Yoga's Moral Code: Yamas and Niyamas
Traditional yoga is not a religion but is a spiritual discipline. It is a practical tool for exploring the ultimate meaning of human existence and the nature of human happiness. There are different branches of yoga but the branch many of us practice is known as classical yoga or the eight limbed path of yoga. All the branches of yoga impose a sound moral life as the foundation of the practice.
Classical yoga or the eight limbed path grew from a codification of yogic core principles or sutras by Patañjali, a yogi who lived around 200 A.D. The first two limbs, which form the moral foundation of this practice, are the Yamas and Niyamas. Patañjali called them “various forms of absention from evil-doing (yama),” “observances (niyama),” and “basic rules of conduct.” He also stated they were to be “practiced without any reservations as to time, place, purpose, or caste rules.”
B.K.S. Iyengar calls them “universal moral commandments,” “ethical codes,” “universal ethical fundamentals,” and states that “the Yamas and Niyamas are the foundation, the pillars, and the culmination and proof of yogic authenticity.” Similarly, Georg Feuerstein, one of the West’s leading authorities on yoga, characterizes them as “moral disciplines forming a firm moral foundation.” Donna Fahri, an internationally known yoga teacher for over two decades, calls them “ethical precepts,” “series of commandments,” and “uncompromising universal truths.”
Before reviewing these ethical codes and observances, a Christian might ask “Aren’t the 10 Commandments and the teaching of Christ sufficient as our ethical code?”
We are not suggesting that the yamas and niyamas replace our Christian moral foundation. We summarize them here because understanding the yamas and niyamas is integral to understanding traditional yoga as a spiritual discipline. If there were no moral codes or “dos and don’ts,” then traditional yoga would be nothing more than an exercise program. India has gifted the world with a tremendous tool for developing our inner potential as human beings. It is important to acknowledge all its aspects.
These yogic codes can strengthen our appreciation for the Christian teachings. In many ways, the yamas and niyamas overlap with the Ten Commandments. Should it be surprising that truth converges? The experience of many in intercultural encounters is that when something of value is discovered in another philosophy or worldview or religion, it sends you back with fresh eyes and renewed appreciation for what is analogous to that in your own faith tradition which before you took for granted. Perhaps this brief exposition of the Yamas and Niyamas and their resonance with Christian moral teachings will occasion for you that kind of reappraisal.
Yama originally meant “bridle” or “rein” and Patañjali used it to describe the five moral restraints or outer disciplines that govern our interactions with others. According to Patañjali, these rules of conduct were to be practiced without any exception.
1) Ahimsa – “Nonviolence”
This yama is the cornerstone of the foundation. "A" is a negation; "himsa" means desirous to kill so "ahimsa" means lacking any desire to kill. Ahimsa is often translated as nonviolence but that is rather a truncated definition. Ahimsa applies not only to action but also to thought and speech.
It requires us to accept that all thought, speech, and action has consequences. Do we harbor violence towards ourselves and others? Do our thoughts wish ill on others? Even being unkind, unfeeling, or indifferent to others is a form of violence. Ahimsa expects us to take responsibility for our aggressive tendencies and to work on developing compassion, patience, and love towards others.
From a Christian perspective – This yama resonates strongly with the commandment in the law that Jesus placed on a level with the greatest commandment, the love of God with all one’s heart, mind, and strength: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Throughout the course of His teaching, Jesus repeatedly emphasized the need to forgive, to turn the other cheek and to refrain from anger. He exhorted people to love their enemies and to do good to everyone who hated them. During his arrest, He even reproved a follower who cut off the ear of a servant of Caiphas saying that those who live by the sword shall perish by the sword. Finally, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus declares that peacemakers are the children of God.
2) Satya – “Truth”
"Satya" literally means “that which is” and is commonly translated as truthfulness. Like ahimsa, satya incorporates thought, speech, and action. Being truthful in all things is of paramount importance in yoga but it must be balanced with ahimsa. Thus, we do not need to speak unnecessary truth (“That dress is hideous”) when it hurts others.
From a Christian perspective – The commandment “You shall not bear false witness” mirrors satya. Jesus also describes telling lies as one of the many things that make a person unclean and unfit to worship God (Matt 15:19,20). Truthfulness is also a touchstone in Christian ethics.
3) Asteya – “Not Stealing”
The word “steya,” many scholars agree, means greed based on a perceived lack of abundance. So stealing stems from the belief that there’s not enough for everyone. We all agree that to steal is to take something that does not belong to us. But stealing can be broader than just the misappropriation of a physical object. Stealing can also apply to thoughts. Waste in all its form – energy, water, excessive material consumption – is also theft at the expense of the rest of the world’s inhabitants.
From a Christian perspective – The commandments “You shall not steal” and “You shall not covet your neighbor’s goods” are unequivocal expressions of asteya. Christian theology has always emphasized that we do not “own” anything…not even our bodies but rather that every possession is a gift from God held in trust. Everything belongs to and comes from God.
4) Brahmacharya – “Moderation”
This yama has always focused on celibacy and continence. In yogic philosophy we have a limited life force and one of the quickest ways to deplete this life force was to dissipate one’s sexual energy in unlimited sexual congress. Sexual control was advocated for everyone and celibacy was required for yogis.
From a Christian perspective – In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives the commandment concerning sexual relationships a more general application: “You have heard it said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman (man) lustfully has already committed adultery.” Christian tradition has understood the sixth commandment as encompassing the whole of human sexuality. The virtue of chastity, which relates to the successful integration of sexuality within the person, comes under the cardinal virtue of temperance and seeks to moderate the passions and appetites of the senses with reason.
5) Aparigraha – “Non hoarding” or “non possessiveness”
The word “parigraha” is greed rooted in jealousy. Parigraha is a grasping with our hands and minds for things or persons. Its nature is acquisitive, resulting in attachments. A culture that rewards profit at all cost and accords status based on the accumulation of material things without need is a culture based on hoarding. Aparigraha encourages voluntary simplicity and a modest lifestyle.
From a Christian perspective – Coveting our neighbor’s goods or our neighbor’s spouse is a form of parigraha. Throughout Jesus’ ministry he warned his followers to be content with what they had, to give to all who ask, and not to lay up treasure on earth but rather to lay up treasure in heaven. His parable of the rich fool highlights the danger of prioritizing possessions over God (Luke 12:16-21).
The niyamas are five observances or inner restraints that regulate our inner life.
1) Saucha – “Cleanliness” or “Purity”
Saucha applies to both physical and mental cleanliness. It recognizes that union with God is not possible if our bodies and minds are filled with toxic substances and negative or unclean thoughts. There are a variety of cleansing practices in yoga that are designed to purify the body and mind. Popularly used practices range from diet to breathing exercises while the more extreme practices were reserved for yoga masters.
From a Christian perspective – Purity in Christianity has carried a more interior emphasis consistent with Jesus’ teaching that it is not what goes into the stomach but what comes out of the heart (evil intentions) that defiles (Mt 15:16-20). Thus Christian practices such as prayer, fasting, scripture reading focus more on the “cleanliness” of the heart. However, our era has witnessed the emergence of a holistic spirituality that honors the role of the body in the spiritual life and sees right eating and regular exercise as important spiritual disciplines.
2) Santosha – “Contentment”
Santosha asks us to practice contentment with ourselves and our lives at the present moment. It is a tranquil state of mind that does not crave for more, that is not fearful or worried. It is an acceptance with balance and joy of all that enters one’s life.
From a Christian perspective – Jesus strikes a very similar note in Matthew 6:25-34: “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink or wear. Is not life more important than food and the body more than clothing? Seek first the kingdom of God…” Throughout his ministry, Jesus stressed repeatedly that if we prioritize God, everything else will fall into place.
3) Tapas – “Zeal,” “Austerity,” “Self-Discipline”
"Tapas" means that which generates heat. It is the practice of applying our energy and zeal toward the goal of union with God. Austerity and self-discipline may sound grim but tapas, in the yogic tradition, is joyful positive action because it leads one to God. It is not self-punishment. It is self-control; it is the fiery determination each day to recommit one’s self to the spiritual path and to the practices that foster spiritual growth.
From a Christian perspective – Christians recognize that the path that leads to eternal life requires daily effort and self-discipline. Listed among the fruits of the Holy Spirit are generosity, patience, faithfulness, and self-control. A regular prayer life, active participation in a faith community, engagement in work for justice and peace are all forms of tapas.
4) Svadhyaya – “Self Study” or “Self reflective awareness”
Svadhyaya is the process of learning to understand ourselves by watching our thoughts and actions constantly. In this process we discover who we are. Studying sacred writings and reading inspirational literature is part of this process and leads us to evaluate our thoughts/actions as aids or impediments to union with God. When we identify an impediment, then we can work to change it.
From a Christian perspective – In addition to regular reading of the Bible and other spiritual books, a widespread practice among Christians that cultivates self-awareness is variously called “the review of the day” or the “personal examination of consciousness.” The point is to sharpen awareness of how we either are or are not living consistent with the gospel in thought, word, and deed throughout the day. The objective is on-going conversion to Christ.
5) Ishvara Pranidhana – “Devotion to God” or “Surrender to God”
In yoga, Ishvara represents the Supreme Ruler of the universe. This niyama stresses the abandonment of one’s ego and a commitment of heart, soul and mind to God. It is an attitude of devotion to God and a dedication to union with the Divine. We are to do our best in all things and then leave the results in God’s hands.
From a Christian perspective – This niyama resonates strongly with the greatest commandment: “Love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.” And the witness of saints and mystics throughout the centuries provides examples too numerous to mention of living with one’s heart fixed upon God and of surrender to God with confidence and trust in daily living.
When we put these two enduring moral traditions in dialogue with one another, we find it’s a friendly conversation and that they have much to share with one another.