Restraints and Observations
The Yamas (“restraints”) and Niyamas (“Observances”) are the first two limbs of Astanga Yoga. They are generally considered to be foundational for the other six limbs. They are not commandments or orders – emphasising what will happen if we do not follow them, but rather invitations to what we may gain if we adopt them. The Yamas and Niyamas are to a large extent concerned with ethical behaviour – how we relate to ourselves, to others, and to the world generally. They are not so much specific practices in themselves, but rather, broad bases and ideals to move towards which underpin our lives – although specific techniques/practices can be related to them. I tend to think of the Yamas and Niyamas as expressions of the sense of tantra as an ethic of relateness – in other words, the way that we can strive to express that ethic of relatedness throughout each moment of our lives. In this regard, I think they fall in well with the idea of “Awake-Awareness”. Patanjali says that the Yamas & Niyamas “are valid in all spheres, irrespective of birth, place, time and circumstance”.
The Yamas & the Niyamas are very broad in the range of attitudes/actions they encompass. There is no “right” way to express the Yamas & Niyamas. It is up to each of us to determine the ways in which we express/embody these affects – but helping each other is very much part if the process.
Experience and good company are the two clear eyes of the seeker
Two texts which mention the Yamas & Niyamas are the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (attributed to Goraknath). However, they are considered to be so foundational to the practice of Yoga that neither text dwells overmuch on them. If you want to get a copy of the Yoga Sutras, I would reccomend the translation by Georg Feuerstein. Whilst the Yoga Sutras lists five Yamas & Niyamas, I feel that the expanded form – the ten of each as found in texts such as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika makes them more useful and inspiring.
The ten Yamas (“restraints”) are not commandments not to engage in particular attitudes/behaviours, but rather commitments to ourselves and others.
Ahimsa (“non-violence”) is the practice of doing no harm to others or ourselves (in thought, word or deed). The challenge of Ahimsa is the challenge of accepting ourselves – of being mindful of how we criticise and put ourselves down in various ways and understanding what underpins these self-criticisms. The practice of Ahimsa uncovers benevolence as a quality of the heart.
Satyam (“truthfulness”) is a practice of speaking truthfully and kindly. It is said by Patanjali that the perfection of Satya means that one’s word becomes binding to events. Satyam is an extension of Ahimsa: “Therefore let one take care that his speech is for the welfare of all.” (Shankara) Satyam is sometimes referred to as “right speech”, so it is particularly relevant in being mindful of how we speak to other people.
Asteya is sometimes translated as “non-avarice”. Vyasa writes of it as: “the improper appropriation to oneself of others’ things: refusal to do it, in freedom from desire, is non-stealing.” Asteya is not however, concerned with only stealing material goods, but in being mindful of other ways in which we take things from other people. Asteya is concerned with not taking from others that which has not been freely given. An example of this might be taking up too much of someone’s time, without being aware of their own needs. One of the challenges of Asteya is the cultivation of a degree of self-sufficiency so that we do not demand from others more than we need, and are sensitive to the needs of others.-
Brahmacharya (the term implies remaining connected to the Source: Brahma = the divine; acharya = “teacher”) is usually translated as “self-control” and is often understood as specifically relating to sexual self-control and abstinence. In a wider sense, Brahmacharya relates to relating skilfully to our appetites, so that rather than being bound by them, they become offerings to our own progress.
(also Saucha) Generally translated as “Purity”.Purity can be a tricky concept to think about. I know for me it brings up all kinds of judgemental prescriptions about purity/impurity. However, one way of thinking about “Purity” is to view it as an opportunity to examine one’s motivations – the intentions which underpin our actions. Saucam is cultivated through mindfulness and discrimination. Saucha is also often related to “cleanliness” – in its widest sense, about making choices regarding what you do want, and what you don’t want – in your life.
Kshama is often translated as “patience” or “forgiveness” – again, another quality which can be directed to ourselves and to others – in restraining our intolerance for others and for circumstances
Daya (one translation of which is “giving”) is often explained in terms of “sympathy” or “compassion”.
Dhrti roughly translates as “fortitude”, “resolve”, “firmness of mind” or “persistence” – qualities necessary for restraining our tendencies towards indecisiveness, fear of change, etc.
Mitahara is sometimes translated as “moderate eating”. In Indian texts, there are a wide variety of prescriptions concerning what to eat, when to eat, and what kind of foods must be avoided. I tend to think of this Yama as being concerned with paying attention to one’s patterns of eating, and eating from need rather than want.
Arjavam is usually translated as “Honesty” and this “restraint” refers to honesty towards yourself and others.
The ten Niyamas (“Observances”) can be thought of as qualities to cultivate and ideals to strive towards – and ways in which we can observe ourselves through our relations.
Tapas (sometimes “heat”) can be understood as “fervour” – in the sense of cultivating commitment to one’s endeavours. It’s not only about doing a particular practice, but striving to live according to one’s ideals & principles throughout one’s day-to-day life.
Santosa is often translated as “contentment”. Contentment here, should be thought of as an active practice – a willingness to enjoy what each day brings; a commitment to living in the present. It is easy to be content in joyous moments, less easy when we are uncomfortable or life becomes difficult. Santosa involves developing a positive equinamity towards life.
This Niyama relates to accepting belief in spiritual teachings. It is often taken as referring to “faith” (in the scriptures, or one’s teacher), but “trust” might be a better word here – trust for the people we relate to, trust in the practices we adopt, and also trust for ourselves in the practices & ideas we adopt. I think this is a particularly difficult challenge for those of us who continually come across different presentations of ideas & concepts, and can easily get into doubting ourselves and the ideas & practices that we engage with.
Daanam (“donation”; “giving”; “offering”) relates to the act of selfless giving of gifts to others (it’s often rendered as “charity”). A wider interpretation might be that Danam is the willingness to share one’s “wealth” with others – without thought of return, or the cultivation of a generosity of spirit.
(sometimes given as Ishvara Pujana) This Niyama is often related to the idea of showing daily devotion or reverence to one’s belief in a deity – so for example, it could be interpreted as an injunction to perform daily devotion (in whatever form) to one’s Istadevata (Lalita, Kali, Ganapati, etc). In a wider sense though, this niyama can be thought of as reminding ourselves that we are part of something larger than ourselves – the universe, the world, society, our networks of friends, family, loved ones. Its about seeing the “bigger picture” of which we are a part.
Savdhyaya is sometimes understood as “self-study”, “self-enquiry” or “self-reflection”. This, like the other Niyamas can be understood as an all-encompassing practice, in which anything that inspires us can be taken as a mirror for knowing ourselves more fully – a useful way of thinking about Svadhyaya is “seeing ourself through the mirror of relationships”.
Savdhyaya also relates to what is sometimes termed as “scriptural study” – but it is not merely the study of spiritual texts, but an engagement towards discussion, conversation and readings, with the mindfulness of self-understanding and enquiry, and a willingness to learn the lessons we need to from our life experience.
Hri is often translated as “modesty” and as “remorse” – in this context, it is the remorse of having committed wrongful actions, and the resolve not to fall into the pattern of repeating them, together with a willingness to sincerely apologise to those we have wronged. Boastfulness, pride and pretension – the qualities of immodesty, often prevent us from showing and feeling remorse to others. Hri also involves the avoidance of self-admiration; pride & conceit in our self-perceived virtues, achievements, or progress.
Mati (often translated as “cognition”) relates to directing the mind towards imbibing (spiritual) teachings, and performing practices with a discerning mind.
Japa (“muttering”) is usually associated with the repetition of mantras. This seems to be a bit of an odd one in this schema, but it shows the centrality of the repetition of mantras in Indian religosity. So this Niyama seemingly points to the importance of daily recitation of mantras – but this needs to be performed mindfully – Patanjali says: “The recitation of that (syllable leads to) the contemplation of its meaning.” (YS, 1.28)
Hutam is often taken to mean “religious observances”. hutam can be translated as “(that which is) offered.” The Saundaryalahari (Flood of Beauty) expresses this sentiment beautifully:
“Let my idle chatter be the muttering of prayer, my every manual movement the execution of ritual gesture, my walking a ceremonial circumambulation, my eating and other acts the rite of sacrifice, my lying down prostration in worship, my every pleasure enjoyed with dedication of myself, let whatever activity is mine be some form of worship of you.”
The Yamas & Niyamas are said to be essential for the cultivation of non-attachment. Non-attachment is a concept we find throughout tantric ideologies, but it requires a degree of care in approaching it. Non-attachment is not so much an instruction to withdraw from the world but to cultivate an attitude of playfulness towards its multiplicities.
Istadevata – Sometimes translated as “the desired (alternatively, “chosen”) deity, it refers to that aspect of a deity favoured by an individual and often taken as representative of one’s wider concept of deity. For example, whilst Lalita can be seen as the Istadevata of Sri Vidya as a whole, one could take any single aspect of Her and worship that aspect as a representation of Lalita. Istadevata can also denote a relationship to a family or clan deity (also sometimes referred to as Kuladevata).