Yama and Niyama


S. Ainavolu

3/21/2022 6 min read

Yama and Niyama - The essential building blocks

Yoga marga, or the Yogic path is meant for the individual’s evolution. Mention of yogic dimensions existed since Vedic times. The one who organized these contents as sutras (pithy principles) was the sage Patanjali. He gave definite steps for the proper progression in the form of the eight-fold method called ashtanga marga. There is an order among the defined eight dimensions, and the ultimate objective of oneness is achieved through samadhi. The starting two steps are Yama and Niyama, illustrating “don’t” and “to do” respectively. The idea behind this eight-step process of personal upliftment is that the first one gets into the groove of “right” living, gains command over the body and breathing, avoids outward distractions, and starts turning attention towards the divine. Then one meditates on the brahman and finally achieves the union through gaining the feeling of oneness.

The eight-fold path or method begins with Yama and Niyama, each of which is of broadly agreed five dimensions. As stated here, the Yama denotes the “don’t do” list. To attain the balance first and progress next in any eco-system, one must first avoid negative things and then practice desirable conduct. An example from the mundane world is if one aims to store water, first plug the leakages and then start filling water. A similar example from global objectives of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) can be, stopping deforestation first and then re-greening degraded forests (and/or putting up “green field” forests!). Thus, we need both “don’t do” and “to do” task lists. We cover the Yamas first and then look into the Niyamas.

Yamas – The “don’t list”

To avoid or don’t list includes the five dimensions of asatya, himsa, asteya, practice of brahmacharya and aparigraha.

Non-truthfulness (related to satya)

It is the first vice one is expected to quit the habit of. The very saying of “Satyam vada, dharmam chara” teaches us to follow the path of telling the truth and following the righteous means. Truth is given the primacy is because authenticity is the foundation of many accomplishments in the path of ones’ progress. Here implicit is the spiritual progress. This qualifier may be warranted as one may find non-truth practitioners at the helm in many a mundane fields!

Violence (related to ahimsa)

Leaving the violence behind is another non-negotiable thing. Here the violence is both physical and psychological. Physical hurt when people/things feel the pain is bad as it invokes negative emotions. Psycho-somatic reactions do happen and the vicious circle of negativity follows. Even psychological violence of hurting people with sharp and acerbic words is bad. One may immediately appreciate the physical hurt, but psychological hurt is deeper and often difficult to spot. In fact, psychological hurt is re-played by the victim many a time and causes more damage than what was intended by the original offender.

Non-grabbing (related to asteya)

One has to be content with what one has. Legitimate ownership is mandatory in a rule-following civil society. If one follows the principle of “buffalo (animal) belongs to the one who has the stick”, it becomes a perfect instance of a rule-less regime. Taking the things unknown to the original owner or grabbing things with full knowledge of the owner is bad. Even psychological desiring things is bad as this is the seed of the undesired act that may get fructified later.

Non-indulgence (related to brahmacharya)

Frivolity and indulgence are the starting points of many an undesired conditions. Seeking things and items for fun and enjoyment has deep underlying moral dilemmas for the society. Code of conduct often are unspecified clearly or articulated effectively. But there is implicit rule books for societies, howsoever primitive in the sociological evolution order. One has to respect it and practice it.

Non-acceptance of the other goods (related to aparigraha)

Non-accepting of any object for any purpose from others is followed even in recent times by Saints of different orders. This may appear very drastic. In societies based on the division of labour and exchange of goods and services, if one doesn’t accept ANYTHING from others, it poses a serious survival challenge for the concerned individual. However, when practiced in moderation, it may mean one doesn’t desire goods belonging to others and has no intention of accepting even if offered to one.

Niyamas – The “to do” list

The five niyamas or the “to do list” expects one to incorporate these into one’s daily conduct. These are essential building blocks one should have.

Basic hygiene (related to Shoucha)

The seeker is expected to maintain basic hygiene. External hygiene is easier to monitor, and non-compliance can be found out quickly. It is the internal cleanliness of the mind of the important seeker. Polluting or corrupt thought processes ultimately shall lead one to the worst. It shall be the starting point of the downward spiral. Where the knowledge of Yoga originated is a country that is very hot and extreme weather prone. Minimal bodily ablutions and cleaning of ones’ clothes and tidy residence are expected as these serve as the context. Without the right ambience, if one attempts anything, the drag may be felt, and progress may suffer.

Being in a state of happiness (related to Santosha)

Often it is difficult to visualize, but the person's true nature is happiness. It can be easily observed in case of very young babies who are yet to get socialized. Unless they have some physical discomfort like hunger or cleanliness issue, they are self-absorbed and the bliss is clearly visible on the face. Similarly, in grown-up cases, one may also observe the serenity and bliss when one forgets oneself. In other words, when the “I me myself” attitude takes a backseat and the merger of the “karta karma kriya” (broadly can be referred as doer, done, and the act of doing), the resultant state is that of blisss.

Indulging in pursuit (related to Tapasya)

The sadhana or the pursuit is the starting point of the journey. To look into is the beginning of the journey and very deep journey. Various practices evolved over thousands of years. Observation of mouna (silence), deep introspection, reciting of mantras (code words), reflecting over an issue/puzzle, observation of one’s own breath and more techniques became known and practiced. Again, the implicit expectation may be one forgets the physical form and comfort/discomfort part of it and starts experiencing the oneness. The external orientation or the internal orientation may appear to be two different sects, namely saguna (with form) and nirguna (the formless), but these converge after a point is the word from the wise.

Meaningful and uplifting self-study (related to Swadhyaya)

Swadhyaya is a self-study that is meant for upliftment purposes. Honestly, if we go by the quote that “one we are trying to look at is the one who is looking”, then no attempt is required and no effort can take one to that level. In fact, abdication of the conscious attempt may take one quickly to that state. The puzzle is simple and straight- how do you observe when you are the observer trying to observe the observing. Analogy quoted by the wise is, eye “seeing” itself. No mirror reflection via media please! The straight problem is “eye has to see itself”, probably an example of impossible directly. Self-study may be required to elevate one to the level of non-need for the conscious effort. One has to be persuaded (and convinced) not to pursue the powerful pursuit of self-pursuit. Experiences of other seekers and achievers can help one stay on the path and not to get discouraged. Thus, swadhyaya helps one in becoming a genuine seeker.

Surrendering to the divine will (related to Eeshwara pranidhana)

One has to give ones’ very best and leave the rest say the wise. What they infer by saying “leave the rest” is leave the thoughts around results, semi-accomplishment or no-accomplishment etc. What is in one’s hands is effort. Hence, one has to really offer one’s best, but in the end, one has to surrender to the divine will. This is Eeshwara pranidhana. Along these lines, it is said by the wise that shad-bhaagam manushya yatnam, saptamam daiva chintanam – broad translation is six of seven parts when attempted sincerely, the seventh must be left to the will of the divine. One should discern what is in one’s hands and what is beyond. In other words, planning the efforts, resource mobilization, implementation and possible risk management must be attempted to one’s best capabilities. Beyond these efforts, the context evolution and the ‘hand of God’ type situations are really beyond one’s means. At best one may think apriori for “Plan B” and “Plan C”. But wisdom lies in “give the best and forget the rest”. This is what is the gist of Eeshwara pranidhana.

On a closing note

We need to have the basic building blocks right. Yama and Niyama ensure this in one’s inward journey. The clutter, the haziness, and the fuzzy thought circles shall give way to clarity. The susceptibility to basal triggers from the eco-system and the surrounding context shall have the least impact. Probably one shall stop responding to the pin pricks or even to the goading if the purpose or the destination is not of desirability. By now we have seen that one is expected to abstain from the non-truth (asatya) first as part of achieving Yamas. Secondly, one must avoid violence (himsa)- hurting or damaging others’ interests. The violence can be either physical or psychological. The third of the expectations is asteya which is non-stealing. The next is avoiding indulgence and living in moderation through brahmacharya. Aparigraha is the fifth of the Yamas which means non-acceptance of things from others. The first three are when it comes to “to do” or a mandatory “to have” list of Niyamas, basic hygiene, happiness, and rigour. These are shoucha, santosha and tapasya. Next, a seeker should spend time and effort on uplifting self-study (swadhyaya) and ultimately surrender to the divine will after full-hog efforts. The genuine sense of surrender is called Eeshwara pranidhana. It isn't easy to practice. Together, these ten shall help us have the proper internal and immediately external context to continue the “pursuit.” It is said that with Yama and Niyama practiced well; the seeker is on the right track with all necessary building blocks. Then the journey, one may say, has well begun. As we shall appreciate, the right “Journey” itself is THE destination.