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Introduction to the Yamas & Niyamas: The Ethical Guidelines of Yoga

Introduction to the Yamas & Niyamas: The Ethical Guidelines of Yoga

What Are the Yamas & Niyamas & How Do They Fit Into Yoga?

If you’ve practiced for a while, you’ve probably already heard of some of Yoga’s ethical principles such as non-violence and truthfulness. Often called “The Ten Commandments of Yoga,” the yamas and niyamas offer guidance for leading a more peaceful and harmonious life. Like any collection of principles, some of the yamas and niyamas are straightforward while others are more subtle. By first learning a bit more about their place within the flow of the Yoga Sutras as a whole, we’re often better able to see nuances and important distinctions we might otherwise miss, so that is where we’ll begin.

As you’ll recall from our earlier article, the Yoga Sutras defines the primary goal of Yoga as learning to lessen the disturbances of the mind that keep us from experiencing our natural peace and from seeing the divine in others and the circumstances around us. To achieve this, Patanjali suggests two avenues which need to be developed equally and concurrently: steadiness of mind, or meditation, and non-attachment. Once we have mastered these skills, our minds and lives return to their natural state of ease and joy.

However, the Yogis realized this is by no means easy – we’ve all dedicated considerable time and energy to filling our minds with thoughts, concerns, and desires, and have established lifestyles that tend to perpetuate them. To reverse that takes time and effort and can be aided by specific tools. For this reason, the Yogis developed supporting practices to help us move back to that inherent peace, such as asana and breath work to help our bodies be more easeful and help calm the mind. They also realized there are certain thoughts and behaviors that tend to amplify our restlessness – ways of thinking about and interacting with others that agitate us and create disharmony. By becoming more aware of these less-constructive mindsets, we can catch these patterns before they become active in our lives and shift them in a healthier direction, and this is the foundation of the yamas and niyamas.

Why Context Matters: Moving Beyond Action to Outlook….

Understood this way, these ten ethical principles can be seen not so much as a set of rules telling us what we should or shouldn’t do, but rather as reminders of mental patterns to watch for so we can address the actions and also the thoughts behind them. To better understand, let’s consider the principle of ahimsa or “non-violence.”

On a simple level, ahimsa can be understood as the principle: “Thou shalt not kill.” If we stayed on the superficial level, however, we might mistakenly think all that matters is our actions. But we all know feelings of ill-will or malice cloud our peace and create great dis-ease in our lives even if we don’t act on them, ultimately harming ourselves and others. The Yogis realized ultimately this is because, even if we don’t act on them, feelings of ill-will are based on false beliefs – beliefs that cause suffering even if we control the impulses to which they might lead. When we wish someone ill or even just don’t care about their welfare, we are falling into what the Yogis realized are mistaken assumptions of autonomy or separateness. In thinking: “That’s not my problem” or “Why should I care?” or “He deserves what’s coming to him…” we are missing the fact that we are all interconnected, a mistaken view that causes us suffering even if we never “act” on it.

If we understand ahimsa in this spirit, it becomes a guideline not only for addressing our behavior but for looking at the thoughts and assumptions behind it. Beyond encouragement not to harm, it becomes a tool for looking at our attachments and presumptions – “Why am I angry at this person or situation or why am I feeling resentful or defensive? Is this really how I want to think about it? Is there possibly a more healthful and constructive way?” Used this way, ahimsa not only helps shift our actions but also our outlook, again catching non-constructive ways of thinking before they become entrenched behaviors, eventually touching even subtle forms of “non-harmfulness” such as helping us realize when we can be more mindful or thoughtful about the feelings of others.

Beyond “Good” & “Evil….”

Once we understand this aspect of the yamas and niyamas, it not only helps clarify the basic and more subtle form of each principle, but also brings to the fore an important difference between the yamas and niyamas and other ethical systems. Most moral systems are based on the idea of right and wrong, or good and evil. This can be very powerful if we agree with those beliefs, but the problem comes when we start to question those grounds – if we start to wonder “Whose definition of ‘good…?’” or to question our belief in God as our system defines Him, our moral system loses its foundation.

In this sense, the yamas and niyamas are very different. Rather than defining actions or thoughts as right or wrong – labels that are subjective and therefore open to debate – the yamas and niyamas are based on the Yogi’s observation that certain thoughts and actions disturb our peace while others promote it – an observation that, in the Yogic view, is empirically verifiable by all of us. Again, where labels such as good or evil can be debated, the Yogis felt the validity of the yamas and niyamas can be confirmed through introspection and self-study. In fact, my teacher not only welcomed but encouraged us to confirm the teachings of Yoga in our own minds and lives.

This is an important distinction because, rather than being an “externally imposed” set of rules, the yamas and niyamas are instead reminders of certain fundamental aspects of life the Yogis believe we all have and can experience. In this sense, the yamas and niyamas are not saying, for example: “Lying is evil,” but rather inviting us to consider. We all know when we lie we create friction in our minds and lives. Further, we know inherent in deceit are several assumptions that don’t serve us – the assumption others won’t be able to accept or handle the truth or that we can’t be honest about our feelings or actions. And we also know those assumptions themselves ultimately lead to pain and suffering, whether we act on them or not. Once we reflect on this, the answer becomes clear that we not only don’t want to lie but further want to take a look at the (false) assumptions we’re making that were leading us to consider it. Understood this way, again, rather than being externally imposed rules of conduct, the yamas and niyamas become internally-validated reminders that allow us to return to our inherent state of peace and joy, both with ourselves and with others.

The Yamas, Niyamas & Asana

So now that we’ve covered the basic purpose and grounds of the yamas and niyamas, we’re almost ready to explore them individually. Before we do, however, one final aspect it can be helpful to understand is the place of these guidelines within flow and structure of the eight limbs.

As we discussed in our last article, while the eight limbs are not meant to be taken in a strictly linear way, the Yogis definitely believed that addressing the yamas and niyamas is essential for progress in other areas of practice. This is particularly noteworthy since most of us in the West tend to approach Yoga almost exclusively through asana. In essence, the Yogis realized caring for the harmony of our thoughts and deeds is even more important than our physical health. On reflection, this makes a lot of sense – clearly no amount of physical fitness or vitality will bring us happiness if our thoughts and actions lack harmony. Further, the Yogis realized it is far easier to benefit from our physical practice if we are also working on principles such as non-harm (including our own bodies) and contentment (including with our strengths and limitations).

Again, as we discussed last article, the Yogis weren’t suggesting we have to “master” all ten of the yamas and niyamas before practicing asana – they realized many of these are life-long processes, and that they themselves can in fact be assisted by work in areas like asana and meditation. Rather, by understanding the importance of both our actions and the mindset behind them, we are able to approach the other limbs in a way from which we can more fully benefit…