The Backbone of Yogic Ethics: The Moral Codes of Right Living, the Yamas and the Niyamas

Yoga philosophy does not quarrel with any religion or faith and can be practiced by anyone who is sincere and willing to search for the Truth.
— Swami Vishnudevananda

Around 400 CE, the great yogic sage Maharishi Patañjali wrote 196 sutras (aphorisms) on the practice and theory of Yoga. Compounded together, these sutras are popularly known today as the The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali. Each sutra requires that the practitioner or reader (you!) to digest the words slowly, spending time to contemplate deeply on the meanings so as to develop a personal understanding of the practice and theory of Yoga.

The second chapter of the The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali is focused on the practice of yogic philosophy and lifestyle. It is within this chapter that you will find the outline of the (Eight-Limbed) Ashtanga Yoga. The Eight Limbs of Yoga are the basis of the practice of Raja Yoga, or the Yoga of Meditation. The first 2 of these 8 limbs are none other than the Yamas and the Niyamas.

The Joys of Right Living with the Yamas and the Niyamas

The 5 Yamas (social ethics) and the 5 Niyamas (personal observances) are thought of as the 10 commandments of the yogic way of life. Most practitioners find the Yamas and the Niyamas difficult to integrate into modern life.

While it may be tempting to skip ahead and dedicate more time or focus to later limbs (such as the practice of postures, Asana, or the practice of breath work, Pranayama), one should remain vigilant in their study, understanding, and practice of these 10 right ways of living. The Yamas and the Niyamas build character and ensure a sturdy foundation, without which the house of yogic practice (postures, breathwork) and benefits (peace of mind, joy, good health) would fall.


How We Behave Towards Others: The Yamas or Restraints

The five Yamas or restraints form the foundation of a yogi's social ethics. In the yogic way of life, it is of paramount importance to have one's behavior always aligned with higher values and the greater good. The five Yamas can be conducted or kept on physical, verbal, and mental levels. The five Yamas are as follows:

  1. Ahimsa, or non-violence
  2. Satyam, or truthfulness
  3. Asteya, or non-stealing
  4. Brahmacharya, or control and moderation of the senses
  5. Aparigraha, or non-greed

Ahimsa or Non-Violence

Ahimsa can be interpreted as not bringing harm to others, ourselves, any living creature, or nature itself. On the physical level, this means not practicing violence onto others, ourselves, or nature. Ahimsa is the predominant reason for most yogis being vegetarian. On the verbal level, practicing ahimsa means refraining from yelling and using violent or crude language. On the mental level, practicing ahimsa extends to not thinking negative thoughts about ourselves or others.

Satyam or Truthfulness

The more we embody truth, the more we see the truth. Being truthful will make the mind peaceful, clear and able to see the truth. The more we practice truth, the more we understand the truth. Satyam is self-restraint, absence of jealousy, forgiveness, courage, patience, endurance, kindness and love. Your thoughts should agree with your words and your words should agree with your actions. That is: your thoughts, words, and deeds should be in congruence and harmony with each other.

Asteya or Non-Stealing

While it is easiest to associate stealing with tangible objects, the practice of Asteya or non-stealing also refers to the passage of information and emotional favors. The desire to covet that which is another's and want it enough to take it for yourself arises from a sense of unhappiness, incompleteness, and envy. The solution to practicing Asteya comes from understanding that one is whole and complete as one currently (presently) is. It helps to practice the act of giving whenever possible, volunteering one's time, food, and money without expectation for anything in return. It is good to remember that wealth is merely a state of mind and that you can feel increasingly wealthy and abide in a place of abundance through selfless giving.

Brahmacharya or Control and Moderation of the Senses

Having control over and moderating what we input into our body via our senses is crucial to maintaining peace of mind. To practice Brahmacharya is to "walk in God-consciousness". Brahmacharya helps to turn the mind inward and is a critical practice for the success of meditation and one-pointed concentration. By practicing moderation and sensual restraint, one feels balance and experiences freedom from cravings and dependencies. To practice Brahmacharya, make wise choices about everything in your life. What kind of media do you consume? What kind of company do you keep? Reading, watching, and consuming media that is aligned with your inner peace and state of joy will help to maintain that inner peace and state of joy. Choosing good company that is aligned with your value system will give you the support you need to succeed. Being moderate in all sensual activities and staying committed and faithful to one partner in a relationship is the middle path of Brahmacharya.

Aparigraha or Non-Greed

Aparigraha can be translated to non-greed and non-possessiveness. It is the crown jewel of the Yogic practice of non-attachment. Why? Because acting possessive ensures that we ourselves become possessed. When we are possessive over a person, object, or thought, when we have attachment towards our things, we anxiously hold onto them. We become fearful of losing them and, moreover, we grasp for more. As a result, we are never satisfied or content in the moment and our peace of mind is completely obliterated. However, when we use our possessions with love and care, allowing ourselves to enjoy them without forming an emotionally-dependent bond, the objects we own don't own us. And when the objects in our care don't own us, they have no sway over us; they do not lead us to false identities and expectations.

Rules of Individual Behavior: The Niyamas or Personal Observances

The Niyamas can be thought of the rules of individual behavior or personal conduct; the personal observances. The Niyamas weed out negativity and implant virtues. They free the mind from the influences of anger, pride, passion, jealousy, greed, and delusion. Furthermore, the Niyamas strengthen habits and fortify the willpower, preparing the mind for the act of meditation and, eventually, the attainment of samadhi (or God-consciousness). The 5 Niyamas are as follows:

  1. Saucha or purity of body and environment
  2. Santosha or contentment
  3. Tapas or austerity
  4. Svadhyaya or study of spiritual writings
  5. Ishvara Pranidhana or surrender to the Divine Will

Saucha or Purity of Body and Environment

This practice helps remove jealousy, worry, habit of gossiping, and anger. Joyfulness, contentment, serenity, harmony, kindness, and patience are all manifestations of purity.

Physical purity can be thought of as:

  • Keeping surroundings clean
  • Bathing regularly
  • Taking care of the body by exercising, eating pure food, and wearing clean clothes

Mental purity can be thought of as:

  • Selfless service
  • Releasing negative emotions and thoughts
  • Developing good qualities
  • Japa (repetition of mantras)
  • Satsang (keeping the company of spiritually-minded people)

Santosha or Contentment

Santosha, or contentment, and real happiness are not found in outer objects but within. This means accepting life as it comes and being happy with whatever conditions arise. Only when your mind is freed from the pressures of desire and frustration can it be integrated and purified. With this purity comes cheerfulness.

When you are content you neither complain nor crave what you don't have and you are free from what other people think or say about you. All sense of comparison, rivalry, and jealousy arises from a feeling of discontent. A distracted mind is always discontented and contentment is not a state... it's a practice. Judge your success in life not on the basis of what you possess, your position, or your intelligence but rather on the freedom you have from desires and cravings.

Tapas or Austerity

Tapas or austerity is doing those things which are difficult and avoiding those things which are easy in order to strengthen the mind. The mind, after all, is like a muscle and a muscle only strengthens when it works against itself. Similarly the mind must be made to work to develop strength. There are 3 forms of tapas: physical, verbal, and mental.

  • Fasting, withstanding physical difficulties, and bearing discomfort are austerities of the body.
  • The practice of silence (Mauna) and speaking only constructive and truthful words constitute verbal tapas.
  • Changing negatives thoughts to positive, conquering hatred, and bearing insult and injury constitute mental tapas.
  • Meditation is the highest form of tapas. The benefits are immeasurable and include good health, concentration, endurance, and strong willpower.

Svadhyaya or Study of Spiritual Writings

Svadhyaya is the practice of self-reflection and study of spiritual writings.

Svadhyaya does not have to be limited to holy scriptures and includes the reading of spiritual or thought-provoking works by holy or enlightened men. The act of repeating mantras or the practice of Japa is also considered as Svadhyaya.

Ishvara Pranidhana or Surrender to the Divine Will

Ishvara Pranidhana is the practice of self-surrender. The literal meaning of Ishvara Pranidhana is "placing oneself in God". This practice is one of devotion, such as: the repetition of mantras; prayer; the study of devotional books, and selfless service. Surrender draws grace through which intuition develops. The greater the surrender, the greater the ability to perform spiritual practice and maintain complete inner radiance, joy, peace, and prosperity.

One thought on “The Backbone of Yogic Ethics: The Moral Codes of Right Living, the Yamas and the Niyamas

  1. a

    Thank you for reminding me of these ideas. I desire them in my life.
    I would like to respectfully request that you clarify the wording in the Svadhyaya section where it says
    “Svadhyaya does not have to be limited to holy scriptures and includes the reading of spiritual or thought-provoking works by holy or enlightened men.”

    Please correct the words to include “enlightened men and women.”
    I know “men” used to mean “men and women”, but it really does not mean that anymore, and when women are excluded as enlightened leaders, I do not feel welcome.
    I know this is not the intention of Sivananda, and that is what I bring this to your attention.
    Many thanks.

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