Yamas and Niyamas - Part 1

Swami Om Saraswati (aged 13 years)

The yamas and niyamas were originally a part of the Yoga Sutras, which are a series of short sentences of wisdom through which Sage Patanjali conveys his teachings. Patanjali explains the steps through which even an ordinary person can realize God. According to the Yoga Sutras, the yamas and the niyamas are the first two steps in the eight-fold path of yoga. The yamas and niyamas are eternal and can be applied in people’s lives always, even though they were formulated as a practice thousands of years ago. The world of human beings always seems to have the same problems in different times and forms, always with their roots in our egos.

The eight steps or branches of Patanjali’s path are: yama and niyama (self-restraints and fixed rules to observe as the first steps to yoga), asana (postures/practices), pranayama (breathing practices), pratyahara (disconnection of the mind from the indriyas, or ten sensory organs), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (a state of superconsciousness).

The yamas and niyamas are self-disciplinary qualities that everyone should have and observe for their own spiritual development. They are the code of conduct for a sannyasin and anyone seeking spiritual development. It would not be beneficial to practise any of the other steps without practising the yamas and niyamas simultaneously, as they are the base of the ladder leading to Self-realization.

One may practise asanas and have a fit body. One may practise pranayama and balance the pranic energy, the nadis. One may practise pratyahara and dhyana and reach deeper states of consciousness, but what use is that if one does not practise the yamas and niyamas? The yamas and niyamas create a fit and balanced mind. Most of all they establish a mental and physical sanyam in our minds, actions and behaviour. What is sanyam? According to Swami Niranjanananda, “If you want to generate electricity from a river, first you have to construct a dam to control the normal flow, ensuring that it becomes a source of greater potential energy. You do not block the passage of water or dry up the river, rather you create more power. That controlled and guided action is sanyam.”

The yamas and niyamas also correspond to some of the chakras and, therefore, through practising them, one is also awakening the kundalini.

There are two types of yoga, higher yoga and lower yoga. Lower yoga deals with the physical aspect - asanas, pranayamas and aspects of hatha yoga, which, if not practised along with the yamas and niyamas and other aspects of yoga, are only a minuscule fraction of higher yoga. We may have a pure, flexible body and good breath control from practising asanas, shatkarmas and pranayamas, but that’s as far as it goes. We cannot reach samadhi without the yamas and niyamas (and sanyam). As Swami Niranjanananda has said, “Real yoga is sanyam, not asana, pranayama, mudra and bandha.”


The five yamas are ahimsa (non-violence), satya (truthfulness), asteya (abstinence from theft, honesty), brahmacharya (being established in divine consciousness), and, last but not least, aparigraha (non-possessiveness). The yamas are mainly qualities that the spiritual aspirant should have in order to communicate and interact with the outside world and the people in it, They are also self-restraints from performing actions of the weaker lower mind. The niyamas are the self-disciplinary qualities which are entirely devoted to helping the aspirant on their spiritual journey. They are also fixed rules one should follow in order to do the practices of meditation (dhyana) and to reach samadhi. Practising the yamas and niyamas is very fruitful in itself, but the main aim and consequence is spiritual growth and evolution.


Ahimsa, non-violence, not only means not causing harm or pain to any creature in thought, word or action, but also not having even a hint of aggression within your being. We shouldn't skip this yama, for what is the use of truthfulness, non-possessiveness, abstinence from theft and so forth without establishing ahimsa in our minds and actions first? Swami Sivananda says that one of the purposes of the other yamas is to perfect ahimsa.

Giving up meat or any other type of food or beverage whose acquisition causes pain to others beings (being vegan) is also considered to be ahimsa. Usually our actions in themselves are violent, though our purposes are not at all so. When a mother slaps a child, she does so because she wants to teach the child a lesson. It is done out of love, not hatred. Therefore, it is the purpose that matters, and not the action.

It is equally sinful if we encourage others to be violent or if we are violent ourselves. Himsa (violence) is not only physical violence, but also includes manipulation, hurting someone’s feelings, psychic influence and so on. The most important thing is not to directly deny people, even if they get violent, i.e. not getting into fights, arguments, disputes, quarrels. Himsa is not considered to be violence if it is to save your life, or if you kill one in order to save many. It is said that when you perfect ahimsa, a sort of magnet will act around you, preventing anyone from doing you harm or being violent. People will start to enjoy your presence and feel no discomfort as long as they are in your presence.

In the Christian Bible, Christ says, “If one smites thee on thy right cheek, turn to him thy left also.” Christ, Krishna, Rama, Prophet Mohammed, Buddha and other saints, prophets and messiahs were great followers of ahimsa and dharma. Great saints like St Francis of Assisi and Ramana Maharshi, who could communicate with animals, were also great followers of ahimsa. Aggression is a reaction to fear and, therefore, if we overcome our fears (through brahmacharya, we can practise ahimsa.

It will be easier to observe ahimsa if we remember that whatever we do, good or bad, will come back to us in this life or in the next, whether we believe in reincarnation or not. Good actions produce good results, while bad actions produce bad results. This is called (the law of) karma, and you can’t escape it. Someone is always watching over you.

A good example is the story of the Sufi saint who called his disciples together and said, “I have five birds, one for each of you. Take them and kill them in separate places, but no one must see you doing it. When you bring them here, we’ll have a feast.” So they all came back sooner or later and gave explanations about where they killed their birds and how no one saw them. When the last disciple came, he said “I’m sorry Guruji, I failed you. I could not kill it. Wherever I went, I felt as though someone was watching me.” He turned out to be the best disciple.


Satya, or truth, is the second yama, and also a very important qualification. Let’s take Galileo as an example of satya. He was caught by the Inquisition twice for his discoveries, but, in spite of the danger, he went on with his writing, teaching and research until he could no longer use his eyes and ears. He stuck to the truth of his discoveries till the end, because he knew they were true, and he wasn't even prosecuted. Swami Sivananda says, “God is truth, and He can be realized by observing truth in thought, word and deed.” According to him, the thirteen forms of truth are: truthfulness, equality, self-control, absence of jealousy, absence of envious emulation, forgiveness, modesty, endurance, charity, thoughtfulness, disinterested philanthropy (being too public-spirited or civic-minded), self-possession, and unceasing and compassionate harmlessness. Under certain circumstances, telling a (white) lie to produce immense good is regarded as truth.

Swami Sivananda says that the vak siddhi (vak means speech, and siddhi is a special power a yogi receives through practising sadhana and tapasya) can be mastered by observing truth always and at all times. The vak siddhi gives you the power to make whatever you say or think turn out to be true, even if it was not so before you said it. In other words, one gets the power to accomplish things by mere thought. This is also known as psychic speech. By practising truth at all times, one also obtains the power to weigh one’s words during conversation, thus directing the result of one’s words according to one’s will.

A lie is not only a lie if you speak incorrect or dishonest words. If you acted foolishly and afterwards blinded yourself with the belief that you did the right thing, it is also considered to be a lie, even though it all happened in your mind. It’s the same if you exaggerate, or brag, in order to boost your ego. Satya is not merely abstinence from telling lies, but also the ability to see the truth, to be aware of the truth behind everything. If you tell people what they should or should not do and then do whatever pleases you, you are a hypocrite. You say one thing and do another, thereby not being true even to yourself. Why should one lie? One lies to escape the consequences of the actions of oneself or one’s associate. This is a manifestation of the petty mind. Therefore, satya also helps in overcoming the petty mind.


Asteya, the third yama, is commonly known as honesty (in the sense of ‘abstinence from theft’). To be able to follow asteya, we must be satisfied with what we have, our personal belongings, our way of thinking, what we do, where we are, who we are, etc. In other words, we must not be greedy and should try to be contented. We steal things because we desire them. To be able or to be strong enough to resist the temptation to steal the object that one desires, one’s mind must be strong. Hence, through mastering asteya, one purifies the mind of desires and vrittis.

Asteya makes the mind pure, like a mirror in which your divine mind is reflected. The very thought of gain through theft should not arise in the mind, because constant desire for objects not belonging to oneself is actual theft. People sometimes feel that you desire something belonging to them, and if they are good-natured, they’ll give it to you. That is not good, because you probably did not deserve it in the first place, and above all you are depriving that person of something they may have liked. Non-expressed desires for things that are not yours is a milder form of mental manipulation towards the owners of whatever you desire.

We steal things because we desire them, so it does not necessarily mean that we steal physical objects. There are people who steal the ideas of others. That is the worst form of theft. Try to keep your desires moderate. If you cannot fully clear your mind of them, do not just try to forget them, suppress them or put them aside, because when they come back to you, they’ll have reinforcements. And if the desires become too strong and you are unable to fully suppress them, they should be fulfilled as soon as possible, or else they will weigh even more heavily upon your mind until they lead you to theft or something similar.

These desires or thoughts which trouble the mind are called vrittis. If you are too good or too kind-hearted to steal, the desires/vrittis may probably gain more power over you if you are not mentally strong; and you will soon not be able to think straight or sleep well. That is the power of vrittis and desires. If you can control the mind with its desires or vrittis, you can observe asteya. And if you can completely observe asteya, it is said that things for which you have even the slightest desire will just come to you by whatever means, as if you were a magnet. Another material fruit obtained through perfecting asteya is that one will also get the intuitive power to know where to look for and find wealth.


Brahmacharya is usually depicted in books, discourses, scriptures etc. as celibacy. But Brahma literally means the ‘divine consciousness’ and charya, in this case, means ‘living’ or ‘one who is established in’. Therefore, brahmacharya actually means ‘being established in divine consciousness’, or ‘being established in the higher (form of the) mind’.

Scientists have proved that only ten percent of the average human brain is active and freely accessed during daily activities. Spiritually evolved people said long ago that the human mind has an enormous capacity. Unfortunately, a large part of the ten percent is driven by instincts and indulges in sensual and petty activities. The four basic instinctive drives are: ahara (food), nidra (sleep), bhaya (fear) and maithuna (sexuality). These are dominant in our minds for the simple reason of survival. Since survival is not such a big problem in today’s society as it was in ancient times, a sort of vacuum is created. Food is over-available, fear becomes an obstacle in daily life, the world is over-populated and so on. Most people fill this vacuum by amplifying the fulfilment of these desires for sensual pleasure. Brahmacharya deals with filling this vacuum with spirituality.

Many people would say that ahara is the greatest drive, but it is not so. Brahmacharya is being free from the pleasure of fulfilling the instincts of the lower mind, and it is most commonly known as ‘celibacy’ because maithuna is the most powerful instinct. Maithuna is the greatest drive for without it we would have died out as a species long ago.

To most people, following brahmacharya would mean suppression of desires. Brahmacharya should not be suppression, and suppression is not the remedy for overcoming the lower mind or controlling any of its instinctive drives. Unless one is established in the higher mind, suppression is of no avail. One may be able to stop oneself from satisfying any of these instincts, but one cannot suppress the mind from dwelling upon them continually. That is not brahmacharya, being established in the higher mind, and the higher mind does not waste time by dwelling on such matters.

There is a story about two monks on a pilgrimage in (supposedly) strict brahmacharya. When they come across a lady unable to cross a large puddle, the senior monk carries her across to safety. Shocked, the younger monk eventually remonstrates with the senior monk, who replies, “You are still carrying her in your head while I left her by the banks of the puddle!” The younger monk is a perfect example of the opposite of brahmacharya. Swami Satyananda says, “When firmly established in brahmacharya, the yogi gains vigour, energy and courage, whereby he becomes free from the fear of death. Thus, brahmacharya is an important way of overcoming the klesha called abhinivesha, which is fear of death.” And since almost all fears have their roots in death, brahmacharya is a useful tool for overcoming fear in general.


Aparigraha, the fifth and last of the yamas, is non-possessiveness (also known as abstinence from greed). It is actually complete freedom from greed or covetousness. You should not try to possess more than you minimally need. As Swami Satyananda Saraswati mentions in Four Chapters on Freedom, “This keeps the mind unoccupied and also he (the aspirant) does not have to worry about anything because there is nothing (no possessions) there to be protected.” When we become non-possessive, or non-attached, we become impartial and in that way the conditioned love, affection, compassion and so on becomes unconditional, and not merely restricted to family, friends, relations, etc.

Gifts from others affect us and make us greedier. One consequence is that we start giving gifts because we expect something in return, which is bad because we get offended if we do not receive anything. A sannyasin should therefore avoid gifts. Greed also leads to attachment, and anxiety accompanies attachment. These are all obstacles to gaining spiritual knowledge. Swami Sivananda says, “ . . . freedom from attachment will result in knowledge of the whole course of our journey.” Also, it will be easy to observe asteya, or abstinence from theft, if we have mastered aparigraha.

The memories and habits of possessing objects must be first washed away from the mind, and only then can you start life anew. The mind also becomes pure by following aparigraha, and it is said that when you observe aparigraha fully, you obtain the siddhi through which you can remember your past lives, if you believe in reincarnation. But you must not carry aparigraha beyond your limits, or it will give rise to vulnerability and possessiveness. In other words, if aparigraha is carried too far, it may have the opposite effect.

(Part 2 of this article on the niyamas will be published in the next issue.)