Yama and Niyama are the first two building blocks of Yoga. This learning is so crucial that it comes second to none in the study of Yoga – it provides the moral grounding required for a proper Yoga practice. By practising Yama and Niyama we develop specific moral qualities that add up to frame our daily lives.
Let us first take a deeper look at this notion of morality and its implications for the Yogi’s life. The main objective of this strict ethical code is to eliminate both the mental and emotional disturbances that literally fill in the daily life of the average human being. Considering the way the human mind works, it is clear that to reach this goal, one must uproot – or at least gain the ability to sufficiently control – tendencies like hatred, dishonesty, deception, sensuality or greed. Such common tendencies are deeply rooted and form the soil on which emotional disturbances, whether dramatic or almost imperceptible, will grow and negatively affect the human mind. As long as such tendencies are free to affect our mind, a more systematic and advanced Yoga practice will not benefit us.
Yamas are a code of conduct which expression is horizontal: they address our relations to others. They can be best summarised by the first of the five Yamas, which contains all the others: Ahimsa, or non-violence.
The five Yamas:
Ahimsa = Non-violence
Satya = Benevolent Truth
Asteya = Non-stealing
Brahmacarya = Right use of energy (continence)
Aparigraha = Non-Greed
Generally speaking, Yama practices are ethical and restrictive, whereas Niyama practices lead towards discipline in a constructive way. The former tend to build ethical foundations of Yogic life, whilst the latter aim at structuring the existence of the Sadhaka (the seeker) for the demanding path he has chosen – Yoga. These different purposes are made evident through two different forms of practice. In observing the Great Vow linked to Yama, the Sadhaka does not need to take any specific kind of action. What is required of him is to react to situations that life brings him in a well-defined manner – by exercising the five virtues. But how many occurrences will come to him throughout his life, and what form they will take will obviously depend on circumstances. For example, should he choose to live as an ascetic in the jungle, he will be left with very few occasions to practise the five virtues. The Great Vow will still bind him, however this vow will remain inoperative for want of practical applications.
Practising Niyama on the contrary implies daily practises that must be observed whatever circumstances the Sadhaka is to face. It should be noted that to start the actual practise of Raja-Yoga without having firmly anchored one’s daily life around Yama and Niyama, practise would prove very unwise. Ignoring this fact is the root cause of the many troubles encountered by Yoga students in Western countries.
Saucha = purity (linked to physical and energy body)
Santosha = Contentment (linked to emotional body)
Tapas = Asceticism (linked to the principle of will power)
Svdhyaya = Self-study (linked to the mental body)
Isvara pranidhana = surrender to the Divine (linked to our inner self)