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 Pre-requisites for Yoga - Yama and Niyama


Yoga is not just a physical practice. It has a strong moral, ethical and spiritual basis; which is why it aims at such lofty goals such as the liberation of the soul. If practised purely at the physical level, it degenerates into mere exercise, and the practitioner denies himself much of the benefits that yoga offers.


The pre-requisites are laid down in the Patanjali Yoga Sutra, as the first two limbs of yoga - Yama and Niyama (moral restraints and ethical practices). Only after implementing Yama and Niyama, will the student obtain the full benefits of the next step, asana.


Over 20 years ago, when I was trekking in the Himalayas, I met a yogi called Phalahari Baba. At that time, I was very proficient in the practice of asanas. I could contort my body into all kinds of shapes. So I told him that I too was a yoga practitioner. He simply asked me a question 

“ Yama-Niyama ka Palan karte ho kya?” (Do you follow Yama-Niyama?)  I had no answer.


My spiritual guru, Ganoba Date, also said that yama and niyama are the basis of yoga. If we do not follow these, the physical and breathing exercises will be of limited value.  To put it bluntly, even a cheat, liar or murderer can do the physical practices of yoga. But that does not make him or her a yogi.


The translations and commentary given below are based on the excellent book, The Original Yoga" by Shyam Ghosh.. 


I. Yamas (Restraints)


The sage Patanjali specifies five different moral restraints for the practitioner. As per my guru Ganoba Date, these can also be interpreted positively, in the light of modern-day practices


1. Ahimsa -Non-violence

The first precept of any spiritual practice is not to harm any other living being. This refers not just to physical acts of violence, but equally to violence in word and thought.  You might not physically slap somebody but verbally abuse him. If he is in a stronger position than you, you might not have the guts to say or do anything, but yet mentally abuse him. All this behaviour is treated as himsa  (violence)  and is to be avoided. To Quote the sage, "When non-violence is established, hostility recoils in its presence". In such a mind following ahimsa, a  violent thought cannot arise, let alone a hostile word or deed.


A positive interpretation of Ahimsa would be "to have a loving touch". We should not just abstain from doing violence to anyone we cone you come into contact with,  - but have a  pleasant, loving, beautiful experience with them.


Incidentally, the diet suggested by Natural Hygiene, which I am promoting on this site, is also based on Ahimsa.

2. Satya  (Truth)

"A correct, uncoloured and well-weighed thought, when expressed faithfully in word or deed, means restraint on the mind's tendency to bypass accuracy." 


Patanjali goes to say "When the truth is established, the means of action becomes unnecessary". What he means is that truth requires no support or defence. The means of acting in an authentic and right fashion need not be sought out; they will be clear as day.


This Yama can also be interpreted as "Being True to oneself'  that is, acting as per one's true self, and avoiding what is not "in character"  You should do what you know you should do (your duty or “dharma”) and nothing else.


3. Asteya  (Non-stealing)

"Asteya is a curb on covetousness, which prompts one to grab, covertly or overtly, what belongs to others,"  says Shyam Ghosh. It does not make a difference if you steal openly or on the sly. Patanjali says that "when non-stealing is established, all treasures present themselves". When there is no more desire for (material) goods, especially those that do not belong to you, the real (spiritual) treasures present themselves to you for the asking.


A modern interpretation is to be generous.  Ganoba Date suggests, not only should we not steal,  but let out possessions, emotions, goodwill and thoughts flow freely. Life is a flow. When you go with the flow, beautiful things happen.


4. Brahmacharya  (Continence)

The popular interpretation of brahmacharya is celibacy or continence. But the actual word is interpreted as "Brahma  + acharan" which would mean one who is at the feet of the lord (Brahma). Patanjali says "When Brahmacharya is established, virility is gained". This is a pointer to the dissipative nature of excessive sexual activity.


A modern interpretation is "inclusive relationships”.  You do not demand exclusivity in your relationships. Rather than saying  "you shall love me and me alone", you are willing to share and be a part of a larger whole.


5. Aparigraha  (Non-receiving)

A high ideal of non-acceptance of gifts from others-   possibly meant as a further restraint on covetousness -  even for goods received as gifts. Perhaps the idea was that the yogi should not be under any obligation to anybody.  Patanjali says that "when aparigraha is established, one gets awareness of past life events"!


All these rules are intended to keep the yogi on the straight and narrow path. It is no use if the yogi, after coming down from his headstand,  goes against any or all of these precepts! Patanjali makes it  clear that these yamas are a "universal code of conduct, to be observed irrespective of kind, place, time or occasion" 


II. Niyamas (ethical observances)


1. Shouch - Purity

This does not refer to external purity alone which can be achieved by cleaning and bathing. Internal purity of thoughts  - of goodwill, friendliness etc. is called for. Patanjali explains that complete purity of mind means several things

  • Cheerfulness - not experiencing any regret but rather satisfaction and happiness

  • One-pointedness  - The ability to focus the mind's attention unwaveringly on an object

  • Control of the senses  -  This refers to the mind's unquestioned superiority over the senses and the capacity to see the real self.


Patanjali goes on to say that once purity is established, there arises an aversion to the physical aspect of one's body -  as well as that of others. One stops looking at the body at the physical level alone and stops devoting oneself to meeting physical needs directly. Instead, one becomes more spiritual and more holistic.

2. Santosh (Contentment)

You must strive for higher ideals, while at the same time, be contented with your current lot. You have spent all your life and efforts to get where you are today. That is to be respected. A dissatisfied mind will never be at peace. It will always be craving for more, which is a hindrance to spiritual practice. On the other hand, Patanjali says that "contentment leads to supreme joy", that cannot be obtained by the enjoyment of external objects.


3. Tapas  (Austerity)

The strict definition is austerity which envisages a simple living, renunciation of comforts,  and often planned acceptance of discomforts to discipline oneself. Fasting or a vow of silence are common examples. Extreme and continued mortification of the body is not called for. As stated in the Bhagwad Gita, Yoga is for the moderate person -  not for one who indulges in extreme practices.  What is probably indicated is, sleeping on the floor, bathing in cold water, taking a minimum quantity of simple food and baring the body to the rigours of the weather. All of these are designed to strengthen the body and increase its longevity. Patanjali says  "Austerity purges impurities in the body, leading  to mastery over the body and senses."


A modern interpretation of Tapas could be "sustained, in-depth, practice" by which a  person gets the mastery of a subject or object.

4. Sw-adhyay (Self-Study)

Self-study could mean self-directed study, as opposed to learning from a teacher. It could also mean the study of the self. One has to know oneself before trying to know anyone else or anything else. Patanjali may be referring to study of the scriptures, since he says that by this method, one gets "direct contact with the cherished deity."


5. Ishwar-Pranidhan (Surrender to God)

Surrender or complete devotion to God, or the natural cosmic order, leads to Samadhi or liberation, says Patanjali.


III. Sattvic Diet


The Hatha Yoga Pradeepika by Swami Swatmarama, a 16th Century Classic, lays down in no uncertain terms what the Yogi is supposed to eat and what he is not.


Chapter 1

Verse 57:

A moderate diet is recommended for a person desirous of having success in Yoga. [In fact, there is an Indian proverb, "A person who eats once a day is a yogi, twice a day a bhogi (one who enjoys life) and thrice a day a rogi (a diseased person)"

Verse 58:

"A moderate diet is defined as taking pleasant and sweet food, leaving one-fourth of the stomach free, and offering up the act to Siva"

Commentary: Two parts of the stomach are to be filled with food, one part with water and one part empty (with air). Offering the act up to Siva (one of the Hindu Trinity) is that he should think that the eater is Siva and not himself."


Verse 59:

"The following things are considered  unsalutary to the yogi - things that are sharp, sour, pungent, hot, certain nuts, leaves, oils, liquor, fish, flesh, curd, asafoetida, garlic."


Verse 60

"Diet of the following  nature should be avoided as being unhealthy-   food that having once been cooked has grown cold and is heated again, that has an excess of salt and sourness, that is indigestible or has certain kind of leaves mixed in it."

(Apparently, the Yogis knew about the fermentation cooked food undergoes and the dangers of reheating such food after it has gone cold)


Verse 61

"The following things can be safely taken by the yogi  wheat, rice, barley, milk, ghee, sugar candy, butter, honey, dry ginger, cucumber, the five green herbs, kidney beans and clean water"


It would not be wise to disregard these admonitions and claim to be a true Hatha Yoga practitioner

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