Basic Yoga Philosophy: The Yamas and Niyamas. ~Peg Mulqueen

Via on Feb 18, 2010

yamas niyamas yoga patanjali
yamas niyamas yoga patanjali

 Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

We are all programmed to search for meaning. We look to make sense of our world and sense of ourselves, and ultimately how they fit together.

Prior to my life as a yogi, I looked toward institutions for guidance: my church, my education and my profession in psychology.  Individually, each held an essential nugget of truth, but (for me) a connection was missing.

It was yoga that ultimately brought the three seamlessly together.

While yoga is not a religion, it is a spiritual quest complete with beliefs universally shared by Jews and Christians, Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus alike.

Yoga is also not therapy, yet every day millions of people find self-fulfillment and enlightenment not on a counselor’s couch, but on a yoga mat.

Yoga is not a school, but I can think of no singular place where I’ve gained more wisdom.  In fact, to adapt a phrase: everything I ever needed to know, I learned from yoga.

You see, yoga is literally a unification. And while separately it is neither a religion, a psychology, nor a learning institution, it is an integration of the above.

Literally, it all begins with just a few golden rules.

We call them the yamas (how we treat others) and niyamas (how we treat ourselves). Admittedly, none of these concepts are rocket science, but in practice they are profound. In fact, our very evolution as individuals and as a society depends on our willingness to not just practice yoga, but to live our yoga, as well.

Outlined succinctly in the second chapter of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (the yogic textbook, you could say) are 10 simple practices.  These are a yogi’s “ten commandments”—that don’t involve twisting legs into a pretzel.

The Yamas or do unto others:

1.    Ahimsa:  Be kind to others.  A comprehensive do no harm: not in words, thoughts, nor actions.  This one rule trumps all others, including the next . . .

2.     Satya:  Tell the truth.   “. . . and the truth shall set you free (john 8:32)”

3.    Asteya:  Only take what is yours.  Remember playing in the sandbox? The same rule applies!

4.    Brahmacharya:  Be respectful and reverent.  Though this can sometimes be interpreted as celibacy—and since there is no way for me to clarify with Pantanjali now—I will take some liberty to explain. Brahmacharya is a higher awareness in our relationships—one that transcends the physical one.  Abstinence may result, but this is not the intention.

5.    Aparigraha:  Share.  Anne Frank once said, “no one has ever become poor by giving.”  In fact, it is in giving that we may also receive.

The Niyamas or self observances:

1.    Sauca:  Be pure.  A shower is nice.  Brush your teeth too, please.  But don’t forget, purity also means being cleansed of bad habits and negative emotions.

2.    Santosa:  Practice acceptance.  Contentment—not to be confused with complacency—means we learn to love ourselves with unconditional positive regard.  It means allowing ourselves to seek happiness not from outside of ourselves, but from within.

3.    Tapas:  Do your work.  Sri Pattabhi Jois reminded his students, “practice and all is coming.”  He was referring to a yoga practice, and a meditation practice too.  This doesn’t happen through osmosis: we must do our work and let the benefits unfold in time.

4.    Svadhyaya:  Take time to reflect.  No matter what your field of work, I bet it involved study and years of schooling to become the person of knowledge and expertise you are now.  Become an expert of you. Learn you.

5.    Isvara pranidhana:  Stay humble.  No matter how big you are, how wise or right you are, how powerful you become—recognize you are not the absolute.  With a sincere meekness, know and honor divinity.

The meaning in our lives is discovered not by the practice of yoga—but by its embodiment. In becoming a person free of jealousy, dishonesty, discontent and destruction … and in taking the time to put our beliefs into action with others and ourselves … we discover who we were meant to be all along.  Our true state of being is revealed—one of love and utter joy.

Peg Mulqueen is a yoga instructor and writer.  When not on her mat, Peg can be found on a surf board in Maui—learning to fall off gracefully and get back up . . . . or suspended 500 feet in the air on a zip line over a Costa Rican jungle —conquering her fear of heights…or searching for the perfect cast, fly fishing in the wilder places of Montana. Visit MySpace.OM.

Click here for more inspiration from a yoga mat.

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34 Responses to “Basic Yoga Philosophy: The Yamas and Niyamas. ~Peg Mulqueen”

  1. Elize says:

    one of the best explanations of the yamas/niyamas I've ever read… thanks so much, Peg!

  2. ali says:

    this was a great reminder! lovely for this friday. thank you.

  3. Neil says:

    This was the first thing that I read today! Fantastic! Thank you ever so much!

  4. Thanks, Peg. Love this concise and fervent article.

    Here's an interesting and perhaps provocative question. How do the Yamas and Niyamas compare and contrast to the ethical precepts of Judeo/Christianity? I have deep backgrounds in both Catholicism (raised ultra-traditional) and Judaism (married into a Jewish family and raised kids Jewish).

    When I first started studying Yoga and the Yoga Sutras I kind of skipped over the Yamas and Niyamas because they seemed pretty much the same as what I had already been taught since I was a kid in parochial schools. In fact, the Yamas and Niyamas seemed like an almost one-for one match with the Ten Commandments.

    So I went past them to the parts of Yoga which were new and different to me–the asana, the meditation, the pranayama, the advanced consciousness, etc. The Yamas and Niyamas receive only a cursory mention in my eBook, where I simply write, "Yoga scriptures have strong and clear moral teachings which are similar to any religion's."

    Recently I've come back the Yamas and Niyamas and wonder if I've missed the boat a little (or a lot!). So I'll ask you and your readers–What do you think the Yoga Sutras add to what we've already learned about ethical behavior if we were raised in a strong Judeo-Christian tradition?

    Bob Weisenberg
    http://YogaDemystified.com

  5. Nathan Smith smithnd says:

    In the philosophical tradition of ethics, it is was common to distinguish "self-regarding" from "other-regarding" virtues. I think most contemporary ethicists see this as a somewhat misleading distinction. If duties to others are considered broadly enough, they should include duties to ourselves. Or, if duties to ourselves are appreciated in the fullest sense, then they will include duties to others (after all, we wouldn't be much use to ourselves if we either cut ourselves off from interactions with others or engaged in overly negative other-regarding interactions). At the very least, there seems to be some overlap and no hard and fast distinctions between the two.

    I would think that this would be something appreciated by yoga as well, where the yogic life is an integrated one: self, others, surroundings, etc. In other words, is the distinction between yamas and niyamas a useful, but provisional distinction?

    Also, Bob. I wonder how this maps so clearly on to the 10 commandments. At first I thought, yes, but then I remembered that there is an entirely different distinction in the the commandments. The first 5 are duties to the divine, the second 5 are duties toward the human. So its God-regarding and other-regarding. It seems like an entirely different schema.

  6. Good question, smithnd.

    Different schema, but exactly the same message, it seems to me, especially when you consider that the nuns always taught us that since God created everything we needed to treat it with respect, supported by powerful nature-centric stories like saving all the species of the earth on Noah's Ark and the Garden of Eden, with all its splendor of nature, as the central metaphor for all that is good and God-like. And we were also taught that we needed to treat ourselves with respect, too, since we were not only created by God, but created in his image, whatever that meant.

    Bob Weisenberg
    http://YogaDemystified.com

  7. peg says:

    great question bob! i admit – upon first study, i too thought the yamas and niyamas were simply "more of the same."

    but then i looked again.

    while the yamas do seem like a one for one match with the 10 commandments of christianity: thou shalt not kill, covet, or steal, etc. the niyamas take ethical from the external world and encourage work to be done from the inside.

    now – its not that christianity ignores the inner work that is so important. in fact, many of the ideals espoused in the niyamas can be found in the beatitudes (matthew 5: 3-12): blessed are the meek, the merciful, and the pure of heart.

    scripturally it seems, the yamas and niyamas can indeed be found. but i will admit, this parochial school graduate was never really taught the latter. it was more about obeying rules to avoid punishment – rather than following these observances in my relationship with others and myself as a way to deepen my relationship with God.

    and ultimately, this is the sutras of patanjali – a journey toward samadhi, or in layman's terms: heaven on earth. the goal is not external – to reach heaven. the path is inward – to discover divinity within. and thus, this conceptual difference is what the yamas and niyamas add to our traditional judeo-christian understanding of why we should behave morally and ethically.

  8. Hi, Peg. I enjoyed your thorough and insightful answer very much.

    I hope it's clear I was never suggesting Catholicism and Yoga are the same or even similar overall, just that the yamas and niyamas are very similar to the Ten Commandments. ( I could never be Catholic today, yet I embrace Yoga spirituality.)

    The examples you give like samadhi and the inward path vs. reaching heaven are all deep differences between Catholicism and Yoga, but, as I said in my original comment, these are all found in other parts of the Yoga Sutra, not in the yamas and niyamas. Similarly, one has to go beyond the Ten Commandments to find references to heaven and hell.

    Does this make sense to you? I agree with what you wrote, buy I don't believe those ideas are to be found in the yamas and niyamas themselves.

    Thanks,

    Bob Weisenberg
    http://YogaDemystified.com

  9. Hi, Peg. I enjoyed your thorough and insightful answer very much.

    I hope it's clear I was never suggesting Catholicism and Yoga are the same or even similar overall, just that the yamas and niyamas are very similar to the Ten Commandments. ( I could never be Catholic today, yet I embrace Yoga spirituality.)

    The examples you give like samadhi and the inward path vs. reaching heaven are all deep differences between Catholicism and Yoga, but, as I said in my original comment, these are all found in other parts of the Yoga Sutra, not in the yamas and niyamas. Similarly, one has to go beyond the Ten Commandments to find references to heaven and hell.

    Does this make sense to you? I agree with what you wrote, buy I don't believe those ideas are to be found in the yamas and niyamas themselves.

    Thanks,

    Bob Weisenberg
    http://YogaDemystified.com

    • peg says:

      agreed! but whereas i do believe the yamas to be incredibly similar to 10 commandments, the niyamas – not at all.
      thought admittedly, it would be grossly inadequate to attempt to delineate the yamas and niyamas as a moral guide at all, as they are merely a thread. (we both agree here, yes?)

      just as with maslow's hierarchy of needs – in psychology, a pyramid approach to self actualization, the yamas and niyamas provide the basic foundation (bottom of the pyramid) for samadhi (the pinnacle).

      awesome discussion! and thank you so much for initiating!

  10. I just realized I inadvertently answered my own original question.

    The answer is that, while similar on the surface, they are very different when considered within their overall spiritual environments. So it's kind of irrelevant to compare the Yamas/Niyamas to the Ten Commandments independently of their larger setting.

    By the same token, it made perfect sense for me to skip by them when I was reading the Yoga Sutra, because I couldn't possibly see them in their full context without fully absorbing the rest of Yoga philosophy.

    Bob Weisenberg
    http://YogaDemystified.com

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