Beginner’s Guide: The Yamas and Niyamas for Spiritual Advancement

To Those Who Want To Live Life On Higher Principles

This is a foundation level guide to learning the first two limbs out of eight limbs of Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga. 

 

You’ll learn a total ten commandments of yoga – the dos and don’ts on the spiritual path with relevant examples and the philosophy behind them.

 

If you take an interest in ancient yogic teachings or you want to know higher truths for living a harmonious life, you’ll find this guide useful.

 

Let’s get started!

Table of Contents

Introduction

Lleve, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Patanjali, the great ancient exponent of raja yoga, wrote that the path to enlightenment embraces eight stages. His teaching is also known as ashtanga, or “eight-limbed,” yoga.

 

The first two stages of Patanjali’s eightfold path are known as yama and niyama. 

 

Yama means control; niyama, non-control. 

 

Literally, these two stages mean the don’ts and the do’s on the spiritual path. They are, one might say, the Ten Commandments of yoga.

 

We shall discuss them in detail later. Their essential purpose is to permit the milk of inner peace to be gathered in the pail of the mind by plugging holes that have been caused by restlessness, wrong attachments, desires, and various forms of inharmonious living.

Philosophy

The evolution of moral values is commonly explained in one of two ways. 

 

Religionists claim that God simply ordained how man should behave. 

 

Social thinkers, on the other hand, claim that because the laws of morality differ so radically from culture to culture, they must be seen as having grown out of the demands of social convenience.

 

The teachings of yoga, however, make it clear that the scriptural “commandments” have a much more acceptable basis. They are founded on basic realities of human nature itself, and are intended simply to help man to fulfill that nature.

 

Under each of these two headings are five rules, or guidelines, making a total of ten (reminiscent of the Biblical “ten commandments”). 

 

The reason for offering such guidelines is obvious: Man does not easily perceive, except after much painful trial and error (and then often too late), the laws governing his own nature. Many of his actions, seemingly natural to him simply because they come easily, are actually self-destructive: drunkenness, for example, or (on a mental level) a bad temper.

 

The universal moral principles are in reality guideposts to true, lasting freedom.

 

The principles of yama and niyama are intended as guidelines for everyone, but they are meant especially for those who are seeking to advance spiritually.

The Yamas

The five rules of yama, or control, are proscriptive. 

When a man can remove physical and mental inharmony from his system, he will not have to work to become harmonious. He is Spirit; all that shows him to be otherwise is merely a veil of delusion that has been cast over the eternal perfection of his true nature. 

 

Gold may be buried under mud, but if we clear away the mud we shall not have to work on the gold to make it more golden. 

 

The rules of yama, then, are:

1) Ahimsa, Non-Violence or Non-Injury

2) Non-Lying, or Truthfulness

3) Non-Stealing

4) Non-Sensuality

5) Non-Greed

 

Each of these rules must be understood in a subtle as well as in an obvious sense.

1) Ahimsa is a term that was popularized in our times by Mahatma Gandhi. By non-violent resistance he led India to political emancipation from Britain.

 

In the practice of yoga, it is important to understand that the life flowing in our veins is the same life which flows in the veins of all creatures. 

 

All of us are expressions of God, in the same way (to use a favorite illustration of my guru’s) that the individual jets on a gas burner, though appearing separate from one another, are only manifestations of the unifying gas underneath. 

 

If I hurt you, I am in a real sense hurting myself. The saying of Jesus, “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” means, in a deeper sense, “Love thy neighbor; he is thy Self.”

 

The goal of yoga is to realize the oneness of all life. 

 

If I am willing to hurt the life in me as it is expressed in another human being, then I am affirming an error that is diametrically opposed to the realization which I am seeking to attain. 

 

It is necessary, if I would truly realize the oneness of all things, for me to live also in such a way as constantly to affirm this oneness – by my kindness towards all beings, by compassion, by universal love.

 

What Patanjali referred to, essentially, was the attitude of the mind, rather than the literal acts of the body. 

 

It is one’s attitude that can either lead him toward liberation, or hold him in greater bondage.

 

The principle of ahimsa must be understood in subtle ways, not only in gross. 

 

If you harm anyone in the slightest way – if, for example, you kill his enthusiasm (which is in a sense the life within him), or if you deride him, or if you treat him with disrespect – in all of these ways you will be harming him, and also, by reflection, yourself. 

 

The perfect practice of ahimsa, then, may be seen to be rare indeed.

 

Patanjali gives us a test by which we can tell if we have developed our practice of ahimsa to perfection. 

 

He says that once this has been accomplished, even wild animals and ferocious criminals will become tame and harmless in our presence. 

 

Many were the instances in the life of my own guru, Paramhansa Yogananda, in which this promise was fulfilled.

 

In the jungles near Ranchi, where he had gone one time with a group of students and teachers from his school, he prevented a wild tiger from attacking their cows by standing between it and them, and looking at it with love. On several occasions in America he converted hardened criminals with a glance.

2) Non-lying must be understood in a subtle sense also.

 

Truthfulness is the necessary attitude for us if we would overcome our own false notions about life.

 

There are higher, as well as lower, truths. 

 

To call a man stupid is not a higher truth, though he may in fact be a moron. 

The soul within us is ever wise, ever perfect. To be truthful, then, does not necessarily mean to be literally factual. 

 

It might be well to tell a dull fellow that he is bright, if in the telling we try also to penetrate his mind with an affirmation of his inner potential for intelligence. 

 

Truth is always beneficial. 

 

To make harmful statements, even if they are based on obvious, but superficial and temporary, facts, is in the deepest spiritual sense untruthful.

 

An attitude of truthfulness means to try always to see things as they are, to accept the possibility that one may be mistaken in his most cherished opinions, to entertain no likes and dislikes that might prejudice his perception of reality as it is. 

 

Truthfulness means to look always for the Divine Light that shines in the midst of universal darkness, to see God in everything and everyone, to affirm goodness even in the face of evil, and yet always to do so from a center of absolute honesty, never of mere wishful thinking.

 

When one attunes himself with Nature, he attunes himself to the power of the universe. His strength then becomes limitless. 

 

When one attunes himself to the Divine behind all natural, universal phenomena, he makes himself a channel for the Divine to flow in pristine splendor into the dark alleys and buried chambers of this relative world.

 

Patanjali gave us a test by which we might tell whether we have achieved perfection in this virtue. He said that a person in whom this principle of truthfulness becomes firmly established will develop the power to attain the fruits of action without even acting. His mere thought, his mere word will be binding on the universe. Relative facts will have to accommodate themselves to his will, attuned as he is to a deeper reality. 

 

A saint can heal others by simply saying to them with deep concentration, “Be well!”

3) Non-stealing means more than simply not taking another person’s property. 

 

It means also not coveting his property. 

 

It means not desiring anything that is not yours by right. 

 

It means actually not even to desire that which is yours by right, in the realization that whatever is rightfully yours will surely come to you anyway, but that your happiness is not conditioned by whether you get it or not. 

 

Desire only keeps one looking to the future for his fulfillment, instead of realizing that perfection is his already. 

 

You need only to realize more and more deeply your already-existing oneness with all life.

Why feel that you need anything in the universe, when in truth you are the universe!

 

Ego is the supreme obstacle to the true vision of life’s all-embracing unity.

 

Stealing, or coveting, need not be limited to material objects.

 

As a test of one’s progress in the development of this virtue, Patanjali says that when non-stealing becomes firmly rooted in one’s consciousness one will find wealth coming to him whenever he needs it. 

 

For when one truly recognizes that the very universe is his own, and no longer cuts himself off from the rest of life by egoistically demanding his own “share” of it, he finds himself supported, no longer ignored, by the universal law.

4) Brahmacharya, or non-sensuality, is based on a little-known fact: Although man’s inner peace is disrupted by physical and emotional tension, he cannot find inner harmony by merely releasing that tension outwardly in sense indulgence. 

 

The reason many people find this truth so difficult to grasp is that sense indulgence is accompanied, typically, by an apparent increase of inner peace, as well as a feeling of freedom.

 

For a person’s degree of awareness depends entirely on the amount and direction of his inner flow of energy.

 

A truly aware person is always one who possesses great energy.

 

To be continuously and consciously at peace, one must find a way of releasing his inner tensions without losing the energy with which his ensuing peace may be fully savored.

 

Observe how, when you feel happy, your energy and consciousness seem to soar upward. You tend to sit a little straighter, to stand more on the balls of your feet, to look upward more frequently, even to feel physically lighter.

 

When, on the other hand, you feel unhappy, note how your energy and consciousness move downward, away from the brain. Your shoulders and back tend to slump forward, you walk more heavily on your heels, your natural impulse is to look downward. The very expressions you use to describe your condition at such times suggest the downward movement of your energy: “I feel depressed, downcast, heavy, in the dumps.” 

 

Hell itself is commonly conceived of as being situated somewhere below us – as if it were a sort of terminal station on this downward journey of man’s consciousness.

 

Two of the primary requirements for enjoying life to the fullest are the preservation of one’s inner energy, and its upward direction toward the brain. These are among the most basic requirements also for spiritual advancement.

 

Any sense pleasure that does not heighten this sense of universal oneness, but that tends rather to emphasize our consciousness of egoic separateness from other beings, may be classified as sensuality.

 

Sex pleasure dissipates one’s energy in direct proportion to the consciousness of self-indulgence. 

 

Where there is self-giving love, there is to some extent an upward flow of energy in the spine, and thus also an inflow of divine energy in the form of love. There will still be a loss of energy, however, on other mental and physical levels. 

 

Prolonged indulgence in sex, therefore, even by people who love each other deeply, cannot but be debilitating in the long run; by dulling the awareness, it becomes harmful even to the feeling of love itself. 

 

It follows that, while human love may incline naturally, in its early stages, to physical expression, the more a couple can learn to express their love for one another non-physically, the more perfect their love will grow over the years.

 

Even where there is pure, self-giving love, moreover, the more physical its manifestations the more all-absorbing it will tend to be. 

 

If you hold a matchstick up close to your eyes, you will not be able to see much of the surrounding scenery. Similarly, when one becomes engrossed in sexual love one’s personal feelings cannot but obscure one’s awareness of life’s broader realities. That is why the Hindu scriptures state that sexual indulgence, no matter how refined, increases the grip of egoism on the mind.

 

Yoga teachings are never put forth as commandments. 

 

The yogi is taught not to feel guilty if he slips, nor to beat himself mentally if he cannot as yet live up to an ideal. He should, however, for his own sake – not for the sake of an indifferent society – strive gradually to redirect his energies upward from matter to Spirit. 

 

Growth must come naturally, not in violence to one’s nature. Self-control in all things, however, is the direction of true growth.

 

The pleasure of sexual experience is fleeting, but the joy that comes from redirecting that energy upward toward the brain is unending. It fills the whole body. Even in sleep and in other non-meditative activities, every cell of the body dances with joy.

 

Patanjali says that when non-sensuality becomes confirmed (mentally as well as physically), the yogi attains great vigor. 

 

Swami Vivekananda attributed his phenomenal mental powers to a lifelong observance of this principle. Someone once gave him the entire Encyclopdia Britannica. Two weeks later he had already read the first thirteen volumes. A disciple of his remarked, “But you can’t have retained much of what you have read!”

 

“Question me on anything you can find in those thirteen volumes,” challenged the swami. He answered every question correctly, even to dates and names of places.

 

Granting that he was a born genius, it is nevertheless possible for everyone, through perfect transmutation of the sex energy, to achieve extraordinary mental clarity and vigor.

5) Non-greed has often been translated to mean the non-receiving of gifts. 

 

I read Patanjali’s meaning differently. He says, later on, that when a person becomes perfected in this virtue he can remember his former incarnations. 

 

What has the non-receiving of gifts to do with such a memory? Patanjali is not even talking of specific practices, but rather of states of consciousness. 

 

Non-greed is closer to the right translation. It differs from Patanjali’s third rule of non-covetousness in the sense that non-covetousness means not to desire what is not rightfully one’s own, while non-greed means not to be attached even to what already is one’s own. 

 

Non-greed, perfectly practiced, leads one to become non-attached even to his own body. It is by such perfect non-attachment that the blindness of temporary identifications is overcome, with the result that one can remember his past identifications with other bodies, other places and events.

 

The yogi should realize that everything is God. Greed, or attachment, limits the mind to one body, and obscures the truth that the soul is, in essence, infinite and eternal.

 

Paramhansa Yogananda once said to a disciple: “You have a sour taste in your mouth, haven’t you?”

“How could you know?” asked the surprised disciple.

“Because,” replied the Master, “I am just as much in your body as I am in my own.”

 

Freedom from physical limitations is no imaginary state, though even as such it would be preferable to imaginary bondage. But it can only be achieved if one is so perfectly non-attached to his limitations that they are no longer limiting to him.

The Niyamas

Niyama means non-control. It refers to the observances, or “do’s,” on the path of yoga. 

 

The rules listed are five:

1) Cleanliness

2) Contentment

3) Tapasya, or Austerity

4) Swadhyaya, or Self-Study

5) Devotion to the Supreme Lord

 

As with the rules of yama, those of niyama must be understood in a subtle as well as in an obvious sense.

1) Cleanliness means not only physical cleanliness, but also a heart cleansed of attachments, and of the vain preoccupations of a worldly mind.

 

Cleanliness of body is important for the yogi. 

 

Without physical cleanliness there can be no real beginning at self-mastery.

 

The heart of man is impure when it longs for anything that is foreign to its own nature.

 

Cleanliness, outwardly and inwardly, physically and mentally, is a necessary step towards freedom from the physical imperatives. 

 

Patanjali says that from perfect cleanliness there arises a consciousness of freedom from the body, a disinclination for its natural pleasures. By the same token, he says, one who has reached this state is no longer inclined to seek pleasure from others, physically, nor to commune with them on a physical plane; one’s love for them becomes selfless and spiritual. 

 

For when the heart has been freed of internal impurities, one is able to see through the veil of matter and to discover in all men the spiritual essence that is his own Self.

 

For the vibrations of every man’s consciousness are, in a sense, unique. If he mixes indiscriminately with others, even though desiring nothing from them, there will yet be an interchange of vibrations that may dilute his own personal life stream. 

 

The vibrations of other men, though not necessarily bad in themselves, may yet be subtly disturbing to one’s own vibrations, to one’s own particular line of inner development. 

 

To mix with few people, and to try to limit even this association to the company of spiritual people, can be invaluable to spiritual progress. 

 

Yogis often, indeed, prefer total solitude during certain sensitive stages of their spiritual unfoldment. (I can offer a personal testimony on this point: I have a spot in the woods to which I go when I want to escape the continual demands that are made on my time. I am always amazed at the inner freedom that I feel, not only in escaping those demands, but in being in a place that has no other human vibrations but my own. It is as if countless psychic strings had been untied, leaving me free inwardly to fly.)

 

Cleanliness on all levels helps to free the mind, that it may soar in the infinite skies.

2) Contentment is often praised by yogis as the supreme virtue. If one can oppose with deliberate contentment the tendency of the heart to reach outside itself for its satisfactions, one feels joy inwardly unceasingly.

 

Every worldly satisfaction is possible only because of a joyousness in the heart. Without inner joy, external fulfillment is impossible. 

 

If one has inner joy, however, and knows that it is within that the source of joy truly lies, he can enjoy all things innocently as reflections of that inner consciousness.

 

Do not merely say, then, negatively, that you are not attached to this thing or to that person. Affirm always positively in your heart, “Whatever comes of itself, let it come, but I am ever content in my inner heart.” This practice, Patanjali says, leads ultimately to the realization of Divine Bliss in every atom of creation, even beyond creation.

3) Tapasya, or austerity

The more distractions a person has, the more empty he feels in his heart. 

 

It is necessary to weed – indeed, to thrust – out of one’s life the distractions that reach out coaxingly from every billboard, and from the dancing eyes of people who still hope to find their fulfillment in things.

 

There is a certain amount of sternness necessary if one is to stem this outward-pulling tide. 

 

To the dilettante it will always seem that the creative artist, concentrating silently on his work, is missing half the fun in life. But the artist knows that, unless and until he can channel his energies, he will not be able to create things of lasting beauty.

 

Patanjali says that from this redirection of one’s energies – from external matter to the inner self – one develops certain subtle powers, or yogic siddhis, that are latent in man.

 

Certain it is that the fulfillment found in the Self is far greater than could possibly be found by a mind that imagines itself to be free in its scorn for self-restraint, while it runs undisciplined through the “labyrinthine ways” of sense indulgence.

 

Every act of the yogi should be deliberate. He should sit with a sense of setting his body down to rest, rather than of collapsing into a chair. He should move, talk, smile, and eat always with a sense that he is his own master, never with the feeling that his body is running away with him like a car on a hill when its brakes suddenly fail.

4) Swadhyaya is usually translated to mean, simply, “study” (usually of the scriptures). But swa means self. 

 

The proper translation, then, is “self-study.” 

 

The proper study of man lies not in books or in the gathering of intellectual information; it is the supreme adventure of self-discovery. But again, self-study means a great deal more than self-analysis and the probing of one’s hidden motives. It means also, in a deeper sense, self-awareness.

 

It has been said that the difference between true yogic studies and those which are encouraged in school is that in school one seeks to gain learning, whereas in yoga one seeks to lose it. 

 

Self-study, in a yogic sense, signifies rooting out from one’s heart those delusions and false attachments which prevent one from realizing who and what he really is: the Infinite Spirit.

 

Self-study begins with the careful observation of one’s thoughts, feelings, and motives. 

 

As one advances in this practice, he discovers that central reality of his being which is beyond thought, form, and substance, which cannot be observed and analyzed, which cannot even be truly defined, though it is sometimes described by its essential quality: JOY.

 

Patanjali says that when one becomes perfect in his practice of swadhyaya, he attains the power to commune with beings on higher spheres of existence, and to receive their help.

 

The worldly man, however, unable to attune his mind sensitively enough to perceive them, can scarcely imagine their existence.

5) Devotion to the Supreme Lord, the fifth and last of the rules of niyama, may raise the question: “If yoga is not based on beliefs, but only on practices, why then speak of God at all?” 

 

Yet no man can rise spiritually who does not have in his mind some thought that there must be something higher than his present consciousness. 

 

If a child were to insist that it could learn nothing from its elders, it might remain forever in ignorance. 

 

If man rejected every tradition, he would have to reinvent everything for his own use – even the wheel. 

 

If, then, the yogi, in reaching out toward higher realities, chooses to call those realities, “God,” what is the objection? Man can never understand with his little mind anything so vastly beyond his comprehension as a state of absolute perfection, but that he should be devoted to this ideal is right and proper. Without such devotion, he would stagnate in the shallow pond of egoic limitations.

 

My great guru, Paramhansa Yogananda, once said, “When you find God, you will know that He is a conscious Being to whom one can appeal, and not merely some abstract mental state.”

 

The yogis say, therefore, that it is good to speak of God as though He were apart from ourselves, even though in fact He is not. (For as Jesus said, “The Kingdom of God is within.”)

 

To have devotion to the Supreme Being is essential for spiritual progress. Without devotion, one can no more advance on the path to God than one would advance on any difficult road in this world, if one had no desire to reach the journey’s goal. 

 

True devotion is not a slavish attitude. It is only an effort of the heart to lift itself up into that consciousness where Divine Love is felt and known.

 

Patanjali says that by supreme love one enters upon that ray of divine love on which the Infinite Consciousness forever dwells. Without that love, it is not possible to receive the subtle broadcastings emanating from the heart of the Infinite Silence. That is why Jesus said: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

Conclusion

Each of these principles, when practiced perfectly, bestows definite spiritual rewards.

 

These subtle stages of spiritual unfoldment may be achieved, on a lower level, in normal human existence. 

 

For just as a high mountain has in common with a little mound the fact that both slope upwards to a peak, so the highest truths relate also in practical ways to everyday life. This, in fact, is the immediate reason why every intelligent person can benefit from studying philosophy.

 

*Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga is part of the Kriya Yoga Home Study Program.

Source – Compiled excerpts from the book “The Art and Science of Raja Yoga” by Swami Kriyananda

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