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Yama and Niyama

Urban Sadhu Exploration June 2023

śrī rām jai rām jai jai rām śrī rām jai rām jai jai rām sita rām ṣītā rām sītā rām sita rām sītā ṛam jai jai rām

Meaning: Victory to Lord Ram and Sita. – Austin Sanderson

In the Ramayana, Lakshman (Lord Ram’s brother) draws a magic circle of protection in the dust around his sister-in-law Sita. He advises her to stay in the circle: “Ram needs my help to catch the deer. Stay within the circle and you will be safe. Step out of the circle and you will have no protection from the dreadful forces that lurk in the forest. We will be back soon.” Lakshman realizes that Sita is an adult, and he can’t stop her from leaving the circle of protection – she is on her own and has to use her best judgment after he leaves her.

In fact, in the story, the deer Ram is hunting is a disguised servant of Ravana, an Asura King with 10 heads and 20 arms. The servant has been told to lure Ram and Lakshman away from Sita so Ravana can kidnap her and take her for himself. Ravana cleverly disguises himself as an old beggar man and begs Sita for food and drink. Sita takes pity on the old man and steps out of the circle of protection. The old beggar transforms himself back into Ravana, snatches Sita in his arms, and pulls her into his magic flying chariot. Sita cries out for Ram, but Ravana takes her south to his kingdom on the island of Sri Lanka. Ravana with his many heads is a metaphor for the human ego, for Ravana is not evil, he is just a narcissistic egomaniac. Sita is a metaphor for the jivatman, or “the individual soul”; Lord Ram is the Paramatman, or “the Higher Self” that the jivatman longs to unite with. Without the protection of the magic circle the jivatman gets swept up by the ego and loses its ability to connection to the Higher Self.

Sage Patanjali, like Lakshman, draws a magic circle in the dust with the teachings of the yamas and niyamas, creating a safe space for the practice of yoga to thrive. When we step outside the circle of the yamas and niyamas, we yogis are unprotected from our own ego.

The yoga tradition regards circles or mandalas as symbols of enlightenment: stay within the circle, be protected. Mandalas, unlike simple circles, have the ability to reveal deeper subconscious meanings through study. Sage Patanjali creates circular structures (metaphoric mandalas) to help bring about “the perfection of samadhi,” or enlightenment. The more we stay within the boundaries of his metaphoric mandalas, the more profound conceptualizations of our true nature are revealed to us – simultaneously, we receive outward protection and eternal insights.

It’s important to note that the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are not the only source for yamas and niyamas, and Sage Patanjali was not the only enlightened teacher to come up with a list of them to help guide seekers of yoga. At least sixty-five ancient Indian yogic texts have their own unique list of yamas and niyamas; the lists are not the same from text to text, but the intention is. In the modern yogic landscape, the yamas and niyamas of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras have become a dominant focal point, leaving the other texts languishing in obscurity. So it is important when speaking on the subject not to simply say “yamas and niyamas” but be specific and say “the yamas and niyamas of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.”

Another common mistake is comparing yamas and niyamas to the biblical Ten Commandments found in Exodus. The yamas and niyamas of Patanjali do not have the same intention as the Ten Commandments, so comparing them to each other is like comparing apples and oranges (both are fruit but not the same). The Ten Commandments were part of a larger set of laws given to the Israelites by their God, Yahweh. The Ten Commandments were then implemented when the Nation of Israel created what is known as Halakhah (the Way), or laws regulating religious observance that are to be followed in daily life by observant Jews.

Patanjali does not suggest that we live according to the yamas and niyamas in order to have a united national identity as a people, observe religious dogma, or obey God’s laws. His moral code describes the qualities we need in order to simply reach the goal of yoga: to still the fluctuations of the mind and rest in our true nature, a nature of unconditional love, compassion, generosity, and true happiness. Yamas and niyamas – whichever yogic text they come from – are not laws, they are only suggestions, just like Lakshman’s suggestion to Sita. Laws come with an authoritative hierarchy and those who don’t follow them are punished. Yamas and niyamas are based on equal, mutually beneficial relationships that cultivate only positive benefits for all. There is no punishment by an authoritative figure if yamas and niyamas are not followed, but self-inflicted pain and suffering may be the result.

Yama means “restriction” in Sanskrit: the five yamas of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are ahimsa (non-violation or non-harming), satya (truthfulness), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacarya (continence or sexual restriction), and aparigrahah (non-gripping). Yamas are a way for us to have deeper insights into how our actions affect other beings. They help us to develop critical thinking and empathy, putting ourselves in the place of another and understanding the suffering of others; they end otherness and create oneness.

Niyama means “observance” in Sanskrit: the five niyamas of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are sauca (cleanliness), samtosa (contentment), tapah (self-discipline), svadhyaya (self-study), and isvara-pranidhanani (devotion to God). Niyamas are the starting point for the inward journey that yoga requires, a type of deep self-contemplation that happens on a very personal level. Niyamas help give the unfocused mind structure and enable the yogi to focus on the deeper elements suggested by Patanjali in the Eight-Limbed system known as Ashtanga or Raja Yoga, which leads to “the perfection of samadhi.”

Patanjali’s suggestion to stay in the circular mandala of yamas and niyamas is advice based on eternal wisdom. Patanjali’s yamas and niyamas bring insight into all aspects of our lives – from our personal relationships to the relationships we have with the food we eat, how and where we spend our money, and the people we choose to socialize with. His yamas and niyamas guide us toward an amicable relationship with the world around us and help us to resist being swept into the multi-headed, multi-armed Asura King, the ego. This is a victory for the jivatman (Sita) and the Paramatman (Ram).

Austin Sanderson – Urban Sadhu


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