As a beginning yoga student, I memorized the list of 10 yamas (restraints) and niyamas (observances) in the Yoga Sutra with about as much enthusiasm as I had for learning Christianity’s Ten Commandments 20 years earlier. “Just another externally imposed code of behavior designed to foster compliance with an oppressive and arbitrary social structure,” I thought. I couldn’t see how that list might be related to my yoga practice, which is all about inner awareness and personal freedom, right? Fully committed to throwing off socially imposed conditioning, I basically ignored yoga’s ethical precepts. 

Instead I focused on asana, pranayama, and meditation practices—the perfect tools to begin the lifelong process of integrating, body, mind, and prana (life force)—as, like most of us starting a yoga practice, I needed to forge a deeper connection to myself, that is, to something other than my overactive and reactive thinking mind. But as my study and practice deepened, a funny thing happened. 

I started to understand that my yoga practice, at least in part, was about enhancing the flow of prana and removing the restrictions and distortions in the flow of this subtle life force. Then I realized how closely prana is related to the mind. Our emotions, thought patterns, and lifestyle can either support and nourish prana, or deplete and dissipate it. Consider, for example, which is more deeply depleting: the tiredness of a rousing game of tennis, or a day of high anxiety. 

The real consumers of our precious life force are mental tendencies such as fear, defensiveness, anger, cravings, greed, aggression, and inertia. If our intentions, behaviors, and lifestyle don’t allow us to manage these tendencies and support a clear, calm, and tranquil mind, we will fail to make progress on the path of yoga, or to sustain the progress we do make. This is where the yamas and niyamas are designed to help us—they are practical ways to manage the wayward tendencies of the mind and thus conserve and wisely invest our life energy.

This is where the yamas and niyamas are designed to help us—they are practical ways to manage the wayward tendencies of the mind and thus conserve and wisely invest our life energy.

The Yamas: Universally Applicable

Unruly minds are apparently something we all have in common. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra tells us that the restraints (yamas) are universally applicable to all and not affected by time, place, or circumstances (YS 2:31). This sutra rings true, not as another case of “because I said so,” but because we all share fundamental tendencies motivated by survival instincts like fear, hunger, sex, and sleep. These are instinctive drives all living beings have in common—part of the legacy of being alive. But living well as a human being involves more than just staying alive and basic instinct gratification. Runaway survival adaptations and mindless rote behaviors dissipate the body, fragment the mind, and undermine our intelligence. True satisfaction requires that we restrain and retrain our dysfunctional inclinations and align with our best self—intelligent, creative, compassionate, self-aware. 

The yamas aim to curb our subhuman tendencies. They tell us to live without animosity (ahimsa), with strict honesty and respect for truth as best we understand it (satya), taking only what we need and what is rightfully ours (asteya), restraining inappropriate or counterproductive sensual activities (brahmacharya), and freeing ourselves from excessive clinging to ownership and possessions (aparigraha). These are guidelines for deconditioning the mind, not for reinforcing social conditioning. This is how we stop dissipating our life force and establish a clear, calm mind and a resilient, healthy nervous system. 

I began to realize the anger, the animosity, the defensiveness that I had considered perfectly normal were ultimately self-defeating. I may have felt justified in my outrage, but to my nervous system and sensitive mind, it was like pouring salt on a slug. Gone was the clear and creative mind, the sense of inner well-being, and with that, the capacity to choose an effective new response to the source of my distress. But how do we go about restraining the dysfunctional aspects of our subhuman tendencies?

The Niyamas: A Positive Force

The five niyamas are observances—guides to action that support and complement the purpose of the yamas. The niyamas help us align the power of instinctive survival drives with higher intentions, discrimination, and a wisdom-driven mind. Practicing purity and cleanliness in all areas of life (shaucha), cultivating contentment and gratitude (santosha), applying loving self-discipline (tapas), reaching for understanding and connection with the essence of our inner self (svadhyaya), and trustful surrender (Ishvara pranidhana) all serve to align our awareness with higher reality. The niyamas invite connection with an inner intelligence that nourishes the mind and body, provides meaning and purpose in life, and helps us overcome our subhuman tendencies. 

A seemingly simple example is working with eating habits. Suppose you notice that indiscriminate overeating is causing mental and physical distress, and the obsession with food is costing an inordinate amount of time and energy. What to do? You may decide to eat only at mealtimes and make healthy choices in modest portions. You could also join a yoga class at the time you are most susceptible to mindless eating. This gentle self-discipline not only cultivates self-respect and self-trust, it also nurtures and satisfies an inner hunger that no amount of food can pacify—it dials down the tension in the body and mind and replaces “I deserve more” with “I am content.”

Action Required

With further reflection, we realize that the passive avoidance of self-defeating behaviors isn’t enough to reap the benefits of practicing the yamas and niyamas. We need to actively transform the thoughts and intentions underlying the behaviors that weaken our mind and life force. The negative tendencies arising from our basic survival instincts tend to reinforce themselves and override the inclinations to unconditional positive regard and a calm and tranquil mind. Therefore we need an active practice—one that repurposes all the energy tied up in the afflictive-driven behaviors. Otherwise the conflicting motivations weaken the mind and life force. 

That’s why after listing the restraints (yamas), Patanjali prescribes in sutra 2:33 “to arrest afflicting thoughts, cultivate thoughts opposed to them.” The sage Vyasa, in his commentary on the Yoga Sutra, offers the example of violence. Passive non-violence cannot neutralize an angry tidal wave of the desire for revenge that often precedes violence. Instead, we must recalibrate our thinking at a deeper level, actively reminding ourselves that angry thoughts destroy our integrity and peace of mind, and do not help us in solving the problem that has triggered our anger. Real change comes in turning the tables on the underlying thought patterns, inclinations, and intentions. 

Do we really want revenge, or do we want a peaceful mind and the greater good for all? And if the latter, cultivating compassion, forgiveness, and even-mindedness will facilitate better choices. Eventually, with persistent practice, a wave of positive thoughts arises as spontaneously as the violence-inducing thoughts had previously arisen. Positive thoughts motivate constructive action and clear the mind. By neutralizing undesirable motivations, tendencies, and intentions, we purify the mind and empower discrimination and well-being at every level of our being.

A Strong Foundation

For yoga practitioners, the yamas and niyamas are the foundation that supports spiritual growth. They tell us, “This is what the enlightened mind looks like,” and by transforming our behaviors along with our thoughts and intentions we slowly and surely create a change in the underlying patterns deep in the mind. Then practices like asana, pranayama, and meditation meet less resistance in drawing the forces of the mind and body to a deeper level of integration, empowerment, and inner awareness. In this way, the power of yoga seeps into daily life, and daily life becomes part and parcel of our yoga practice.

More in this Series

Yamas and The Niyamas – Yoga’s Restrains and Observances