Yama and Niyama are referred to in the well-known spiritual text of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali in which the 8 steps of the Yoga system are listed.
The Yamas and Niyamas constitute the first two steps. The eight steps are listed as such:
- Yama (controlling oneself/restraints)
- Niyama (moral observances/positive duties)
- Asana (bodily postures)
- Pranayama (control of the breath)
- Pratyahara (retraction of the senses from the external world)
- Dharana (mental concentration)
- Dhyana (Deep meditation)
- Samadhi (state of spiritual ecstasy)
It becomes obvious that yoga is more than the bodily postures that it is famous for, as indeed postures (asana) constitute only one of the steps listed in the Yoga Sutras. The path of Yoga – meaning to yoke, to unite – connects the individual to the universal.
This connection leads to an increased sense of wellbeing and wholeness. As well as enjoying your individuality in a new light and understanding, you can enjoy the sense of interconnectedness with other beings and with the source of all being. In yoga we aim to simultaneously enjoy the game of life while at the same time maintaining an awareness of, and an increasing communion with, its sacred source. When followed to perfection the steps of yoga can take us to samadhi, divine ecstasy, and complete self-realisation.
The yamas and niyamas offer guidance on the most beneficial integration of the individual in the macrocosmic whole – both in terms of inner attitudes that should be cultivated, as well as certain outer guidelines for our interactions with the world at large. These in turn create the foundation of our further development and the first steps on our journey to the highest realisations.
Broadly speaking, we can say that Yamas and Niyamas are ethical and moral guidelines that help us build a harmonious life. They can be seen as being at the very foundation of any yoga practice, yet often they are ignored – or at least not recognised as the essential aspects of the yogic practice that they are.
In the following we will briefly present each yama and niyama, though each in turn deserve in-depth study. In our courses the yamas and niyamas are studied in greater detail.
The 5 Yamas or ‘restraints’ focus on our relationship with others and generally the outer world:
Ahimsa (non-violence) – refraining from violence in action, speech and thought – becoming aware of and countering the ego’s tendency to strike out in anger when it feels threatened or under pressure. Learning to react in a different way, our ego relaxes and a new sense of individuality can emerge.
Satya (truthfulness) – the restraint of not lying or deceiving others. Satya implies always being honest with yourself and others. When we are in the habit of being dishonest, we cannot realise the Ultimate Truth. Often the one we lie to the most is ourselves. Any process of genuine transformation can only begin from where and who we are in this moment and we need the courage to be honest with ourselves about what that is.
Asteya (non – stealing) – refraining from taking anything that does not belong to us, including that which arises in our mind. This does not only refer to physical objects but also other achievements. We should be attentive of the desire to take what belongs to someone else and rather take it as an inspiration to become able to have that for ourselves.
Brachmacharya (continence or abstinence) – the restraint in sensual cravings and desires of a sexual nature. We often waste a lot of resources on the unconscious indulgence in the senses, or the wasteful use of our creative sexual power. Traditionally this has led to the indication of sexual abstinence for those serious about their spiritual practice and evolution. In our school we teach the alternative; a way of harnessing the immense creative potential present in our desires, through what is called amorous erotic continence. More about that can be found in the pillar Eros and Amorous Erotic Continence.
Aparigraha – (non-grasping) – means to let go of the exhausting need to grasp everything for ourselves and to avoid accumulating physical objects. It also means letting go of our tendency to grasp tightly to ideas or thoughts that we think define us, and to open ourselves up to new ideas and perspectives.
Allthough the yamas are called restraints we realise that Ahimsa (non-violence) actually means acting, speaking, and thinking based on love and kindness; Asteya (non-stealing) means generosity and the appreciation of the achievements of others; Aparigraha (non-grasping) means detachment and expansion, selflessness; Satya (truthfulness) means the pursuit of the Ultimate Truth, beauty, and goodness; Brachmacharya means harnessing and consciously using all our energies for their highest purpose.
The 5 Niyamas or positive duties refer to our relationship with ourselves, our inner world and the highest reality:
Saucha (purification) – Many mystical paths (those paths in which the practitioner aims to come into a felt connection with the divine) emphasise the need for purification of our entire being. The analogy that is sometimes given is that of the lamp: Deep within us, there is an inner light of joy, goodness, peace, and harmony – the spark of divinity within each of us. However, as we go through life (especially if we aren’t conscious of the need for purification practices) this becomes covered with layers of ‘dust’ until this light is dimmed or even no longer visible to ourselves or others. Yoga’s emphasis on purification practices is to clean the ‘dust’ at the various levels of our being (physical, energetic, emotional, mental). Our courses offer purification techniques for body, mind and emotions.
Santosha (contentment) – actively helps in cultivating a sense of contentment and well-being to counter the ego’s tendency to feel a sense of lack which in turn leads to grasping, accumulation and theft. The state of contentment is cultivated no matter what the external circumstances might be and leads to inner peace and a profound sense of wellbeing.
Tapas (ardent effort) – is related to action, to practice. Through yoga practice, (postures, breathing exercises, meditation, visualisation, nutrition, purification, etc.) we develop ourselves; we strengthen ourselves, and we awaken to new experiences and the lived truth of new perspectives. Tapas comes from the root word Tap – which means ‘to burn’. Tapas means to awaken the inner fire, the inner will power, to apply ourselves with dedication to the practice we have chosen, recognising that the more we put in, the more we get out. Setting a practice, and applying ourselves to this with determination and enthusiasm, burns the present limits so that we can grow and expand beyond them. Through ardent practice we can experience states of consciousness way beyond the ordinary experiences that are within the natural capacities of the human being, but rarely accessed by the majority.
Svadhyaya (Self-study) – Yoga is a Gnostic path, a path of salvation through knowledge that brings a deep understanding yourself and your relationship to the whole. Studying the wisdom of those who have reached spiritual illumination in the form of spiritual texts, (texts which include the essence of wisdom of different authentic spiritual traditions), can help us in our own quest for this knowledge. Then, through the deep and attentive study of ourselves we can discover the universal truths that are contained in these spiritual texts and also expressed by other seekers.
Ishvarapranidhana (devotion, surrender) – means devotion to the sacred, to the divine. It refers to an awakening sense of the sacredness of life; feeling ourselves in relationship with the mystery and magic of existence. It speaks to a desire to find something worthy of devotion.
Someone once said that we all worship something – that might be money, celebrity, success, etc. So, better find something truly nourishing that gives us a healthy perspective of ourselves and our place in the world. Placing ourselves in a relationship of feeling humbleness, great love and surrender towards something greater than us (such as the attitude shown by those who faithfully prostrate or pray to God/the Supreme Absolute/a Godly entity) can induce a state of liberty, of freedom, and of safety, being in the hands of something greater than us.Ishvarapranidhana relates to aspiration; aspiration to be in right relationship to something, and aspiration to become a better person with that understanding and through that surrender.
It is not by chance that the yamas and niyamas are placed at the very beginning of our spiritual journey. Embodying the wish to be the best human being we can be, and to integrate ourselves into a greater harmony, they express the awakening of our consciousness and our aspiration to discover more of our inner world and potentials.
At first glance they seem simple ideas and are often overlooked. Even advanced yoga practitioners, who either have not been introduced to them or may have only heard about them, may realise that they do not actively think of these principles. They are easy to ignore, but it bears fruit to revisit them again and again, to gain deeper insight. If ignored we will face problems later on our path, lacking the firm foundation to support higher states of consciousness and the experience of divine ecstasy, Samadhi.
In the yoga and tantra courses Yamas and Niyamas are each thoroughly presented and one can go deep into them as a genuine part of the yogic and tantric practice.