Yama & Niyama: The Path of Ethical Discipline

Yoga is rooted in the notion of developing a positive personality. Therefore ethical discipline or the practice of correct conduct is necessary for success in yoga. This is the basis of yama and niyama, the two moral backbones of yoga. They define the attributes to be practised in everyday life by a spiritual aspirant.

Yama is the first limb of Patanjali’s ashtanga yoga and means ‘taking a vow’ while niyama is the second limb and means ‘rule of conduct’. Yama and niyama are inter-dependent. Niyama strengthens and safeguards yama. For example, if one is contented, one will not steal, hurt others or tell lies and will find it easy to practise non-covetousness.

When one is sufficiently advanced in the practices of yamas and niyamas, one can face every temptation by calling in the aid of pure and restraining thoughts. When the mind becomes pure it attains the state of steadiness and becomes one-pointed. If these positive qualities are not cultivated, the mind cannot be led to steadiness. One needs to be well established in yama-niyama to attain perfection in yoga. When one is perfectly established in them, samadhi will come by itself.


Being the first limb of yoga, the five yamas are the foundation of spiritual life on which the super-structure of samadhi is built. Following the yamas means sticking to ideals and principles. It is about development of positive traits that will transform the human nature into a divine nature and annihilate cravings and negative qualities. When the yamas are truly practised, the heart is filled with cosmic love, goodness and light.

There is a deliberate order in the five yamas. Ahimsa (non-violence) comes first because one must remove one’s brutal nature first. One must become non-violent and develop cosmic love. Only then does one become fit for the practice of yoga. Then comes satya or truthfulness. The whole phenomenon of maya or illusion is asat or unreal and the aspirant should be aware of this fact. He should ever remember the truth or Brahman. Next comes asteya or non-stealing. As one must develop moral consciousness, one must know right from wrong, righteousness from unrighteousness, and one must know that all is one. Brahmacharya or continence, which is the fourth yama, is a divine attribute. The aspirant is now becoming superhuman through its practice. The fifth is aparigraha, non-covetousness. The yogic student is now free from cravings, unnecessary wants, the desire to possess and enjoy, and his heart has expanded manifold.

Ahimsa: Ahimsa is abstention from injuring any living creature. On the spiritual path, the first step is to eliminate the beastly nature. The predominant trait in beasts is cruelty; therefore, the wise sages prescribed ahimsa as the first yama.

Ahimsa is not merely non-killing. It is perfect harmlessness and positive love. It is to abstain from the slightest thought of harm to any living creature. The practitioner must abandon even unkind looks. There is no excuse or exception to the above rule. Harsh words to beggars, servants or inferiors is himsa (cruelty). To fail to relieve pain or trouble in another is negative himsa. To approve of another’s harsh actions is also against ahimsa. So practise ahimsa in its purest form.

Satya: Truthfulness or satya comes next in the order of yamas. Thought must agree with word and word with action. This is truthfulness. To think of one thing, say another and do another is nothing but crookedness. By telling lies you pollute your conscience and infect your subconscious mind.

The Self is truth. It can be realized only by speaking truth and observing truth in thought, word and deed. There are thirteen forms of truth: truthfulness, equal vision, self-control, absence of envious emulation, forgiveness, modesty, endurance, absence of jealousy, charity, thoughtfulness, disinterested philanthropy, self-possession, and unceasing and compassionate harmlessness. These virtues are attainable only by the unselfish.

Truth means the strength to abide by positive principles. Speak the truth, but let it not be unpleasant and speak not any pleasing falsehood – this is eternal religion. It is said that if you speak the truth for twelve years, you will acquire vak siddhi, whatever you say will come to pass. There will be great power in your speech, you will be able to influence thousands. If you are established in truth, all other virtues will cling to you.

Asteya: Asteya is non-stealing. This is another form of self-restraint. Why does a person steal? He wants something. When he cannot get it by legitimate means, he steals it. Desire, thirst or trishna is the root cause of stealing.

You remove a thing secretly without the knowledge of the owner and you do not want others to know of this act. This is stealing. Taking blotting paper, pins, paper, pencil, etc. from the office is stealing. Hoarding too much money, eating too much, adding to your cravings are all forms of stealing. A yogic student must be free from all these forms of theft. Even a sensitive mind becomes blunt by continuous stealing. Even a little dirt, a little theft affects the mind of a yogic student seriously. He will have to be very careful. Then alone will he have success in yoga.

Brahmacharya: The fourth yama is the practice of continence. When controlled, the part of human energy which is expressed in sexual union becomes transmuted into a special spiritual energy called ojas shakti and is stored up in the brain. All great spiritual giants of the world have practised celibacy and that is the reason why they were able to electrify the whole world through the power of their ojas. A yogi with an abundance of this energy keeps his audience spellbound. There is a peculiar charm in his smile and power in the words emanating from his heart. He produces a very profound impression in the minds of all.

What is wanted is restraint and not suppression of sexual desire. In restraint no sexual thought will arise in the mind. There is perfect sublimation of sexual energy. But in suppression the aspirant is not safe. When favourable opportunities occur, the repressed desire manifests with redoubled force and there is danger of a miserable downfall.

What is wanted is deep inner life. Open yourself to higher spiritual consciousness. Feel the divine presence and divine guidance in your life. Become like a child. Speak to Him freely. Do not hide your thoughts. Pray for light, purity, strength, peace and knowledge. You will be established in brahmacharya.

Aparigraha: Aparigraha is the opposite of parigraha. Parigraha is covetousness or greed. Aparigraha is a mental state in which the sensual craving is dead. Parigraha leads to anxiety to preserve, fear of loss, hatred, anger, untruthfulness, stealing, etc. Aparigraha puts an end to all these and bestows peace and contentment. It removes at one stroke fear, attachment, disappointment, anxiety, jealousy, anger, lust and depression.

Aparigraha is indeed an aid to the practice of ahimsa, satya and asteya. When the craving is not satisfied you become angry, you hate the person who stands in your way of attaining things. You harm him in different ways, speak untruth and begin to steal things. Aparigraha removes all these. It is the foundation of all yogas, just as dhyana or meditation is the meeting point of all yogas.


The niyamas also consist of five limbs, namely shaucha, internal and external purification; santosha, contentment; tapas, austerity; swadhyaya, self-study and Ishwara pranidhana, surrender to divinity.

Shaucha: Shaucha is purity, both internal and external. External purity generates internal purity. For example, a bath early in the morning helps one to get into the meditative mood quickly. With the practice of shaucha one gradually gives up attachment to the body and it becomes easier to maintain brahmacharya.

Removal of lust, anger, greed, jealousy, etc. constitutes internal purity. Internal purity is more important than external purity. It makes the mind one-pointed, bestows serenity, cheerfulness, poise and happiness. It instils love, patience and magnanimity. Therefore develop internal purity through vigilant effort.

Santosha: Santosha or contentment cuts at the root of all desires. It bestows peace, one-pointedness of mind, serenity and satisfaction. It brings success in the practice of yamas. Contentment does not mean satisfaction, but willingness to accept things as they are and to make the best of them.

Divine light will descend in a contented mind alone. A contented person is satisfied with his lot. He is happy in whatever condition he is placed, he does not crave for things he does not have. Contentment is a mystic stream of joy that cools the three fires of samsara and joins with the ocean of immortal bliss.

The mind is always restless on account of greed. Greed is a kind of internal fire that consumes one slowly. Contentment is a powerful antidote for the poison of greed. It is said that there are four sentinels that guard the domain of moksha: shanti or peace, santosha or contentment, satsanga or company of truth and vichara or enquiry. It you can approach any of these sentinels you can get hold of the other three.

Tapas: Tapas is one of the three methods of dynamic yogic practice. Tapas means austerity or even practice of penance. A yogi of tapas is brilliant like a blazing fire. Tapas also means restraint of the senses and meditation. It leads to control of the mind. Austerities like occasional fasting and observance of silence increase the power of endurance. Standing on one leg, raising one hand up for a long time is also tapas, but this is tamasic tapas of an ignorant person. The unintelligent tapasvi is always irritable, hot-tempered and proud. So practise intelligent tapas.

Mental tapas is more powerful than physical tapas. He who bears heat and cold does physical tapas. He increases his power of endurance, but he may not be able to bear insult. He will be easily upset by a harsh or unkind word for he has disciplined only the physical body. To keep a balanced mind in all conditions of life, to bear insult, injury and persecutions, to be ever serene, contented and peaceful, to be cheerful in adverse conditions, to have fortitude in meeting danger, to have presence of mind and forbearance, are forms of mental tapas.

Swadhyaya: Swadhyaya or self-study is not just study of scriptures and books written by the realized ones, but also enquiry into the nature of the self. Swadhyaya is asking the question, “Who am I?”

Swadhyaya is indirect satsang. When you cannot get the direct company of the realized and the wise, swadhyaya clears doubts and strengthens the flickering faith. It fills the mind with sattwa, inspires and elevates the mind, helps in concentration and meditation, cuts new positive grooves in the mind and makes the mind run in these grooves.

Ishwara pranidhana: Surrender to God is Ishwara pranidhana. This is the practice where the devotee consecrates everything to the higher force. He no longer has a will of his own. He says, “I am thine. All is thine. Thy will be done. I am an instrument in your hands.” Self-surrender is regarding every work as that of the Supreme Lord and renouncing all claims to its fruits.

In surrendering his will to the Divine the devotee’s will becomes one with the cosmic will. He becomes one with the Lord. There is no loss in surrendering one’s will to God. Self-surrender makes the devotee feel the reality of divine grace and the Lord’s readiness to bestow help on him at all times. The divine influence streams into his being and moulds it to make it a fit medium for divine realization and divine instrumentality.