The Role of the Yamas and Niyamas in Depression

Mridula Mishra, Lecturer, Dept of Yoga Psychology, Bihar Yoga Bharati

Depression is a mood disorder. Our mood is mainly determined by our emotions. Emotions are positive and negative and play an important role in our personality. In some circumstances we wish to eradicate negative emotions from our personality, but we cannot. This is because in the process of emotional development the first emotion that we experience or learn about in life is weeping. When a child is born he/she weeps due to fear. So fear is a negative emotion and remains with us from birth until the last experience - death, which also creates a negative emotion. In this way both the first and last emotions are negative and we can't change or throw out this emotion from our personality. It is an ultimate reality. Whenever we feel our negative emotions are giving trouble or creating a problem, we need the ability to manage them, because uncontrolled negative emotions result in different disorders among which is depression.

From ancient times till today we discover different methods and techniques for the management of negative emotions. The yamas and niyamas are one such technique. These yamas and niyamas are described by the great saint Maharishi Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras. He describes the eight steps of raja yoga, which are known as ashtanga yoga. The yamas and niyamas are the first two steps of ashtanga yoga. The yamas are meant to harmonize the social and external interactions in one's life, whereas the niyamas create a sense of discipline in one's inner life.

Nowadays the younger generation frequently experiences depression. A basic cause of depression is the lack of discipline in life. Yamas are external disciplines and niyamas are inner disciplines. Through these two steps we can learn to develop our personality in a better way. Also through the practice of the yamas and niyamas we can eradicate depressive symptoms. Today we are not following these yamas and niyamas and as a result people are experiencing depression. Maharishi Patanjali has given five yamas and five niyamas, which are as follows:

Yamas (social code) Niyamas (personal code)
1. Ahimsa (non-violence) 1. Saucha (cleanliness)
2. Satya (truthfulness) 2. Santosha (contentment)
3. Asteya (honesty) 3. Tapas (austerity)
4. Aparigraha (non-possessiveness) 4. Swadhyaya (self-study)
5. Brahmacharya (celibacy) 5. Ishwara Pranidhana (surrender to God)

The meaning of ahimsa is absence of the violent nature in our personality. Satya refers to the awareness of what is correct, right and true that manifests from within and the ability to express it. The meaning of asteya is being honest with ourselves, where the true nature of the personality is seen and experienced. Aparigraha means non-attachment. The meaning of brahmacharya is control over the sexual desire. These five disciplines constitute the yamas, which are generally translated as 'moral code of conduct' by the layman but actually mean 'yogic self-control'.

The first niyama is shaucha and apart from meaning physical cleanliness and cleanliness of one's living area, shaucha is also geared to creating the feeling of cleanliness within the mind. Santosha means to be happy with whatever one has, to enjoy living in the present moment without craving or desiring anything more. Tapas means seeking out the pure essence of matter, like the process of firing gold to remove the impurities and extract the pure gold. Swadhyaya means the analysis and knowledge of our own personality, being aware of our individual qualities, strengths and weaknesses. Ishwara pranidhana means belief in a higher reality, and sometimes it is also translated as surrender to God.

But the question is how can we control depression through the yamas and niyamas? For this it is necessary to know the main causes of depression, which are as follows:

  1. Low stress tolerance
  2. Dependence on support and sympathy
  3. Poor ego function
  4. Bereavement
  5. Guilt feelings
  6. Pre-morbid personality
Low stress tolerance   Dependency on support & sympathy
Satya Santosha   Aparigraha Swadhyaya
Poor ego function   Bereavement
Asteya Tapas   Ahimsa Ishwara pranidhana
Guilt feeling   Pre-morbid personality
Bramacharya Saucha   All yamas and niyamas


1. Low tolerance to stress

The first cause of depression is low stress tolerance. Man is a social human being, so if he is living in society he must have contact with different types of personalities and situations and try to adjust to them. Adjustment must happen whether the situations are difficult or not. Through the practice of satya we can increase our tolerance level, because through the practice of truthfulness we can know and understand our limitations and weaknesses and accept them, thereby releasing the built-up tensions within us and increasing our physical and mental energy. So through this increased energy we can find more creative ways of overcoming or adjusting the negative traits of our personality. Also we have to be ready to accept any negative condition, any type of sad or bad event we experience. Through the practice of santosha we will be able to face any unpleasant or negative situation.

2. Dependence on support and sympathy

The second cause of depression is dependence on support and sympathy. Why do we need support and sympathy? If we are very attached to our family and they overdo the support and sympathy they give us at different times, then we may gradually convert the receiving of support into an obligation, thereby demanding that this support should be given whenever we find ourselves in a difficult situation, expecting that it is our parents or family's duty to deal with the situation. In fact these two things create a weak personality. Through the practice of aparigraha we learn to live with our family without undue attachment and with acceptance. Through the practice of swadhyaya we can understand our own self in a better way. By the process of self-analysis we come to know and accept our limitations, habits, potential, etc., and accept them. With this clearer understanding of ourselves we then know how to act appropriately in any situation according to our abilities and needs. This avoids dependence on the decisions of others for our well-being, which, in general, are based only on guesswork or an estimate. So through the practice of aparigraha and swadhyaya we learn to live our lives with independence and without the need for support and sympathy.

3. Poor ego function

The third cause of depression is poor ego function. The ego is an important component of the mind. The main work of the ego is to maintain good adjustment and control between the id and super ego. If the ego does not have a good and strong control over these aspects, then there will be an imbalance in our personality, which will give more emphasis either to the social needs or the biological needs. Through the practice of asteya we can develop a strong ego function. The practice of asteya gives the confidence to make an honest decision in the adjustment and control between id and super ego. Also through the practice of tapas we can destroy the negative traits in our personality and replace them with pure and positive traits which give strength to the personality, and then there is no question of poor ego function.

4. Bereavement

The fourth cause of depression is bereavement. Everyone who is born will die, and we cannot stop that death. Every person who dies has some relations with other people, so definitely those people will feel sad because they loved that person. But the intensity of the sadness will not be the same for everyone. The intensity of sadness will be higher when the death is one of our family members or our beloved. In this situation a person may experience intense anger towards himself and also towards God, which expresses itself through violent behaviour. We have to think how violent action manifests in our behaviour. There are definitely some violent traits in our personality, which express themselves when situations arise which we feel we cannot manage, which overpower us, or when things are not happening as we have planned. So in these situations, when violent actions manifest in our behaviour we are affected by them. Through the practice of ahimsa we understand the process of these intense reactions within us, and gradually we can decrease or eradicate violent traits from the personality. And through the practice of Ishwara pranidhana we can increase our positive energy. Whatever happens, it was God's decision. We have surrendered to God. We have to think in this way that any positive or negative event which takes place in our life was God's order and surrender to God. In this way we can balance and control ourselves in any kind of problematic situation.

5. Guilt feelings

The fifth cause of depression is guilt feelings. In fact every human being feels guilt in their life. During our life we will definitely make mistakes which will cause us to feel guilt. Depression is mainly experienced between the ages of 20 to 50 years. As we know, the age of 12 to 22 years is the progressive development stage. In this period our physical, mental, emotional and moral development takes place. So it is obviously the time when the chance of making mistakes is high. Because many of these developments are closely related to our sexual development, many of our guilt feelings will be related to our sexual feelings and desires. Therefore, the practice of brahmacharya can be taken up to help control this cause of depression. Through the practice of brahmacharya we learn to understand and control our sexual desires, and due to this understanding and control we can save ourselves a lot of guilt feelings. But if we make mistakes which bring guilt feelings, we can use the practice of shaucha to clean the mind. We always keep our negative thoughts in the unconscious part of the mind, and these unconscious thoughts try to find irregular channels to the conscious level, creating problems. Through the practice of shaucha we have to throw out those thoughts, not only from the unconscious, but also from our personality, in the same manner as we throw out useless matter from our computer files.

6. Pre-morbid personality

The last cause of depression is the pre-morbid personality. In every personality there are some morbid traits which will manifest in behaviour when suitable situations arise. Through the practice of all the yamas and niyamas we are able to control our morbid traits. For the healthy development of the personality these two steps of Patanjali's ashtanga yoga are very important. We can sow these two seeds in our personality as a daily or a life routine. What is necessary is the commitment to prepare yourself to understand and follow the yamas and niyamas. Although it will be difficult in the beginning to incorporate the yamas and niyamas into your personality, with practice it will become easy. When you start any new work you think it is very hard, but when you go through the correct process you find it is easy. In this manner you have to start following the yamas and niyamas by first bringing them into your behavioural patterns and allowing your understanding of them to grow deeper. Gradually they become a part of you. Suddenly, in your heart and mind, a voice will come, "Oh! it is so easy."