Yama, Niyama, Brahmacharya

Dr Swami Shankardevananda Saraswati MB, BS (Syd.)

Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana, Samadhi are the eight parts of yogic discipline. Non-violence, truth, honesty, sensual abstinence and non-possessiveness are the five yama (self-restraints). Cleanliness, contentment, austerity, self-study and resignation to God constitute niyama (fixed observances).

Yoga Sutras, 11:29, 30, 32.

One of the biggest obstacles to a deeper understanding of yoga lies in the concept of yama and niyama as expounded in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Many people pick up the works of the great masters, and having intellectually analysed and memorised these texts, feel that they have gained some advancement in yoga. However, this is merely another trick of the mind and such knowledge seems to become an actual barrier to further learning and progress.

In approaching a book as vast as Patanjali has recorded we must see it in perspective. When he states in his first sutra, 'Now, therefore, complete instructions regarding yoga', he implies that prior to this the aspirant has become grounded in karma and bhakti yoga; that he has put his lifestyle, emotions and intellectual life in order and harmony. The first years of yoga must encompass asana, pranayama and hatha yoga; they must be years in which we try to let go of our preconceptions and open up, so as to receive real knowledge based on experience and piercing insight. Only then can we fulfil Patanjali's definition of asana as a steady and comfortable posture, one that can be maintained for hours without moving, and pranayama as cessation of inhalation and exhalation.

The eight limbs

In approaching the eight limbs of raja yoga we must try to put aside the intellectual, analytical, linear approach and see them as a whole. A circular approach is more appropriate because perfection in yama and niyama can only occur when there is samadhi. Perfect contentment and surrender to God, for example, are the result of transcendence rather than the cause. We may start out practising yama and niyama, but constantly we have to come back to them for reassessment.

As we progress yogically, mastering the external practices of asana and pranayama and gaining access to the inner side via pratyahara, dharana and dhyana, we can better understand how yama and niyama work. Thus the eight limbs of raja yoga are not so much linear 'steps', but work as parts or 'limbs' of a total organism which is raja yoga. All limbs must be worked on and mastered concurrently. This is why Patanjali states in the sutra preceding those on yama and niyama that by practising (all) the parts of yoga, impurity diminishes until the rise of spiritual knowledge culminates in awareness of reality. (YS 11:28)

We say the eight limbs of raja yoga, therefore have two aspects, the first is their practice and the second, their realisation. Patanjali states that, when the yama are practised universally without exception due to birth, place, time and circumstances, they become great disciplines and have certain desirable results, such as: abandonment of hostility in the vicinity of the practitioner of ahimsa, non-violence, and knowledge of how and from where birth comes, developed by aparigraha, non- acquisitiveness. (YS 11:31,35,39)

The path to attainment

On the path to attainment of success in yama and niyama, many obstacles occur. Misconceptions, disturbances of mind, passion, greed, anger, confusion and old habits tend to assert themselves and inhibit progress, especially if we lack willpower and determination, or if our desire for true spiritual progress is weak.

Patanjali says disturbances preventing progress can be mild, medium or intense but that they can be overcome by 'pratipaksha bhavana', thinking about the opposite of the disturbance (YS 11:33,34). For example, if we desire something, this will disturb the mind and nervous system and cause us to act contrary to the yama of non-acquisitiveness, aparigraha. If we feel guilty because of this or frustrated because we cannot get the desired result, and then try to suppress the desire or feeling, the suppressed desire will resurface with greater strength causing more mental disturbance. Suppression wastes energy in inappropriate mental and physical activity and can even lead to mental and physical disease. Patanjali, as the master psychologist, advises us to channel our mental activity creatively by putting our energy into conjuring up the positive vision which is the opposite of the disturbance. Thus we develop the habit of positive, creative thinking and calm rather than excite and deplete our nervous system.

The point to remember is that progress in developing yama and niyama is necessarily slow, and final culmination will be sometime in the future. Gandhiji, for example, spent his whole life in the attempt to master non-violence and brahmacharya. Our own approach must also be slow, steady and balanced, seen in perspective and undertaken correctly. Guidance from an experienced teacher, patience and tolerance in the face of failure, honesty with one's self and persistent effort must eventually result in improvement if not eventual mastery.


Without a doubt the concept of brahmacharya is one of the least understood of the yama and niyama. Brahmacharya, sensual abstinence, is said to give virya, indomitable courage and strength, and is thought by many people to refer to celibacy, or absolute abstinence from sexual thought and activity. Though sexual abstinence is a major facet of brahmacharya it is only a part, and is one of the most difficult sensual urges to control, being one of the most powerful. One can say it is the doorway to control of the senses because its mastery leads to easy mastery of the other sensual activities. Only then can we enter the internal domain via pratyahara, sensory withdrawal, with ease.

Brahmacharya is more an attitude of mind towards all sensual objects, its literal meaning being turning of the mind towards the absolute, or God consciousness and, therefore, away from sensual indulgence. It implies that, in the perfected state, when we are absorbed in the highest consciousness, the bliss and knowledge gained wipe out the craving for sexual and sensual activity because it is a better, more fulfilling state.

Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj summed up the state of brahmacharya when he said, "My world is just like yours. I see, I hear, I feel, I think, I speak and act in a world I perceive just like you. But with you, it is all: with me it is almost nothing... On realisation. pleasure and pain lost their sway over me. I was free from desire and fear. I found myself full, needing nothing."

Such a state is free from the need for sensual indulgence. On the way to this state the practice of sensual abstinence is required so that the mind is not continually distracted by thoughts of food, sex and other pleasures, so that we can become more aware of our inner fulfilment. It does not mean that we never fulfil sensual demands, because health of the body may demand this and realising this, we should not be overpowered by guilt and other negative mental reactions. If these occur we are better off fulfilling our body's demands.

The danger of suppression

Many people suffer needlessly in the attempt to master brahmacharya. Sexual activity is a very potent, biological urge and the most powerful emotions are linked up with the sex drive. Buddhists state that this sex drive is operating even prior to conception and birth, determining the selection of future parents and of the actual sex during embryonic development. Any attempt at its mastery requires courage and determination. It is said to be such a strong force that any attempt to master it is like grabbing hold of a tiger's tail.

Another reason for needless suffering in the attempt to master sexual energy is that it is often motivated by guilt complexes, neurosis and hang-ups about sex. A person who feels guilty every time he gets a sexual thought or feeling, or fears that he will become weakened by seminal emission or wet dreams, may try to find solace in the lofty idealism of what he imagines brahmacharya to be. If the thought of lust occurs, however, it engages the hormonal and nervous systems, creating a bodily response that we cannot stop or repress and any attempt at suppression only strains and weakens the nervous system allowing more sexual responses to occur, generating more guilt and mental imbalance and even disease and psychosis if the guilt engendered proves too much to bear.

First steps in brahmacharya

The first steps in any attempt at brahmacharya must begin after the foundations of asana, pranayama and simple meditative relaxation - concentration practices have begun. Asana and pranayama relax the nervous system and reduce its excitability and arousal enabling us to better control the nerves and nadis (energy flow) via awareness cultivated during meditation. Simple meditations such as yoga nidra for relaxation, ajapa japa to stimulate psychic structures, and antar mouna to develop detachment and witness capacity, disengage the emotional response from the thought. We think with the brain's frontal cortex but we do not engage the emotional response in the limbic system and thereby do not stimulate the autonomic nervous system or endocrine glands. In effect we can think what we like without being affected by it and this ultimately gives perfection in brahmacharya.

The basic formula for brahmacharya is: work hard, eat less, sleep less. Though Freud may have said that such a philosophy works on sublimation of the sexual drive into other creative pursuits, there is more to it than that. Working hard obviously means that we use our energy up so that we are too tired to do anything else and our minds are occupied with other problems, responsibilities and thoughts so that desires for sexual activity are forgotten. This by itself is not enough for brahmacharya because many people feel that when they work hard they have to eat plenty of protein and rich food to sustain and fatten the body. This combination, however, may increase sexual urge rather than reduce it.

Food is a very important part of brahmacharya, for it is, for many people, the sole outlet for sensual pleasure and also feeds the fires of the sexual system. In brahmacharya the food must be bland, free from stimulants such as strong tea and coffee, onion, garlic, strong spices and so on.

The diet must also be low in protein, especially meat, fish and all milk and animal products. This is because the pituitary gland requires proteins and vitamins E and B for the manufacture of its hormones. When we eat less protein we get less hormones and what protein is assimilated will be used for the more essential requirements and demands. Milk also contains certain hormones which stimulate the production of sexual hormones.

The diet of the yogin is higher in carbohydrate than protein or fat, especially in the form of whole grains. This is to stimulate the serotonin system of the brain, that system which reduces sexual excitation and is related to dream states and perhaps internal visionary experience. Such a diet does not stop sexual activity but reduces its power to affect the mind. By itself, however, it is incomplete and the final culmination is most easily achieved by combining diet with the other practices of yoga and an awareness of what the aim of the discipline is. This must be balanced by the knowledge that we are not aiming at celibacy as an end in itself, but rather as a means of reducing distractions from the goal of higher awareness. Sexual activity is not a sin.

The yama and niyama, when based on developed yogic practices, become reminders by which we can regain equilibrium each time the mind passes through times of crisis, desire, passion, intense emotion, hate and so on. All of them must be approached with an awareness of our present limitations and with the view in mind that many times we may fail but ultimately, with perseverance, we will succeed.

The ultimate aim of yama and niyama is not to develop an imposed moral or ethical system which makes life dull and boring and our minds fixed and rigid. Rather they aim to diminish the power of our passions and to channel these energies into the awakening of kundalini and higher consciousness. They are then transformed from a form of sadhana into a realisation. which opens the door to greater freedom and joy.