In The Yoga Sutra (sutra = “thread”), the yamas and niyamas are often translated as “external” and “internal observances,” or guidelines for conducting ourselves with others and ourselves. My first teacher suggested that the yamas and niyamas were, “yoga’s version of the Ten Commandments.”
The yamas (external observances) are:
The niyamas (internal observances) are:
- willingness to endure intensity (tapas)
- self-study/ study of spiritual books
- surrender to the highest
However, a more powerful perspective is that the yamas and niyamas aren’t rules at all; they are practical and invaluable signposts that help us investigate our spiritual and emotional progress.
The Purpose of Yoga
Patanjali (compiler of the sturas) was not interested in yoga practitioners being “good.” His primary objective was to help practitioners deepen their connection to the true Self. The objective of the sutras is explicitly outlined in sutra 1.2-1.4:
- Yoga is the restraint of the fluctuations of the mindsutff.
- The the Seer (Witness/ Self/ Purusha/ Consciousness) resides in its own nature.
- Otherwise it assumes all the modifications of the mindstuff.
In other words, yoga occurs when we calm our minds enough to experience our own Presence. This is the true Self. Otherwise, we are attached to the thoughts, feelings, and identifications that we have learned from our conditioning. It’s a little like our mind is a lake. When disturbed by wind (thoughts and feelings), the surface of the lack is choppy and unclear. But when the lake is calm, then the lake can reflect the sky (Pure Consciousness).
Reimagining the Yamas and Niyamas
Rather than viewing the yamas and niyamas as rules, they can be seen as valuable signposts that indicate when we have strayed from our connection to the true Self. In other words, the surface of our lake is choppy. When we don’t feel aligned with the yamas/niyamas, it’s usually because we are not seated in our Presence, but have gotten caught in our minds again.
I recently had an experience where I felt very misunderstood. I felt accused unfairly, yet I had no recourse to share my point of view or defend myself. My reaction? I was incredibly pissed off.
When I recognized my response, I realized that I was of out alignment with the first yama of non-violence. Rather than berate myself for my feelings, I got curious about what was hanging me up. I started to see that I was very attached to my reputation (how others perceived me). My reliance on something outside of myself to feel okay was exposed. The experience was a reminder to practice (practice, practice!) trusting my own worthiness.
Spiritual growth isn’t about turning the other cheek or suppressing our feelings. Instead, we can use our reactions as vital clues into our unresolved attachments and conditioning. Here are some ways that it works for me:
- Ahimsa: When I want to lash out, I am usually invested in protecting my ego from insult or harm.
- Satya: When I want to lie, I am often protecting my conditioned personality from dislike, disappointment, or conflict.
- Sauca: When I want to be “unclean” and eat a lot of sugar or drink a lot of wine, I’m often avoiding uncomfortable feelings.
- Aparigraha: When I am grasping onto something (a person, material stuff, ideas), I’m usually connecting to a feeling that I’m not enough.
Seeing the yamas and niyamas as useful signposts – rather than rules – gives us accountability for our own spiritual growth. Rather than dutifully following a behavioural prescription, we are instead invited to watch our natural reactions with curiosity. Rather than feel shame or judgement about “non-yogic reactions,” we can instead greet each reaction with fresh curiosity. In this way, our relationship with our emotions and reactions can become a vital, organic opportunity for self-acceptance, accountability, and growth.