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Aṣṭāṅgayoga. Part one - The Yamas and Niyamas -

Updated: Jan 7, 2022

varianta în limba română: aici

After going through the prerequisites, we are ready to proceed with the practice. Or are we?

Depends on what you mean by practice.

Do you remember our previous description of yoga, which is viewed by many teachers as a system with several limbs?

Patanjali's Yoga Sutras and most scriptures agree on 8 limbs (aṣṭāṅgayoga). Aṣṭāṅga is Sanskrit for “8 limbs”.

Nowadays, yoga practice starts with and consists mainly of asana. Some add bit of pranayama or meditation.

In the ancient times though, the aspirants were required to seriously revise their ethical conduct and to establish a set of observances, prior to beginning the practice of asana.

A set of rules of conduct and observances were taught, the most famous in the present world of yoga being the 5 Yamas and 5 Niyamas from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. According to Patanjali

“(2.30) The rules are:

non-violence, (ahiṃsā)

truthfulness, ( satya)

not stealing, (asteya)

mindful sexual conduct ( brahmacharya)

non-acquisitiveness (aparigraha)”.

When they are “(2.31) all-embracing, unlimited by species, place, time or circumstance, they [constitute] the great vow (mahāvrata).”

“(2.32) The observances (niyamas) are:

cleanliness, (saucha)


austerity, (tapas)

recitation (svadhyaya) and

devotion to Īśvara [the Lord] (Īśvara praṇidhāna).”

I find important to note here that many scholars interpret Svadhyaya as introspection and self study, while others think of it as studying the scriptures and sacred texts in general. In my opinion both interpretations are pointing to highly valuable tools.

Of these, non-violence is never causing harm in any way to any creature. The other rules and observances are rooted in it. They are practised in order to practise it, with the aim of perfecting it.”

Roots of Yoga by James Mallinson & Mark Singleton

I found a simple etymological explanation in the article “Hindu Ethics”, published on the site

As yama means ‘to rein’ and niyama ‘to unleash’, the yamas harness the base nature and the niyamas cultivate the high soul nature.”

Before we delve further in the matter, let us contemplate together a question that arises often: is it truly necessary for us to ground ourselves (and if yes, how deep) into these rules and observances, PRIOR to undertaking further yoga practices?

I stayed with this question for a few years. After I have already started my yoga experience, probably alike most of my living peers, with asana practice.

The classic texts are not exactly clear on this topic.

There are texts that ask for a certain mastery of asana and the clearing of the blockages of the nadis (see the articles on yoga energy) before starting the pranayama practice.

I have also read about the imperative of finding a teacher (guru or acharya) and the importance of a proper diet (proper diet having a different meaning for different teachers).

But I have yet to come across an indication about not proceeding with the asana practice until one is well established in the yamas and niyamas.

And I have never encounter or heard of a modern yogi that taught or did as such.

To be honest, I do not think that mastering the yamas and niyamas is doable for most, if any, human beings.

This would be a lifetime endeavour and I do not see any benefits (or reason) in delaying the other practices until perfection is attained in the way of conduct. This might end up being an infinite and unnecessary delay!

Au contraire, the practice in its entirety greatly sustains, refines and brings clarification over the commands.

Nevertheless, their placement in the avant-garde of the curricula makes total sense.

On one hand, it offers a frame and settles some pointers, which are in the same time benchmarks and tools. Prior to starting the journey, the aspirant must know where the road goes and what are the expectations.

On the other hand, yamas and niyamas will be brought and kept in attention over and over.

There is no dispute that the practice has steps.

There is no dispute that a certain willingness to address them is if not required, at least welcomed.

There is no dispute that embarking upon the yoga road (actually, on any spiritual road) while disregarding the yamas and niyamas would be foolish and even dangerous.

When I first read the 10 commandments of Christianity, I felt as though they had been put in place for the general well-being of society. That we had to avoid engaging in these harmful activities for the good of other people.

Later in life, when I met the 10 commandments of yoga, I started to grasp that they might actually be meant to protect ourselves from suffering.

I still don't know if the commandments are more of a prerequisite for a succesful yoga practice, than for a peaceful and meaningful life.

In the meantime, I don't care too much about it.

I can understand however that in the same way that we are building a balancing asana,by establishing a firm foundation through our standing foot, our yoga practice needs the solid foundation of an ethical ground.

Yoga, as any other spiritual practice, may lead you to a totally unknown territory, where the values and rules of the Universe as you knew them - don't necessarily apply.

While you advance on the path, you may arrive in a place where time or space are not what you used to grasp, a place where you are one with God, a place where there is no death or birth and suffering has a totally different meaning.

You may land on your feet in this rich, yet potentially deeply troubling, inner space. Historically, most people did not.

A clear mind and a pure soul have more chances to better navigating through the deeper Reality and to surmount the many challenges and tribulations that appear on the way.

Do you remember the temptations of the Christ?

And do you know that during his meditation, before he started to teach, Gautama Buddha was also tempted by the demon Mara and his three daughters: Greed, Hatred, and Delusion? He graciously resisted, touched the ground in the famous gesture, calling on the earth as a witness, and saw through the veil of illusion: “I see you, Mara!”.

Gautama Buddha in meditation, unharmed by the demons of Mara

Any spiritual path has its own temptations, and how are we to overcome them if we are not firmly rooted in a ground of clarity, modesty, humbleness and trust?

After staying with these rules for a while, being them Christian, Yogic or Buddhist, I began to understand that they are meant to protect us on the way, to help us to overcome the kleshas, the obstacles on the path, rather than to protect “the others”.

I put “the others” between quotation marks on purpose, one of the confusing things we may stumble upon during our trip might be that there is no other.

Starting from this understanding of spiritual commands, my plan is to take the yamas and niyamas one by one and discuss them and perhaps bring them in the yoga classes to ponder on and deepen them from the ground of practice.

But before we go there, it's important to note that these rules are not as unique, fixed and absolute as they seem to be. Even if the rules exposed by Patanjali are the most known nowadays, it is probably good to know that a lot of yoga teachers and a lot of old yoga texts have a set of rules. While most of them are overlapping, we may spot small differences here and there.

According to Wikipedia

“At least sixty (60) ancient and medieval era Indian texts are known so far that discuss Yamas. (…) Of the sixty, the lists in eleven of these texts are similar, but not the same, as that of Patanjali's. Other texts list between 1 and 10 Yamas, however 10 is the most common.

The order of listed yamas, the names and nature of each yamas, as well as the relative emphasis vary between the texts. Some texts use the reverse of Niyamas in other texts, as Yamas; for example, Vairagya (dispassion from hedonism, somewhat reverse of the niyama Tapas) is described in verse 33 of Trishikhi Brahmana Upanishad in its list for Yamas. Many texts substitute one or more different concepts in their list of Yamas.”

For a more accurate perspective, I feel it's useful to add here (again, as they were put together in Wikipedia, in the chapters dedicated to Yama / Niyamas) the more complete list of 10 yamas and 10 niyamas, in their most wide-spread occurrence.

Here we can notice that, as opposed to the yamas, Patanjali’s set of 5 niyamas does not fit 100% in the above extended list.

Including here the enumerations of the 10 yamas and niyamas is not at all meant to diminish the importance of the well known 5 rules and observances stated by Patanjali. I have a firm conviction that devoting only to Patanjali’s set of rules would be more than enough for the practitioner. Nevertheless, it is worth devoting some attention to the extended set, which brings important aspects or nuances.

Now, let me include here some historical references regarding the precursors of yamas and niyamas.

According to Daniel Simpson’s book, The Truth of Yoga, the first (clear) reference to yamas comes from Ācārāṅga Sūtra, a Jainist text dated 3 or 4 hundred years before common era, a large part of which is laying down rules of conduct for ascetics.

“The ascetic Mahavira endowed with the highest knowledge and intuition taught the five great vows:

I renounce all killing of living beings …

all vices of lying speech …

all taking of anything not given …

all sexual pleasures [and]

all attachments.””

Previously, Rig Veda mentioned yama in slocka 5.61.2. The general sense is the same, but it is expressed in a concise and poetical manner through the allegory of riding a horse or driving a chariot. Yama here means rein or restraint.

Where are your horses? where are your reins? what is your capability? where are you going? The saddle is on the back (of the steeds), the bridle in their nostrils.”

According to Roots of Yoga by James Mallinson and Mark Singleton, Mahābhārata lays down the forerunners of the Yamas and Niyamas. As you can notice, here we already have the more common number of ten yamas and ten niyamas (even if they are different from the more common set listed above), truthfulness and honestybeing present in the both lists.

“(12.232.10) Meditation, study, charity, truthfulness, modesty, honesty, patience, cleanliness, pure diet and restraint of the senses:

(12.232.11) by means of these the yogi’s vitality increases and he removes sin. He achieves all his aims and develops insight. […]

(12.262.37) Kindness, forebearance, tranquillity, non-violence, truthfulness, honesty, absence of malice, lack of pride, modesty, patience and peace.

(12.262.38) By means of these the Brahmans on the path reach that highest place […]”

The Bhagavadgītā, the part of Mahābhārata that's best known in the Western world , also brings to attention, in Book 17, in a brilliant way, the rules and the observances.

“(17.14) Worship of the Supreme Lord, the Brahmins, the spiritual master, the wise, and the elders—when this is done with the observance of cleanliness, simplicity, celibacy, and non-violence—is declared as the austerity of the body.

(17.15) Words that do not cause distress, are truthful, inoffensive, and beneficial, as well as the regular recitation of the Vedic scriptures—these are declared as the austerity of speech.

(17.16) Serenity of thought, gentleness, silence, self-control, and purity of purpose—all these are declared as the austerity of the mind.

(17.17) When devout persons with ardent faith practice these three-fold austerities without yearning for material rewards, they are designated as austerities in the mode of goodness (sattva).

(17.18) Austerity that is performed with ostentation for the sake of gaining honor, respect, and adoration is in the mode of passion (rajas). Its benefits are unstable and transitory.

(17.19) Austerity that is performed by those with confused notions, and which involves torturing the self or harming others, is described to be in the mode of ignorance (tamas).”

In the last verse quoted above we are provided with a good reason for a clear understanding of the precepts.

I hope that we all have now a more coherent view on the first limb of yoga and we are ready to take the next step and go deeper inside with ahiṃsā, the queen of the yamas and niyamas.


The Truth of Yoga: A Comprehensive Guide to Yoga's History, Texts, Philosophy, and Practices by Daniel Simpson

Roots of Yoga (Penguin Classics) by James Mallinson, Mark Singleton

Yoga Yajnavalkya translated by A.G. Mohan

The images used in the article:

“Performing Yamas and Niyamas” by S. Rajam

Painted for "Yoga's Forgotten Foundation" book cover

Representing a banyan tree in the center and people performing Yamas in the left side and Niyamas in the right side

Gautama Buddha sitting in Dhyana, unharmed by the demons of Mara. Sanskrit Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita Sutra manuscript written in the Ranjana script. Nalanda, Bihar, India.

Circa 700-1100 CE


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