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The Yamas and Niyamas

July 15, 2016

The Yamas and Niyamas

(from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras)


The only useful purpose of this birth is to turn within and realize. There is nothing else to do. ~Ramana Maharshi


If we wish to sit for meditation and move towards the depths of Self-realization, we need to develop and good relationship with the world and with ourselves. These precepts are practiced to bring harmony and goodness to all our external and internal relationships.


The Five Yamas: considered codes of restraint/self-regulations/abstinences, and involve our relationship with the external world and other people:

  • Ahimsa (a-him-sa): non-violence, non-harming, non-injury (how might our thoughts harm ourselves, and how do the things we say harm?)

  • Satya (sat-ya): truthfulness, honesty (are our motives honest, and are our judgments honest…what are we hiding from ourselves?)

  • Asteya (as-tey-a): non-stealing (are we stealing time by being late to meetings? are we taking more than we need in our household? are we taking other people’s energy?)

  • Brahmacharya (brah-ma-char-ee-a): continence, restrained use of sexual energy, practicing the awareness of the Divine first and foremost.

  • Aparigraha (apa-rigra-ha): non-possessiveness, non-greed, non-indulgence, non-acquisitiveness, non-hoarding, non-acceptance of gifts that bind one to the giver.


The Five Niyamas: considered the observances/practices of self-training, and deal with our personal, inner world:

  • Shaucha (sow-cha): purity of body and mind (also personal space)

  • Santosha (san-to-sha): contentment (with what we have)

  • Tapah (tap-ah): (heat) training the senses, austerities, ascesis (japa, pranayam, fasting, cleansing—austerities that create change, burn latent tendencies etc)

  • Svadhyaya (svad-yay-ya): self-study, reflection on sacred words, self-reflection

  • Ishvara pranidhana (ish-vara pra-nid-hana): surrender to the Divine (ishvara = creative source, causal field, God, supreme Guru or teacher; pranidhana = practicing the presence, dedication, devotion, surrender of fruits of practice)


Becoming versus stating a vow: Few are able to state these vows with 100% conviction from the beginning. Therefore, we start where we stand, living them to the degree possible. Later, as sadhana (spiritual practices) evolve, they naturally become a great vow, and finally become universal and effortless.


Four aspects to the great vow:

  • Jati: In relation to beings of any type of birth, species, or state of life

  • Desha: In any space or place

  • Kala: At any time

  • Samaya: In any circumstance, condition, or other such consideration


Actions, speech, and thoughts: We cultivate self-awareness or mindfulness of actions, speech, and thoughts as separate practices (which are also intertwined.) We witness actions as an independent practice, though related to the others, and our speech as an independent practice, though related to the others, and our thoughts as an independent practice, though related to the others.


By mindfulness and self-awareness, we see when actions, speech or thoughts are contrary to the Yamas, and thus can counter that by noting that the actions, speech or thoughts are not useful and gently moving more in line with the Yamas.


Coloring (klishta): While we practice the Yamas in their more worldly sense, the part that is ultimately most important is the coloring or klishta qualities of the subtle mental traces, or samskaras in the karmashaya, as these form the veil that blocks the direct experience of the center of consciousness. It is not that "I" am violent or non-violent, truthful or non-truthful, etc. Rather, it is the thought patterns deep in the basement of the mind (chitta), which have been colored in some way. These colorings are dealt with as we apply the Yamas and Niyamas in increasingly subtle ways.


Moving in the opposite direction: When thinking of anger or hatred, it can seem that one should cultivate love.  However, it is hard to cultivate love for one with whom we are intensely angry. The word opposite is used so that rather than going into, or getting caught up in that anger, we move away from it, in the opposite direction, which is not quite the same as saying we should cultivate love. Consciousness wraps itself around the thought-patterns in the mind field, and this is the cause of suffering. When we unwrap our attention from those thought patterns, we rest in our true nature. When we move in the opposite direction we move away from the entanglement of negative feelings and thoughts. By moving away, our true nature—love—arises naturally.  For example, we want to practice ahimsa, non-harming, but what do we actually do when we have angry emotions towards somebody else?  It can be as straightforward as silently repeating the words to yourself, “Mind, this is un-useful; this will only bring suffering, and ignorance of truth. Mind, you can let go of this.”  It is done gently and lovingly; it is not suppression or repression of thoughts or emotions. 


Two consequences: When acting, speaking, or thinking in opposite directions from the Yamas and Niyamas, there are two undesirable consequences (as stated by Patanjali):

  1. Infinite misery: When we feel the effects from injuring others, dishonesty, stealing, uncontrolled senses, possessiveness etc, the misery, pain, suffering, and sorrow go on and on. A vicious cycle is set up where the colored thought patterns or samskaras of the karmashaya repeats itself, over and over. This is infinite misery; it doesn't stop; it just keeps recycling. To see a situation clearly is a prerequisite to changing it— we must clearly see that the cycle keeps repeating itself once it starts. To break this cycle of karma is a key point in Yoga.

  2. Unending ignorance: When repeatedly moving away from the Yamas and Niyamas, the mind becomes increasingly clouded, not seeing the situation clearly. The guilt, sorrow etc fall like veils across our eyes. We get into a cycle of continuous ignorance, a not-seeing, which self-perpetuates without end. The ignorance of not seeing feeds on itself, creates an ever more clouded mind, and blocks the true Self. To clear the clouded mind is the task of Yoga.


The greatest error of a man is to think that he is weak by nature, evil by nature. Every man is divine and strong in his real nature. What are weak an


d evil are his habits, his desires and thoughts, but not himself.  

~Ramana Maharshi

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© 2016 Kyeren Rowena