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 only external cleanliness, like having a shower, brushing your teeth, etc., but purity of actions, purity of mind from evil and distracting, unnecessary thoughts and from bad, haunting memories. Cleanliness of the environment and of oneself is necessary for hygienic reasons, but the state of the environment also affects your mind. If it is clean and tidy, you will become more centred and will be able to concentrate properly, but if it is an unhygienic, messy or untidy environment, your mind may become disorganized. That is why it is better to tidy up your room in the morning. Such things seem trivial, but they help to keep the mind free of clutter and make it sharp and clear. In other words, practicing Shaucha on the physical plane also affects the mind on the pranic and mental levels.
Sage Patanjali says in the Yoga Sutras that by practicing shaucha on the physical plane, one gains indifference towards the body and non-attachment towards others in the course of time. He says that when your mind is pure through shaucha, you become cheerful and fit to practice concentration (dharana) and sense control (pratyahara), as the mirror of the mind is clean and, therefore, you are able to see your real self reflected in it.
Santosha, contentment or satisfaction, is the second Niyama. Santosha is being content with one’s actions and with what one has, what one is, where one is, and with what one has done or what one is doing. It also means to be content about where one is, whether it be concerning time or space. You should not daydream about the future nor should your mind linger in the past. Be content with where you are, or you will never be happy or feel true satisfaction. Also, Santosha is being content with what one is. If you do not like being what you are, you won’t find any happiness in life either. You have to be contented with what you do, if you have done your best. A beggar is a king if he is contented with what he has, while a king is like a beggar if he still desires more riches to add to his treasure troves and vaults by imposing more taxes on the poor.
The third Niyama is Tapasya (Tapas), austerity or moderation – depending upon one’s capacity. The main purpose of attaining Tapasya is to be able to meditate properly. It creates a controlled mind which will not accept any interference from the body, like “I’m thirsty!” or “I want food!” or “that hurts!” etc. It also hardens the body, so that these desires aren’t too frequent. It strengthens the organs and makes them healthy in order not to experience painful distractions during meditation. Thus it leads to Pratyahara or abstraction of the senses.
Swadhyaya is the fourth Niyama. Swa means ‘self’ here; therefore, swadhyaya is actually the study of the self, or self-analysis. One must be the Drashta, the witness, the observer. The higher type of knowledge is actual experience, while the lower form is learning directly from books and further lower form is learning from books but not understanding a thing that one is reading. Through Swadhyaya we can improve ourselves and guide ourselves on the right path to some extent without the help of the Guru.
Ishwara Pranidhana, or complete self-surrender to God, is the last Niyama. It is the time when one completely lets go of all ego and surrenders to destiny. Sage Patanjali says in the Yoga Sutras that one can even attain the highest form of Samadhi, the final stage before Kaivalya, if one can truly and fully surrender to God. Your self-surrender should be free and unconditional.
There is a story about a dedicated monk deep in Meditation in his cave. Suddenly there was a freak flood and the town nearby was filled with gushing water. Some good-natured people paddled laboriously on their little raft to try and save the monk. But when they reached his cave, the monk said, “Do not worry. I am a pious man who has been serving God all his life. God will not desert me now. Never fear, He will come and save me with His own hands.”A few minutes later a yacht with five men arrived. They attempted to rescue the monk, but received the same reply. Finally, a rescue helicopter arrived and hovered outside the cave, but the monk sent them away.The water rose, flooded the monk’s abode and he drowned. When he reached heaven he said to God, “I’ve been worshipping you all my life and yet you didn’t come and save me when I needed you the most!” And God replied “Well, I don’t know what you expected. First I sent you a raft, then a yacht, then a first class helicopter, and you only said silly things like ‘God will save me with His own hands.’ The raft, yacht and helicopter were my hands.”
It all seems to be a mental process, however, the physical outcome is that when one surrenders to and realizes Ishwara, one never remains the same because one cannot realize God if one has even the smallest hint of a human ego.
The Yamas and Niyamas are all in a way interrelated, so they don’t allow you to skip any of them if you are sincere in your desire to master them. Also, the Yamas and Niyamas are not meant only for Yogis and Sannyasins, but for everyone to practice. You can, for example, take one of the Yamas or Niyamas that you like and practice it until you think you’ve perfected it; and then go on to another one, and so on until you’ve perfected them all! So keep practicing the Yamas and Niyamas, even while you are practicing another branch of the eight-fold path.
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Courtesy: Dr. Rita Khanna’s Yogashaastra Studio.
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Dr. Rita Khanna
Dr. Rita Khanna is a well-known name in the field of Yoga and Naturopathy. She was initiated into this discipline over 25 years ago by world famous Swami Adyatmananda of Sivananda Ashram in Rishikesh (India).
She believes firmly that Yoga is a scientific process, which helps us to lead a healthy and disease-free life. She is also actively involved in practicing alternative medicines like Naturopathy. Over the years, she has been successfully practicing these therapies and providing succour to several chronic and terminally ill patients through Yoga, Diet and Naturopathy. She is also imparting Yoga Teachers Training.
At present, Dr. Rita Khanna is running a Yoga Studio in Secunderabad (Hyderabad, India).