Yama and Niyama: The Foundation Stones of Yoga by Dada Vedaprajinananda
Yoga is more popular now than it has ever been. Famous entertainers and other celebrities practice it and thousands or perhaps millions of other people are also doing yoga exercises in one form or another. Yet, despite this widespread popularity, yoga is still misunderstood. Many people think that yoga is primarily a physical activity, something that they can use to get their body in shape. While it is true that yoga has a great role to play in the physical realm, yoga is much more than this.
Yoga is, in its deepest sense, the science of human perfection. It is the means by which a person can attain his or her fullest development: physical, mental and spiritual.
Human perfection? This is a tall order. It does not come with just a few stretches of your thighs. While yoga has its external practices and exercises, its true foundation is proper conduct. Proper conduct means living a life that will put you in harmony with the society around you and with your own inner self.
When I first began practicing yoga, I told one of my friends about it. He became interested and wanted to begin. I wasn’t a teacher at that time so I recommended a book. He looked at me and said, with all seriousness, “Where can I steal it!”
Well, you can’t begin yoga like that because stealing is not a way to get in harmony with society or with yourself. In yoga disciplined or controlled conduct is known by its Sanskrit term, “samyama” and this controlled conduct has two parts “Yama” and “Niyama.”
In many yoga books Yama is sometimes defined as “abstinences,” meaning things that you shouldn’t do. Niyama is sometimes translated as “observances,” referring to things that you should do. These rough translations are not quite correct.
A better way to understand Yama is to think of it as a discipline that will help you to find harmony with your external environment. Niyama, on the other hand, are those practices that will help you to attain internal harmony.
Let’s look briefly at the various parts of Yama and Niyama. In future articles of this series I will focus in more detail on each aspect of Yama and Niyama.
Yama has five parts. They are as follows.
1. “Ahimsa” means to refrain from harming others with your thoughts, words or actions. Consciously we should not do anything that will harm others or block their physical, mental or spiritual progress. If you want a two or three-word English definition of this Sanskrit word just remember “non injury” or “non-harming.” But there is more to Ahimsa than just two words. What about self-defense? What about our relations to other living beings? These are important issues and there are a variety of viewpoints. I will discuss them at length in the next article in this series.
2. “Sayta” is generally referred to as truthfulness. A better definition given by Shrii Shrii Anandamurti is “action of mind and right use of words with the spirit of welfare.” Whatever we think or say should be done with the spirit of helping others. It generally means to tell the truth, but if the exact truth will create harm to someone, then we have to choose our words carefully. That is why a good two-word definition would be “discriminating truthfulness.”
3. “Asteya” means non-stealing. We should not take possession of something that is owned by another. We should not even think of stealing something and we should also refrain from depriving others of what they are due.
4. “Brahmacarya” literally means to “remain attached to Brahma (the Supreme Consciousness). The idea of this practice is to treat every living and non-living entity as an expression of God.
5. “Aparigraha” is defined as non-accumulation of physical objects that are superfluous to our needs. According to your circumstances you should acquire what you need to live your life, but you should not accumulate luxuries that go beyond your real needs.
These are the five parts of Yama.
Just as there are five aspects of yama, niyama is also composed of five principles. Practice these five and you will achieve inner harmony. Briefly, they are as follows:
1. “Shaoca” (pronounced: Sha-o-cha) means cleanliness and purity. Keep your environment clean and your thoughts pure. The old proverb says “Cleanliness is next to Godliness” and it is true.
2. “Santosha” is contentment of mind. Work hard, do the best you can, and then remain contented with what you have.
3. “Tapah” signifies the practice of penance to reach the goal. It doesn’t mean suffering for the sake of suffering. Rather, look around and you will find people with difficulties. Take on some of the burdens of others and you will not only help society but your own inner self will be purified.
4. “Svadhyaya” is the study and true understanding of uplifting literature. Whenever possible seek out the company of spiritually minded people. When that is not possible read and absorb the teachings contained in books written by enlightened teachers.
5. “Iishvara Pranidhana” literally means to take shelter in the controller of the universe. It is practiced through daily meditation on the ultimate goal of life.
In the following articles of this series I will explain each part of Yama and Niyama with more detail.