By Dr. Rita Khanna
According to the Yoga Sutras, the Yamas and the Niyamas are the first two steps in the eight-fold path of Yoga which are a series of short sentences of wisdom through which Sage Patanjali conveys his teachings. The Yamas and Niyamas are self-disciplinary qualities that everyone should have and observe for their own spiritual development. One may practice Asanas and have a fit body. One may practice Pranayama and balance the Pranic energy, the Nadis. One may practice Pratyahara and Dhyana and reach a deeper state of consciousness, but what use is that if one does not practice the Yamas and Niyamas. The Yamas and Niyamas create a fit and balanced mind.
The five Yamas are Ahimsa (non-violence), Satya (truthfulness), Asteya (abstinence from theft, honesty), Brahmacharya (being established in divine consciousness), and Aparigraha (non-possessiveness). The Yamas are mainly qualities that the spiritual aspirant should have in order to communicate and interact with the outside world and the people living in it.
Ahimsa, non-violence, not only means not causing harm or pain to any creature in thought, word or action, but also not having even a hint of aggression within your being. Himsa (violence) is not only physical violence, but also includes manipulation, hurting someone’s feelings, psychic influence and so on. Himsa is not considered to be violence if it is to save your life, or if you kill one in order to save many. It will be easier to observe Ahimsa if we remember that whatever we do, good or bad, will come back to us in this life or in the next, whether we believe in reincarnation or not. Good actions produce good results, while bad actions produce bad results. This is called (the law of) Karma and you can’t escape it. Someone is always watching over you.
A good example is the story of the Sufi saint who called his disciples together and said, “I have five birds, one for each of you. Take them and kill them in separate places, but no one must see you doing it. When you bring them here, we’ll have a feast.” So they all came back sooner or later and gave explanations about where they killed their birds and how no one saw them. When the last disciple came, he said “I’m sorry Guruji, I failed you. I could not kill it. Wherever I went, I felt as though someone was watching me.” He turned out to be the best disciple.
Satya, or truth, is the second Yama, and also a very important qualification. Satya is not merely abstinence from telling lies, but also the ability to see the truth, to be aware of the truth behind everything. If you tell people what they should or should not do and then do whatever pleases you, you are a hypocrite. You say one thing and do another, thereby not being true even to yourself. One lies to escape the consequences of the actions of oneself or one’s associate. This is a manifestation of the petty mind. Therefore, Satya also helps in overcoming the petty mind.
Asteya, the third Yama, is commonly known as honesty (in the sense of ‘abstinence from theft’). To be able to follow Asteya, we must be satisfied with what we have, our personal belongings, our way of thinking, what we do, where we are, who we are, etc. In other words, we must not be greedy and should try to be contented. We steal things because we desire them. To be able or to be strong enough to resist the temptation to steal the object that one desires, one’s mind must be strong. Hence, through mastering Asteya, one purifies the mind of desires and Vrittis.
To most people, following Brahmacharya would mean suppression of desires. Brahmacharya should not be suppression, and suppression is not the remedy for overcoming the lower mind or controlling any of its instinctive drives. Unless one is established in the higher mind, suppression is of no avail. One may be able to stop oneself from satisfying any of these instincts, but one cannot suppress the mind from dwelling upon them continually. That is not Brahmacharya, being established in the higher mind, and the higher mind does not waste time by dwelling on such matters.
There is a story about two monks on a pilgrimage in (supposedly) strict brahmacharya. When they come across a lady unable to cross a large puddle, the senior monk carries her across to safety. Shocked, the younger monk eventually remonstrates with the senior monk, who replies, “You are still carrying her in your head while I left her by the banks of the puddle!” The younger monk is a perfect example of the opposite of Brahmacharya.
Swami Satyananda says, “When firmly established in Brahmacharya, the Yogi gains vigour, energy and courage, whereby he becomes free from the fear of death. Thus, Brahmacharya is an important way of overcoming the Klesha called Abhinivesha, which is fear of death.”
Aparigraha, the fifth and last of the Yamas, is non-possessiveness (also known as abstinence from greed). It is actually complete freedom from greed or covetousness. You should not try to possess more than you minimally need. When we become non-possessive or non-attached, we become impartial and in that way the conditioned love, affection, compassion and so on becomes unconditional, and not merely restricted to family, friends, relations, etc.
The Niyamas are the self-disciplinary qualities which are entirely devoted to helping the aspirant on their spiritual journey. The five niyamas, or five fixed rules of self-discipline, are: Shaucha (cleanliness), Santosha (contentment), Tapas (austerity), Swadhyaya (study of the self) and Ishwara Pranidhana (complete self-surrender to God).
Shaucha, cleanliness, is the first Niyama. Not onl