Yamas and Niyamas: A Fresh Look

Most Yoga students know about the eight limbs of Yoga as they are described in the authoritative yoga scripture of Patanjali. It says in the Yoga Sutras (II/29):


The eight limbs of Yoga are: Yama (abstinence); Niyama (observance); asana (posture); Pranayama (breath control); Pratyahara (sense withdrawal); Dharana (concentration); Dhyana (meditation /contemplation); Samadhi (absorption or super-conscious state).       

We can make these 8 ‘limbs’ into three fluid groups:

That which concerns how to live within the outer world ( yama, niyama, asana)

That which concerns our inner world ( pranayama, pratyahara, dharana).

That which concerns higher aspirations (dharana, dhyana, Samadhi).

If we want to make progress on our path of Yoga, we need to be practice all of them.

The first two limbs have to do with our preparation and interaction in relationship to the world around us! It’s a wide circle.

The posture starts to drawing the circle closer, addressing apparently the physical body, yet as body is an expression of mind – it goes much beyond body-fitness.

With Pranayama the attention follows prana and breath right inside the body; hence pranayama is intimately connected with asana

Pratyahara then draws the senses inside the body, which is only possible in a relaxed body, meaning it is linked with asana and pranayama .

Dharana is using that in-drawn focus, directing the energy one-pointedly on the goal. For that one needs to practise the previous and pratyahara.

Absorbtion into the object of dharana leads then first to dhyana and ultimately to Samadhi.

The eight limbs are interdependent, working from the outside in - returning to our core, our original essence, our “original nature” (Sutra 3) – the vast potential of being in Fullness, in “Being-ness”.  

This list of angas, which Patanjali refers to as Mahavratam (great vows), however is not unique!!!!!! Lists like theses, i.e. lists of practices in order to reach High States of evolution or Liberation appear in other traditions, India and beyond. …In the tantric tradition there are lists of 6 angas (limbs); in others there are 4 - the difference becomes clear if we accept what the Datta-Purana points out: Yamas and Niyamas are naturally understood to be there, they don’t need to be mentioned. They are universal codes of ethics and morality which apply in nearly every culture, yet it is exactly these we have great problems with.

A well-known list of eight limbs is the eight-fold path of Buddha. It is the follow-up of the four “Noble Truths,” showing that there is a path to alleviate suffering.  All, Kapila (prime author/scholar of Sankhya, Yoga philosophy),  Patanjali and the Buddha start from a similar insight: we suffer, its part of life, suffering is created by our minds, we can do something about it.

The similarities are not really surprising…as the place where Buddha grew up and was educated was called “Kapilavastu”….(The land/place of Kapila).

Each aspect of the eightfold path starts with the word samyak (loosely translated into English as right), and they too can be presented in three groups:

Prajñā is the wisdom that purifies the mind, allowing it to attain spiritual insight into the true nature of all things. Which is what Patanjali calls: right knowledge.

    1.    dristi (ditthi): viewing reality as it is, not just as it appears to be.

    2.    samkalpa (sankappa): intention of renunciation, freedom and harmlessness.

Sila is the ethics or morality, or abstention from unwholesome deeds. Patanjali’s teaching on  Satya ( Truth) and Ahimsa (Non-violence) –or rather the entirety of the Yamas and Niyamas, to be summed up as “right living”.

    1.    vāc (vāca): speaking[ in a truthful and non hurtful way

    2.    karman (kammanta): acting in a non harmful wa

    3.    ājīvana (ājīva): a non harmful livelihood

Samādhi is the mental discipline required to develop mastery over one’s own mind. This is done through the practice of various contemplative and meditative practices, and includes:

    1.    vyāyāma (vāyāma): making an effort to improve

    2.    smṛti (sati): awareness to see things for what they are with clear consciousness, being aware of the present reality within oneself, without any craving or aversion

    3.    samādhi (samādhi): correct meditation or concentration (dharana) [ explained as dhyānas.                                                                                                                     

Although different, they are almost covering the same ground. The difference is only on the base level, as Patanjali includes body and breath. He was a great Psychologist, and knew that “the teaching has to start with where the student is at” – and , due to the way our senses and brain works, we are primarily outward orientated…and that showed never more than in our times. Concentrating on the Yamas and Niyamas ...the Buddhist equivalent would be to focus on the Silas.

Now another famous list of conduct that leads to Liberation, or rather “The kingdom of heaven”, is the List of the 10 Commandments, shared by Jews and Christians. They came to Moses in divine Revelation, (a very Vedic concept); sometimes they are broken up into 14 parts. But in the main…there are ten, which again we can make into three groups.

Ishwara Pranidhana (in a different cultural context).        

 1.    I am the Lord, your God, you shall have no other Gods before me; you shall not have idols.

 2. You shall not make wrong use of the name of God.

Swadhaya/Tapas  (honouring the scriptures, teachings, and teachers)

3. Remember the Sabath; and keep it holy

4. Honour your father and mother.

Ethical laws (such as  ahimsa, asteya, satya, aparigraha etc.)

5. You shall not kill

6. You shall not commit adultery

7. You shall not steel

8. You shall not lie or bear false witness

9. You shall not covet your neighbours wife

10. You shall not desire anything that belongs to your neighbour.

 It is said, that Jesus condensed these to two laws...‘“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment, and the second is : “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Matthew 22:34) This seems like “the “fast lane” of cultivating Ishwara Pranidhana, or the Presence of God.

The ethical aspects can be condensed up in the “Golden Rule”, the base of ethics in most cultures. Don’t do to others, what you don’t want to have done to yourself.

The following quotation from the Acaranga Sutra sums up the philosophy of Jainism : “Nothing which breathes, which exists, which lives, or which has essence or potential of life, should be destroyed or ruled over, or subjugated, or harmed, or denied of its essence or potential.”

Even in Islam we find: “Hurt no one so that no one may hurt you” (Muhammad, The Farewell Sermon). Or "None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself." (Number 13 of Imam "Al-Nawawi's Forty Hadiths.")

I will not discuss these latter citations however, as here is not the space to do so.

So yes, there are similarities and yes there are differences, especially in the interpretation of these maxims - yet the tradition of having these lists is common and the topics they touch on – are similar!

The greatest difference seems to be between Patanjali, Buddha and Mahavira on one side –and Christian and Jewish lists on the other.

The former give detailed advise of how to get to the higher states.  What the second group seems to lack is advise on internal purification that enable to aim for the higher.

Yoga, i.e. Patanjali gives clear advise as what to cultivate, so that we behave and in a way that is an aid to evolve and fulfill our potential as human beings.                                                               

Sutra II/30. The Yamas are Ahimsa (non-violence); Satya (truthfulness); Asteya (non-stealing); Brahmacharya (continence); Aparigraha (no-greed).

“Yam” (Sansk.) refers to control, i.e. how to control our interaction with the world and establish rules that keep us from getting entangled in the world in a wrong manner.

Even these ethical lists, appear in similar forms throughout Indian scriptures i.e.  the Varuha Upanishads, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika by Gorakshanatha, the Tirumantiram of Tirumular . etc. (Swami Veda compares in his commentary on the Yoga Sutras, Vol II about 60 of these).

Frequently the lists show ten Yamas and ten Niyamas. i.e.Yamas:

1)    ahimsa: "Noninjury." Not harming others by thought, word, or deed.

2)    satya: "Truthfulness." Refraining from lying and betraying promises.

3)    asteya: "Nonstealing." Neither stealing, nor coveting nor entering into debt.

4)    brahmacharya: "Divine conduct." Controlling lust by remaining celibate when single, leading to faithfulness in marriage.

5)    kshama: "Patience." Restraining intolerance with people and impatience with circumstances.

6)    dhriti: "Steadfastness." Overcoming non-perseverance, fear, indecision and changeableness.

7)    daya: "Compassion." Conquering callous, cruel and insensitive feelings toward all beings.

8)    arjava: "Honesty, straightforwardness." Renouncing deception and wrongdoing.

9)    mitahara: "Moderate appetite." Neither eating too much nor consuming meat, fish, fowl or eggs.

10) shaucha: "Purity." Avoiding impurity in body, mind and speech. -


1)   hri: "Remorse." Being modest and showing shame for misdeeds.(mental purity)    

2)    santosha: "Contentment." Seeking joy and serenity in life.

3)    dana: "Giving." Tithing and giving generously without thought of reward.

4)    astikya: "Faith." Believing firmly in God, Gods, guru and the path to enlightenment.

5)    Ishvarapujana: "Worship of the Lord." The cultivation of devotion through daily worship and meditation.

6)    siddhanta shravana: "Scriptural listening." Studying the teachings and listening to the wise of one's lineage.

7)    mati: "Cognition." Developing a spiritual will and intellect with the guru's guidance.

8)    vrata: "Sacred vows." Fulfilling religious vows, rules and observances faithfully.

9)    japa: "Recitation." Chanting mantras daily.

10) tapas: "Austerity." Performing sadhana, penance, tapas and sacrifice.

By careful looking we see that not much has been added, what appears as additions can easily be found hidden in Patanjali’ lists. Let’s focus now on his Yamas: ahimsa, satya, asteya, brahmacharya and aparigraha (noncovetousness) knowing that the purpose of practising these is, to produce a comparatively peaceful mind, a prerequisite for the practice of the higher Yogic endeavours. Without practicing the Yamas and the Niyamas…there is no chance of stopping the constant arousal of samskaras, that cause the distractions of the mind.

Of these Ahimsa is the fundamental practice.  Some say, Ahimsa is the only principal we have to observe; if we truly and completely practice ahimsa, we have attained everything. Why?  

Let me give as a simple example, the act of having a cup of tea.  Someone in Darjeeling had to pick the tea-leaves, dry them and pack them. Not only does the life of the pickers and their children depend on the price of tea we pay, but their grandparent’s work of preparing the land, planting and nurturing the bushes connects them too to your cup of tea. Furthermore the sun and the rain had to be right for your tea to grow. Once harvested, the tea had to be shipped; oil had to be bought for the ship’s engines and various lorries for transport. (which connects the tea with many people in the Middle East). Furthermore, even once the tea reached the supermarket shelf, staff there were involved (i.e. the cashier) and finally the bus driver who brought you home etc. Thousands of people, several countries, and all of nature are involved in your simple ‘cup of tea’

And more over how many of them suffered in the process?

The tea bush makes its new leaves but before they unfold…they are broken, life snapped from them, it suffers. The pickers of tea leaves stand under the hot sun and suffer. The shopkeepers or lorry drivers that bring the tea to your shop have to work inhumanly long hours to make a living…they suffer. All our actions, even our thoughts - affect all things!  We can just about follow this holistic approach - yet Indian philosophy takes this one giant step further.     

Everything does not only affect everything else, but it is everything else!

From both points it is easy to see how Ahimsa does not just mean: ‘don’t kill’,  but abstain from any activity which inflicts injury on any other Being - at any time and in any manner –be it through body, speech or mind! According to Vyasa ahimsa is: Not having the desire to hurt, not having the intention to hurt.

The crucial word here is: intention. We cannot live without hurting others….we eat and cut the lettuce….! However if it is not intended to hurt, it is not himsa (violence). Not intending to hurt, harm or injure includes not harbouring enmity towards others, it means not swearing at others, not even thinking bad about another; all of these are inflicting injury! It’s a tall order. Non-violence as understood on the path of Yoga is the highest Sadhana! The other Yamas are all there to explain ahimsa. They are rooted in Ahimsa. If they don’t support ahimsa, they are not right actions. Without ahimsa, they are meaningless. To practice ahimsa is most important; for that we need to see the Divine in all Beings one cannot dissolve one’s mind patterns. As long as we are aware of differences, we cannot have “no aversion towards anything and anyone”.

Not killing is only the grossest level…as one proceeds to subtler awareness, the level of ahimsa gets subtler and subtler too.On the gross level, there is always the question “but what do you do when you are attacked, or witness a crime?” Swami Veda Bahrati says: The BG gives the answer, when you are a person of stable wisdom then you fight.  But you have to be of stable, cool mind…you have to have got rid first of your hot anger.

Swami Rama  says: “Practice of Ahimsa is practice of Love. Love means just give..no expectations, no strings, no opinions attached..nothing but giving..just giving the best in You.”

How to practise Ahimsa dharma? It is complete way of life (read Mahatma Ghandi’s book: Story of My Experiments with Truth!) If we keep our awareness holistic, if we keep the mind on spiritual living, we have no time to harm others, furthermore Ahimsa challenges us to look at our mind patterns, our motives and tendencies just as much as at our values and actions. There is nothing in the world that justifies our getting angry and showing disrespect to life!

Is it possible to live without inflicting injury? Remember the example about the cup of tea we enjoy! There is a Sutra  by Vyasa, (Pad II/15) Swamiji quotes, which says:

It is impossible to enjoy objects of the senses without causing some hurt to someone, somewhere. We think we live a life of ahimsa…and next minute cut a flower for doing Puja!!!!!!

Of course the whole question of vegetarianism is part of this topic. Vegetarianism has not only to do with the sufferings of the animals but with the suffering we cause ourselves. Again here is not the space to explore that issue.  Let’s only say: living with awareness is the key! Start with awareness, then try to take the least for yourself- Take, not what you desire, but the minimum you need! If I hear that sentence… my hair stands on end…just think how we exploit this planet…The whole issue of the resource management, pollution, environmental issues, issues of distribution of wealth, etc., etc…is raised with it. The catalogue is endless. What to do:

Reduce the hurt and harm as much as in your power and do atonements on a daily basis.

Meaning. Every evening ask yourself:

What harm did I do…? What could I have done better…? What did I not do..even though I should…? What hurt did I cause? What injurious words did I think or say…and vow, make an intent to do better tomorrow. Another atonement is all form of sacrifice. The whole Vedic culture has sacrifice.at its core. Understanding that everything and everyone is sacrificing for something. The carrot sacrifices its existence for you to live, thank it for its gift of life! Every grain of rice sacrifices its existence so you may live.

This is the circle of Life. Eat your meals with that in mind…rather than stuffing the food in your mouth in a hurry, or gossiping about nonsense. That is the point of the prayer before meals. In return, practise offering yourself to the universe, to Brahman, to serve others, to serve the elders, to serve guests, to serve life….we are part in this chain of sacrifice, not doing our bit…is causing harm to others, is Himsa! How come “to serve” has become a dirty word in our contemporary world? So the first step towards practicing Ahimsa, is awareness in deed!

Obviously there are grades of ‘harming others’; cutting the grass - is different from using evil words about another, and that is less harmful than shooting him.

But for Yogis it is important to try their best to practice harmlessness, rather than only non-violence. The importance lies in gradually cleansing the mind and heart from all patterns that might lead to any form of injuring others – or oneself! Yes we have to learn to practice ahimsa towards ourselves!

When we eat the wrong food, diet etc….we harm ourselves; we don’t practice ahimsa.

When we keep the wrong company we harm ourselves….we don’t practice ahimsa.

When we do asanas, pushing beyond our limits…we harm ourselves, we don’t practice ahimsa

When we not do our practices (the 8 angas)…we hinder our spiritual progress, thus we harm our self, we don’t practice ahimsa

The list is endless!

We need to be aware of how we behave in our day to day…to see that we are not even yet living the 1st. anga of the 1st. limb, that’s what baby’s we are on the path of Yoga!!!!! That’s why self-awareness and self inquiry is so important – and then there is the whole area of speech and thought.

This is addressed with Truth, (Satya). It does not just refer to telling the Truth. Although that is the obvious  first level. Satyam refers to being truthful in speech and mind….what is Speech:

-A word is spoken for the transmission of one’s own awareness into someone else.

-The purpose of communication is that your awareness is transmitted as it is in your mind-into the other persons mind.

Then Satyam is integrity of speech and the mind behind the speech. What is heard and inferred and what is seen should be the same. “As is my knowledge so is my communication.” This needs the highest awareness of the words we utter - they must be free from deceit, from creating deliberate illusions (what is said is not meant-and what is meant is not said). How easy to say: “You look beautiful today”- and thinking: “that haircut does not suit you!” Don’t even think it!

One should speak only for the benefit of all beings, than one doesn’t hurt anyone. If we speak and it is hurtful- it’s himsa. How easy to tell a child “don’t lie”…but the parents themselves lie (darling, I am just going to be a minute…and two hours pass; while the child waits watching the clock!)

Furthermore A-satya (Non-truth) can be propounding a theory without verifying it by experience. A-satya can be perpetuating what others say, i.e. aiding in hiding truth, in spreading wrong knowledge. This is what gossip is made out of. Words should be uttered for people’s benefit - not because they hurt – or support ones own importance!

If words cannot be spoken for the good, silence is a better option.

Or: if you have to speak something hurtful to someone “for their own good”…make sure you speak from a point of stable wisdom….and not from your own anger/frustration/emotions.

Speech is a major form of pouring out energy - make sure that it doesn’t harm others! Swami Vivekananda says “the Yoga of controlling ones tongue serves two purposes at once: respect for food…and respect for words!”

Taking things unlawfully, (Asteya) doesn’t just mean no-stealing, it refers to not accepting what is not ours; to not attaching our mind to wants and wishes. We shouldn’t even desire or dream about having things, that aren’t ours; but we do, what else is window shopping; what else is flirting with our friends wife; seeking the company even of our friends husband.

We shouldn’t desire what is not ours- what is ours any way?

Try to think beyond the mundane level? Can you own your house? It’s simply enclosed space…whose space? What is ownership? Shouldn’t we rather talk about stewardship- being caretakers…servants? Can you own your wife? Isn’t love just giving…freely? Can you own a concept, an idea - own knowledge? Can you own someone’s time? Etc.

Celibacy, (brahmacharya) – is probably the most controversial of the Yamas; the word actually refers to a student walking in constant awareness of Brahman.  It means being devoted to the highest Truth - nothing else. If one is totally focused on something (even your big toe) the importance of other things drop off. Interest in sex, food, money falls away, naturally. For such a student (even a sannyasin / renunciate /monk) practicing control or restraint on any of the Yamas and Niyamas includes control over the reproductive urges (including thinking about sex, talking about it, insinuating it etc.) Why because the focus should be one-pointedly on the Highest! on Brahman.

The truest celibacy is not denial, it’s the ecstasy that comes from merging the masculine and feminine within one being. It’s not repression but becomes a complete expression of being-ness into oneself. It’s a merging within ones own divinity; it’s the death of the historical ego-self and becoming one single stream flowing with/flowing into the cosmic Self. In that there outer needs of any kind - disappear.

Lastly we are asked not to desire, not to want more than we need (Greed). Aparigraha is wanting or taking things we don’t need; it addresses the eternal wanting that pushes all of us, in one way or another. When acquiring things, we bring a host of problems to ourselves. One needs the means to acquire (we know to what length we corrupt ourselves to get them), then one has to protect it –and/or suffer because one fears its loss. Finally attachment develops that might even lead to himsa in order to hold on to what we acquired!

Modern society exploits the tendency towards greed; it encourages us to shop for things, which we neither use nor need. What is it that we really need? It is so little, mostly we identify with individual needs and desires which are an illusion of mind, so …get a grip on your mind!

Furthermore to strive for (or – preserve) wealth without utilizing it for the good of others is sheer selfishness, built on the distress of others! Our greed is build on the pain of others, whether it is this car we want, this extra bit of money or indeed the other person’s husband! Ultimately this Yama too, is there to support the praxis of a-himsa.         

But there is again another angle to this “not acquiring things”. It means don’t add things to your personality, don’t assimilate into your personality what is not needed. We follow other peoples opinions, and let these shape our being. He said….She said….mother said…boss said… Let them keep their opinion, don’t get attached, don’t take it into your person…because there it will fester, breed disharmony, or anger and hate. Practice Aparigraha….

Don’t carry other people’s emotions, don’t carry the people’s emotions, instead contrast them with your own infectious joy and peace.

The Niyamas (II/32) saucha (cleanliness), santosha (contentment), tapah (austerity – but not causing pain), svadhya (study spiritual issues) and Isvara pranidhanani (worship/surrender to God) -   have the aim, to dissolve what clouds our pure mind – and keep it from functioning perfectly. They are to wipe the obstacles to the supreme practice of surrender to the Divine ALL and establish trust …in the Self. So they are there to strengthen our character.

In this way, Cleanliness is meant for the body (outside) and mind (inside). External cleanliness is obviously maintained through clean water, clean food etc.  Let me pick just one topic…from a host of subjects we could contemplate:  Some foods, alcohol and other exciting substances (such as drugs) excite the mind; if the purpose of Yoga is mind control it makes no sense to take in toxins, which irritate the mind. Just as clean food means “no stale and rotten food” it means no mind-effecting substances. However the main focus, is beyond the physical cleanliness (including shat kryias) on internal cleanliness : meaning removal of impurities from the mind. And how polluted your mind is - only you know!


Basically our minds should be sattvic, but there are stains on it-that need removing, such as: intolerance, pride, envy, jealousy and the old favourites: attraction and aversion. They all need to be washed off. To do that it helps to ‘wash’ the mind constantly by repetition of a divine name (jappa)...A cool tranquil mind, is a content mind.


Contentment refers to the absence of desire; i.e. “what I have got is enough - what ever it is”…So stop worrying! Worrying is a perversion of thinking, which causes permanent agitation of the mind, makes body and mind weak and tired. We are never content, never satisfied, there is always something else to attract our mind, from another romance, to another glass of wine, to a new car. As long as we give in to these - how can our mind become still?

Cultivate contentment and tell yourself: I have enough…I am full, practice ”fullness”; during many times and occasions during the day; recite : Ohm purnamada, purnamidam, purnat, purnamudatchyate, purnasya, puranamadaya, purnameva vashishyate.

Austerities One of the revered practices of austerity (tapah) is cultivating silence – i.e. refraining from useless talk; it helps to practice Truth. However cultivating the deeper silence, means, no communication, neither in words, nor in gestures, nor in intention. This austerity is practiced in many spiritual communities, be they Hindu/Buddhist or Christian. The less you talk, the more prana you conserve; the stronger your own energy.

Self-knowledge of course is Swadhhyaya , translated as study of scriptures. This increases right knowledge; right understanding mainly about your own self, which includes study of the entire personality – which in turn purifies the mind. This self-knowing empowers us and worldly thoughts decrease. Included here is of course also Jappa.

The final Niyama is translated as: surrender to God, faith or devotion.

Vyasa  defines it as : Surrendering all, to that Supreme Guru. It means knowing that ‘I’ exist only in the Totality, the ultimate Reality – or G.O.D.  It’s this inner awareness that I exist in God which brings a sense of belonging, a great sense of safety and a peaceful mind. Just as a muscle inside your body fullfils its purpose there- so my dharma is fulfilled within the Divine ALL, God; knowing that, trusting that, having faith in that - brings peace of mind!

Actually all Yamas and Niyamas must be done with this attitude of surrendering to God, and not reaping any of its fruits (hence Patanjali deems this the highest practice). As Vyasa says: Practice Surrender to God, whether lying in bed; or sitting on a seat, or walking on the path…..Ishvara Pradnidhana implies - surrender to Ischwara, the name for the Divine, as seen manifest within the totality of Existence (including myself).

Practicing the presence of God means : knowing that ‘I’ exist only in God, belong to the ultimate Absolute Reality; I exist only in Brahman! My Ahamkara my ego-I-ness is a learned construction of the mind. See through it! Realise that you are one expression, one form of the Ultimate divine intelligent energy. Then surrendering to that knowledge is the same as ‘coming home’.

Getting back to base, brings a great sense of safety and a peaceful mind. It is implying: be positive, get rid of self-doubt and negativity …You are It! Enjoy!… Be happy! Don’t limit your self to your individual ego mind and its memory files. Instead get rid of the walls of Ego and open yourself to the pure joy of existence… That is the aim of Yoga,



19 Dec 2021;
07:00PM - 08:00PM
Full Moon Meditation 2020