Yama Niyama – The Morals and Ethics of Yoga


Yama Niyama is the most overlooked aspect of yoga today. Of course, who wants to bother with stodgy old rules of conduct? … But is that what they really are? …

What are the Yamas and Niyamas all About?

We don’t have to tread far into the practice of Patanjali’s classical yoga before we’re hit face on with the yamas and niyamas. In fact, we don’t go far at all. There they are – number ONE and number TWO of the eight stages of yoga.

That’s right…. Even before all the stretching and all the breathing exercises and the meditations and the chanting and everything else…

Morality and Ethics

Now, most of us probably recoil slightly at those two words – Morality. Ethics. They probably bring up images of fire-and-brimstone type sermons from a fiercely minister thundering at the pulpit, condemning us all to ‘heck’ and driving the ‘fear of God’s wrath’ deep into our quivering bones, should we weave even slightly out of line.

Yeah, sure, maybe you only get images of that sort from the movies, but in some way, this sentiment seems to underlie the attitudes towards the words ‘morals’ and ‘ethics’ for most people. That’s why I don’t like to refer to yama niyama as morals and ethics… they are no such doom and gloom!

I prefer the ‘do’s’ and the ‘don’ts’. But please don’t look at them as commands…

… Thou shalt not steal!

… Thou shalt eat all thy vegetables or else thou shalt not get dessert!

So, What Are the Yamas and Niyamas Then?

… hold on. We’re getting there…

OK, … yama niyama are moral and ethical directives, but in the sense that they are meant to direct us. Where? To health, harmony, peace and happiness, of course.

But really, yama niyama are plain and simply the discoveries about human behaviour, made through the trials and tribulations of lifetimes of self-experimentation by the Rishis of ancient India.

What Did They Discover?

These wise sages, though much effort, came to intimately understand of which behaviours lead to growth and evolution, and which do not. They found out what attitudes and actions lead one into a life of health, harmony and wellbeing, and which result in pain, disappointment and endless frustration.

And so they laid down these behaviours into a concise policy (yes, that’s a good phrase!). So now you and I don’t have to go through all the ups and downs, the joys and pitfalls, trying to figure out what we need to do to get to where we want to go. It’s all laid out in the code of yama niyama.

What a time-saver! (Not to mention ‘pain-saver’!)

What Are the Yamas and Niyamas?

Here we go…

The yamas could, in a very basic sense I suppose, be considered the ‘necessary refrains’, or the ‘don’ts’. The niyamas, then, could be seen as the ‘necessary actions’, or the ‘dos’.

Perhaps more appropriately, the yamas can also be thought of as the actions or attitudes that we must take towards others, and the niyamas as the attitudes we need to take toward ourselves. So that could make yama the moral aspect and niyama the ethical, so to speak.

Each of these first 2 stages of ashtanga yoga consists of five pieces of valuable advice…

The Yamas

Since Yama comes from the root word ‘yam’ ‘to hold’ or ‘to rule’, yama yoga represents the behaviours that ‘control’ certain negative tendencies (the ‘animal/instinctive nature’) that occur in all human beings. These are the five ideals of:


The Niyamas

The niyamas are the general actions that are necessary if we truly want to achieve a condition of health and deep balance within ourselves. The niyamas ask us to aim for:

The Practice of Yama Niyama

… Is one that requires patience and a whole lot of attention. You’ll start simply by seeing yama niyama as ‘rules’ to ‘try and live by’. This is a start… and a good one.

… But as we progress in our study and practice of yoga, we start to move beyond ‘rules’ of conduct, and ‘techniques’ of practice. We start to look at what is really going on, and what these ‘directives’ are really trying to tell us. We start to look deeper into our motives and our subconscious conditioning, to see what’s really going on.

Yes, yama niyama, though on the surface may just look like a set of stodgy old rules, in fact themselves hold the key to real transformation in life. That’s why the great Maharishi Patanjali placed these yamas and niyamas first and foremost along the path of yoga.

“Don’t build your house upon shifting sands!”

Yoga ethics provides the solid foundation upon which to build a life of health, wealth and harmony, and the groundwork necessary for higher spiritual progress.

Ethics in Yoga Today

Obviously yama niyama is an aspect of yoga that requires much study – a study that is often lacking in ‘yoga today’. Some teachers neglect to even touch upon these crucial aspects of yoga at all, building a ‘yoga house’ upon no real foundation of support at all…

… which is why so many people fail to realize the immense benefits of yoga, and also to appreciate its full potential for transformation on all levels.

Just Do it!

Built a solid practice of yoga based upon yama niyama and discover the immense potential that this ancient ‘science of life’ holds in store for you!

OK, now are you ready to stretch?

NEXT: Yoga Asanas – the third stage of yoga



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