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Yoga’s Yamas and Niyamas

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Yoga Ten Commandments: Yama (thou shalt not) and Niyama (thou shalt)

Before delving into a deeper study of the first two limbs of Patanjali’s Eightfold path as outlined in the Yoga Sutras, it is important to note that every student of yoga was not expected to achieve these extremes.

Focus on the Journey, Not the Destination

Together, the Yamas and Niyamas represent a code of life to be aspired to and the ultimate goal of Samadhi or enlightenment was certainly not necessarily going to be attainable for everyone.

However, it’s also incumbent upon us to realize that the spiritual work involved with the high levels of renunciation and self-control as prescribed by Patanjali would indeed have tremendous impact on our view of the world around us.

Since most Western practitioners of Hatha yoga are not serious spiritual students of the path, it is perhaps more practical to use the Yamas and Niyamas as a more general guide.

Road Map, Not Rule Book

Though the Yamas and Niyamas are often referred to as the Ten Commandments of yoga, an important note is that one does not pursue these practices for some overarching good or evil. It is not a question of spiritual righteousness that brings the student to practice this rigorous asceticism, rather it is a yearning to deepen and strengthen their meditative practice in order to still the body and mind and concentrate more wholly on the spirit.

For Patanjali, the Yamas and Niyamas are a practical matter: anything that helps the student to meditate more completely and understand the illusory nature of the physical world around them is to be nourished. Anything that distracts the student or hinders their spiritual practice should be avoided.

The Yamas are a series of five things that each yogi must strive to abstain from. They are AhimsaSatyaAsteyaBrahmacharya and Aparigraha. The student should abstain from harming anyone or anything, should be honest in all ways, and should always exercise strict self-discipline.

While the Yamas are concerned with the external life of the yogi, the Niyamas address the internal. The Yamas are the “thou shalt not” and the Niyamas represent “thou shalt”.The five additional things that the student must attend in his or her own internal life are: ShaucaSantoshaTapasSwadhyayaIshwarapranidhana. They involve cleanliness, diligence, devotion and study, and contentedness.

Participation Is Optional

It is not necessary to adhere to these ten principles to be a student of yoga. However, as one deepens in the practice of yoga, students often find that they are naturally drawn to these principles of their own accord.

Often, students of yoga are drawn to the tales of mystical or psychic power that are gained through Siddhi or perfection of yogic practices. To achieve “Perfection” in this case, the student must not just “do” or “not do” these things.

The student must transform himself or herself entirely. As noted in the Foundations of Yoga: “…perfection in these virtues means that the ignorance which causes their opposites … injury, lying, and stealing, has been completely eliminated from the yogi … their reappearance in his thought, speech, or behavior has become absolutely impossible.”