Yamas and Niyamas: Value Training in Raja Yoga

Values are the foundation of a balanced life

Integrating values into an asana session lifts it from mere gymnastics to a profound spiritual science.

Yamas, the 5 observances and Niyamas, the 5 commitments are the ethical aspects of Raja, the Royal Path of Yoga. They lay down a strong moral and ethical foundation. It is important to experiment with them, so that we understand our behaviour patterns, our social and cultural values and our intrinsic nature. Experimentation means using these high ideals and values to guide us in our decision making process and to try to resolve conflicts internal as well as external. 

Working on Yamas (observances) and Niyamas (commitments) simply means building a strong character. This is a subtle area. But the body is gross and easier to relate to. That is exactly why many prefer to focus on the physical aspect: Asana.

The gross quality of the body can be used effectively to help us work on the more subtle Yamas and Niyamas. Since our attitude to asanas reflects our values and deep-rooted impressions the body can be used as an instrument to reach into the inner most depths of our mind. 

Yamas: The 5 Commitments


Non-violence, non-hurting, non-injury, respect

"Violence in asanas? What nonsense!" you might say. Think again. How often do we hurt ourselves when we stretch into postures that our beyond our ability? We hurt our backs and pull our muscles whenever we use excessive force on our bodies. What is the state of the mind of a person who forces double the air into his lungs than his capacity allows him to? Such aggressiveness is violence committed on your own body and mind. This violence is counterproductive. A pulled muscle or strained back will have to be rested and eventually you will have to start all over. This is true of all violent means that are meant to be short cuts but in reality lead farther away from the goal. Be gentle on your body, be kind to yourself. 


Truth, authenticity, transparency, non-deception, honesty, self awareness

Satya works in tandem with Ahimsa. To prevent yourself from exceeding your limits, first you must honestly evaluate yourself. If you cannot touch your toes, that's okay. Hold on to your ankles, calves, knees, anything you can lay your hands on! The important thing is to begin at your level. If you do not, you might be tempted to force yourself to touch your toes for a split second and bounce up. "See, I can touch my toes," you say. But that is only for the moment. Exceeding your limits by self-deception or non-acceptance of reality may cause muscle contraction and pain. You've taken two steps backward instead of one step forward. Doesn't that happen when you lie ordinarily as well? You get away in the short run, but as lies follow lies, you are trapped in your own web of deceit. 



This is an extremely important Yama (observance) to follow in asanas. The best student in your Asana class can put his head between his knees in the posterior pose, so you want to as well. What happens when you try to it? Ouch! You've misappropriated a position that does not belong to you. And you've disregarded the values of Ahimsa and Satya as well. Ask yourself this question, "Why do I have this need to steal someone else's posture?" Examine your feelings and thoughts at the time, is this about competition, a need to show-off or a powerful ego?


Self mastery balance, sustainability, responsibility, moderation,

When we sit down to do a simple practice like sitting still and observing our breath, what is happening with our minds? We realize it isn't so easy after all. We are distracted by a host of external stimuli. We begin to understand the power the senses have and how little control we have over our own minds. This observance works hand in hand with the commitment of Tapa (training of the mind). We need to strengthen ourselves gradually without force or violence, with understanding i.e. satya. Remember daily practice goes a long way in developing Brahmacharya.


Non-hoarding, non-possessiveness, simplicity, less is more

Most of us are very attached to results. We are in a great hurry to master a posture. We struggle with our bodies and minds, and are obsessed with idea of touching our knees to the floor in Bhadrasana. We get tensed and expend too much energy. Instead let go, the weight of the legs themselves will bring the knees closer to the floor. Enjoy the Asana, live in the moment with full body awareness. The breath is an important tool we can use here. When we "let go" our breath, that is exhale, we relax. Tension is released from the body, and we can twist more, bend more, stretch further into a posture. This attitude of letting go the result and concentration only on the action, works all the time in all aspects of our life. 

Niyamas - The 5 Observances


Purity, cleanliness

Saucha is not mere cleanliness of the body. It is also purity of the mind. Approach asana in the right spirit, not out of competitiveness, out of egoism or the need to show off. A competitive attitude will strengthen the unhealthy habit patterns of the mind. A pure mind however comes gradually on following the yamas (commitments), so in earlier stages take the opportunity to be aware of the restless nature of the mind and the wayward thoughts, even if you do not succeed in stilling the wild nature of the mind. 


Contentment, satisfaction

"If I am content, how will I ever perfect an asana?" you ask. The modern way of life has infected our attitude to asana: More the better. Be content with less, master a few simple asanas, these will bring more benefit than a dozen done hurriedly. Practice these few with complete attention and the right attitude will follow. Be patient and changes will take place at the deepest levels. A lack of contentment will only lead to push yourself, pain will bring fear and tension, and aren't these exactly what we are trying to eliminate? There is no fixed number of asanas that should be practiced, but if you are exhausted and mentally fatigued you have been doing too many. 


Self training, training of the senses and the mind, discipline

With reference to asanas, Tapa means to bear a little pain. This may seem contrary to Ahimsa but it is not. The pain here in not destructive and self-defeating, it is constructive and positive. Gradually develop your Asana practice, begin with easier Asanas, slowly mastering each. Begin with simple variations and then move on to the more advanced. Pain should be bearable, not overwhelming. Face the pain, don’t ignore it. Engage the obstacles, address the blockages and weaknesses. 

Tapa can be developed in "staying power" too. This means you can gradually increase the time you sit in dhyana (meditation). 


Self Reflection, self awareness, study, contemplation

Svadhayaya means learning about the Highest through the different paths of Yoga, contemplation and reflection on the wisdom of the scriptures. 

On a more basic level it is simply awareness. Even if you are violent towards yourself, do so with awareness: "I am hurting myself. And I am willing to bear the consequences of my own actions." Use this awareness to work on all observances and commitments in a patient and understanding manner.

Ishwar Pranidhana 

Surrender, effortlessness, grace, humility

We have put so much effort into working on the Yamas and Niyamas, on Asanas, on the body as well as the mind. Then comes a time when effort ceases. It may manifest itself after an Asana session when you are pleasantly tired. Now is the time to surrender, just let go. This can normally be experienced in Savasana, Makarasana, Yoga Mudra. When you cease to strive in Asana, then you have found the key to mastery: effortlessness or as the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali put it "Sthir sukham asanam". 

Weaving a fabric of Values

Yamas and Niyamas are like a knitted sweater, pull out one strand and the whole sweater comes apart. It is not possible to work on one of the Yamas or Niyamas in isolation, they are all interconnected. 

As you approach Asanas in this new spirit, you will begin to think of the asana session as a Yama and Niyama session. Retain your awareness (Svadhyaya), you will find yourself stretching the definition of Ahimsa, Satya, etc. Gradually this understanding will spill over to all the other departments of your life. Just as you learn when you should push yourself a little (Tapa) and when you should let go (Ishwar Pranidhan) in Asanas, this wonderful ability will come to you in other areas of life. You will certainly have a more flexible body, what’s more important, you will have a more flexible mind!