the term God.

It goes without saying that this is a very emotive term and represents all kinds of things to all kinds of people; For some it represents a conscious and wrathful creator who demands love and respect, for others the term may be associated with patriarchal religious repression, for others again it represents belief where one is faced with a basic duality to believe or not to believe, for some it is an ineffable essence or presence that can be felt but not described, the list goes on and on some claiming that God is salvation and others saying that God is the cause of so many of the worlds problems. It is at least clear that it can mean a whole host of things to a any number of people.
Yogis if nothing else aspire to being practical and having all philosophy demonstrable.

God, here, is something tangible and not abstract and as we have noted it arises out of the previous niyama svadyaya. This passionate fascination leads in an intuitive way inwards, it becomes like a kind of guide. This guide however is not conditioned by schooling, upbringing, nationality, gender, hearsay or even deliberation. The Kalama sutta from the anuttara nikaya or the gradual sayings of the Buddha can help to clarifiey this point. The Buddha is approached by the people of the town Kesaputta who were part of a tribe known as the Kalamans.

The Kalamans wanted to know which, out of all the different teachers, were speaking the truth as they all seemed to proclaim their teaching as the only way and all the others as wrong, which, they said, was leading them to puzzlement and doubt. The Buddha agreed that it is a very confusing conundrum and gave them the following advice to help them discern the truth. 'Do not be satisfied with hearsay or tradition with legendary lore or what has come down to you through scriptures or with conjecture or with logical inference or with weighing evidence or liking of a view and pondering after it or with someone else’s ability or with the thought that 'this person is our teacher' He suggests instead 'knowing for oneself' and says that if it leads to unwholesome states abandon it, if it leads to wholesome states adopt it, and summarises wholesome states as being free from greed, hatred and delusion. This all implies, of course, being plugged in at the heart where one can feel these sensations, it is this that points us to our internal locus and it is this that is meant by Ishavara pranidhana.

God then is a term for something that is neither a product of our personality i.e. our culture, upbringing,education, gender and so on but never-the-less seems to be in no way external to us. It can also be seen around us in all things as the natural dialogue between our inner intentions and the the will of the universe, known in the Vedic tradition respectively as Atman and Brahman. In yoga posture this may express itself as an on going intuition that can be given to and many students notice that when they let go or give it feels as if they are carried into the posture. Putting it another way there is a symbiosis between inner-self and the universe that makes the two indivisible. This is also sometimes known as effortless effort, one's participation is full but one's struggle is gone for the simple reason that the duality that the mind creates and projects onto the universe has been released, Atman and Brahman are united!