by Jeff McMahon
When I first encountered the yamas and niyamas, I took them as moral codes, a set of Thou Shalt Nots and Thou Shalts on the order of the Ten Commandments.
But over the years I noticed that many teachers and texts describe the yamas and niyamas in terms that are much more practical and, if you will, much more selfish.
It’s easy to mistake the yamas and niyamas for moral codes because that’s what some yogis want them to be:
“The five points of yama, together with the five points of niyama, remind us of the Ten Commandments of the Christian and Jewish faiths, as well as of the ten virtues of Buddhism,” writes Swami Satchidananda in his popular commentary on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. “In fact, there is no religion without these moral or ethical codes. All spiritual life should be based on these things.”
But Patanjali himself writes of the yamas and niyamas in terms of their practical application to yoga. Just before introducing them, he says, “By the practice of the limbs of yoga, the impurities dwindle away and there dawns the light of wisdom, leading to discriminative discernment.” (2:28)
And in the midst of the niyamas, he writes, “One gains purity of sattva, cheerfulness of mind, one-pointedness, mastery over the senses, and fitness for Self-realization.” (2:41)
Surendranath Dasgupta sums up this more practical perspective in his 1928 book “Yoga as Philosophy and Religion”:
“The virtues of non-injury, truthfulness, etc. should be adhered to at all stages of the yoga practice. They are indispensible for steadying the mind.”
The yamas and niyamas help to steady the mind. These teachers tell us that a life of harming, lying, stealing, hoarding, and pettiness will encourage an unsteady mind. Not too surprising? And a life of cleanliness, contentment, discipline, self-study and surrender will encourage a steady mind.
Remember, yoga is the restraint of mind fluctuations.
And these teachers agree that it’s almost pointless to practice the third limb of yoga, asana, or any of the other limbs unless you’re steadying the mind with the first two limbs.
“Again, before a man can hope to attain steadfastness in these,” says Dasgupta, “he must desist from any conduct opposed to the yamas, and also acquire the mental virtues stated in the niyamas, and thus secure himself against any intrusion of distractions arising from his mental passions.”
In a commentary on the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Swami Vishnudevananda makes the same point when discussing the fourth limb of yoga, pranayama:
“Anyone can practice pranayama, but if yama and niyama are not there success will not come easily because mind will not be going in the right direction. But if those conditions are met you can get the benefits even now; a tremendous inner awakening may come at any time.”
Stay tuned for more on that tremendous inner awakening. First, let’s ask if it matters whether we perceive the yamas and niyamas as moral codes or as practical necessities.
Why It Matters
In the West, where reason has been prized lately more than other faculties of mind, many people are disinclined to assent to a divine authority.
It’s easy to dismiss the yamas and niyamas as religious edicts while we privilege asana, which offers immediate, palpable benefits. But yogis tell us those benefits—health, vitality, flexibility, relaxation—are mere preparations for a greater promise.
I’m not a fan of Ayn Rand, but I know yogis who are. What happens to their practice if they see the yamas and niyamas as altruistic?
“I am challenging the moral code of altruism,” Rand said in a 1959 interview with Mike Wallace, “the precept that man’s moral duty is to live for others, that man must sacrifice himself to others, which is the present day morality.
“I say that man is entitled to his own happiness, and that he must achieve it himself, that he cannot demand that others sacrifice themselves to make him happy, nor should he sacrifice himself to make others happy.”
Once we see the yamas and niyamas as practical steps to enhance one’s own practice, to achieve one’s own self-realization, we can follow them selfishly, and even Ayn Rand should be happy.
In the end it shouldn’t matter too much, because in yoga, the selfish and the unselfish eventually unite.
As I learned about this topic, I became curious about the link yogis find between moral behavior and the vritti, or mind fluctuations.
“Vritti means a whirl-pool,” writes Swami Sivananda. “It is a wave of thought that arises in the Antakharana (the mental instrument). Vrittis are modifications of the mind. They are the effect of Avidya.”
Avidya means ignorance or delusion. It refers specifically to the illusion of separateness, the compelling idea that you and I are distinct individual beings, that we are separate from each other, the animals, the plants, and the world we live in.
If yoga succeeds in stilling the mind, avidya vanishes, and we experience samadhi: we see that we are all connected—all one consciousness. Then, necessarily, to hurt another is to hurt oneself—because there is but one self.
Swami Vivekananda, famous for speaking of the unity of all religions at the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago in 1893, believed that all religions share similar, seemingly altruistic moral codes because they were launched by people who had experienced samadhi.
Unlike many of these religions, yoga does not ask us to believe anything on faith or on authority, he says. Yoga suggests we experience samadhi for ourselves, and it lays forth a path. The first two steps on that path are the yamas and niyamas.
Here is what Vivekananda says about practicing restraints and observances that seem unselfish:
“Show me the reason why I should not be selfish. To ask one to be unselfish may be good as poetry, but poetry is not reason. Show me a reason. Why shall I be unselfish, and why be good? Because Mr. and Mrs. So-and-so say so does not weigh with me. Where is the utility of my being unselfish? My utility is to be selfish if utility means the greatest amount of happiness. What is the answer? The utilitarian can never give it. The answer is that this world is only one drop in an infinite ocean, one link in an infinite chain. Where did those that preached unselfishness, and taught it to the human race, get this idea? We know it is not instinctive; the animals, which have instinct, do not know it. Neither is it reason; reason does not know anything about these ideas. Whence then did they come?
“We find, in studying history, one fact held in common by all the great teachers of religion the world ever had. They all claim to have got their truths from beyond, only many of them did not know where they got them from. For instance, one would say that an angel came down in the form of a human being, with wings, and said to him, “Hear, O man, this is the message.” Another says that a Deva, a bright being, appeared to him. A third says he dreamed that his ancestor came and told him certain things. He did not know anything beyond that. But this is common that all claim that this knowledge has come to them from beyond, not through their reasoning power. What does the science of Yoga teach? It teaches that they were right in claiming that all this knowledge came to them from beyond reasoning, but that it came from within themselves.
“The Yogi teaches that the mind itself has a higher state of existence, beyond reason, a superconscious state, and when the mind gets to that higher state, then this knowledge, beyond reasoning, comes to man.”
So we have some options. We can ignore the yamas and niyamas and just practice asana for the side effects. Or we can practice the yamas and niyamas as selfishly as we wish, until we reach samadhi, and then we’ll see for ourself.
The dual motivations for observing the yamas and niyamas are beautifully illustrated by the disagreement between yogis about the motive for vegetarianism—and their ultimate agreement. Read more about that in the this post.
Teachers and Teachings:
Swami Sivananda on vrittis (text)