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The Study and Practice of Yoga

An Exposition of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali


Chapter 72: The Prepratory Disciplines of Yama and Niyama

The purifications and disciplines known as the yamas and niyamas in yoga are not ordinary or simple steps that can either be bypassed or be practised with a stepmotherly attitude. They are very important stages which contribute to the strengthening of one’s being – the entire personality – and make it fit for the higher practices. But if we read, in the history of religion, the lives of seekers who have endeavoured hard to practise yoga, we will be surprised to observe that they had always some difficulties, and most of these difficulties are connected with these essentials – which are often regarded as non-essentials in comparison with the higher stages of dharana, dhyana and samadhi.

These little steps, known as the yamas and niyamas, become stumbling blocks when not properly attended to in the further stages of practice. This applies particularly to the yamas. As a matter of fact, we have no obstacle in yoga except the troubles that are created by the inattention that we pay to the essentials of the yamas. Most people go scot-free under the notion that they are prepared adequately for confronting the higher objective in meditation, but this is not the case, because the practice of the yamas is really the process of fortifying oneself against all the weaknesses that are characteristic of human nature. As a matter of fact, they are the ways in which we become actively conscious of the vulnerable spots in our personality which are to be protected from the onslaughts of powerful forces which we have to face in the future.

Sometimes it is difficult to understand where we are actually, at a particular stage, and it is easy to miscalculate our situation, due to either over-enthusiasm or lack of proper understanding. Everybody imagines that he or she is well prepared. Well, that is not the case, because our strength will be seen only in the war field; we cannot see it in the kitchen. That is very difficult to understand. When we actually face the problems, we will know our energies, our strengths, and our capacity to tolerate the pairs of opposites.

Many of the difficulties of modern students of yoga are due to the unfavourable circumstances in which they have to live; and the whole world is ridden over with these circumstances. The modern age is, unfortunately, of such a nature that we cannot find isolation, solitude or sequestration anywhere in this world, even if we go to a jungle. Nowadays there are no jungles; everywhere there are people, and we will have every difficulty anywhere. This is a great handicap. It is to be emphasised that these purifications cannot be properly practised in the humdrum of a society of temptations where we are deliberately taken along the wrong path and purposely driven in the erroneous direction by the very characteristic of human society and the things of the world.

 Therefore, modern institutions – even yoga institutions – may be said to be inappropriate and unsuited for a strenuous practice of yoga, because the institutions are mostly social in their character. For whatever reason it might be, their status is social, and it is impossible to completely wrench oneself from these social relationships and the consequences that follow from these relationships. Hence, all the practice – whatever be the intensity with which one takes to it – has been mostly of a diluted character, and it cannot be very intense because the surroundings, the environment in which one lives, dilute the intensity with which one starts the practice. Thus, it should not be forgotten that there is always a chance of getting diverted along the channels of these social relationships; and a little aperture created by any relationship of this kind will be enough to burst the whole bubble, and the person is finished in a moment.

Hence, one has to be very careful in not overestimating one’s capacities or powers, miscalculating one’s energies and wrongly imagining that the powers one has conserved are equal to the powers of nature as a whole. Not all the sages put together could face this nature – it is terrible. Therefore, one has to be very, very cautious; and it is impossible to be cautious under the circumstances of this world, as I mentioned. It has to be regarded as very unfortunate indeed, but this is the fact of the matter and it cannot be overlooked.

There were great masters who took very great care to protect their children, such as Sage Vibhandaka who took care of his son Rishyasringa under such favourable conditions that human beings could not see that boy. He was guarded from all sides because the sage, the father, was very wise. He knew what the world is made of, and what difficulties one may have to face if a long rope is given to personal relationships and external contacts with objects of sense. So this boy Rishyasringa was very well guarded, and a great example of ideal nurturing of the tender mind is given to us in this wonderful instance. But all that failed. It did not work because we cannot protect a person like that, by putting them in a jail. Though we may imprison the body, the mind cannot be imprisoned. Whatever be the care that we take, there will be some little loophole which we might have forgotten. It is impossible to be aware of every aspect of the matter. Something is forgotten because that is the weakness of human nature and the very inadequacy of the nature of the mind itself.

If such protected minds like Rishyasringa could not succeed, and they could be sidetracked by the very things of the world from which he wanted to guard himself, what to talk of other people? As Bhartrihari says in one place, “The whole mountain of India will float on the ocean if people who eat rice, ghee, milk, etc., every day can control their senses.” Mountains will float on the ocean? It is impossible. People who lived on air and leaves could not control their senses; and people who drink ghee every day will control their senses? It is not possible. If that could be done, the Himalayas would be floating on the surface of the Pacific. These are cautions. Cautions have been given millions of times, but they go like empty sounds before the tricks of nature.

Therefore, it is to be reiterated that these preliminaries in yoga, the yamas especially, have to be practised from the very beginning. It should be, in a sense, the duty of the parents themselves to bring up the children in a spiritual atmosphere. It is very unfortunate indeed if parents think that the way of yoga is contrary to the welfare of life or the good of the world, and children are brought up in atmospheres which are totally the opposite of what is spiritually good. How can one suddenly retrace one’s steps from this muddle in which one has been brought up for years together and suddenly become divine overnight? That is not possible. But this is the difficulty of people. They have been born and bred in unfavourable atmospheres, whether in villages or cities. The whole thing is rotten – it is good for nothing. But that is where we are born; we cannot help it. We have been living there for years and years, and suddenly one night we change our minds and try to live in Brahma-loka. That is not possible. This, again, is an unfortunate feature of modern life. The psychology of yoga practice calls forth a discipline at a very early age in one’s life so that there is a tendency of the mind to appreciate certain conducive atmospheres, and it is not suddenly presented with a surprise in the form of a monastery, or a temple, or a life of sannyasa, etc.

The importance of these canons of yama cannot be over-emphasised because these terrors, which even sages like Swami Visvamitra and Parashara had to face, were nothing but these very things which we regard as non-essentials, or initial stages, or things which we already know and have mastered to some extent. It is very unfortunate to think like that, because the canons of yama are the ways in which we lay the very foundation to protect ourselves for the future onslaughts which everyone has to expect. No one can be exempt from these difficulties. What path one has trodden, another also has to tread; and what difficulties I have, you will also have. You cannot escape them. Perhaps the difficulties will come in the same form, though at different times and through different instrumentalities.

Thus, at the very beginning itself, the physical atmosphere, the social conditions and the external relationships ought to be such that they should be helpful in the practice of the yamas. We cannot live in the distracting atmosphere of Piccadilly or Hollywood and then start thinking along the lines of a higher practice. The physical conditions should be chosen, the social atmosphere should be properly selected, and a proper mood of the mind also should be there.

We need not repeat that one should be in the immediate presence of a Guru or a spiritual master. One cannot read a book and become a yogi; that is not possible. The tradition of the Guru is an eternal tradition. Nobody can gainsay it, and it cannot be amended. It is an absolute necessity. The immediate presence of a spiritual guide is also a great protection against the problems and difficulties of a personal character. Whatever the problems be, they can be rectified if they are properly exposed and relayed before the competent mind of the master.

Side by side with this, one has to guard oneself consciously against getting into unwanted ways by placing oneself deliberately in unfavourable atmospheres. As far as possible, the atmosphere that we select should be favourable, and we should not be under the impression that we have advanced so much that we can live anywhere in the world. It is difficult to believe that anyone is so far advanced. It is very easy to think like that, but very unfortunate to do so. Anyone can fall; nobody can be free from this possibility.

The fall is merely due to carelessness and the careless attitude that we bestowed upon ourselves at the very beginning, thinking that we know very well all things of yoga and that the secrets of life are laid bare before us. This is a kind of foolishness that can take possession of a student. While for some time, maybe even for fifty years, everything looks all right, after that period we will find that we are in the midst of a storm. A whirlwind will blow from all sides, and this can happen even at the end of our life, when we are about to become a jivanmukta, as we may imagine. A wind will blow in such a tempestuous manner that we will be cut off from the very roots, all because we have been under the wrong impression that we have been well-off and well grounded in the practice of yoga.

The needs of the body, the cravings of the senses and the susceptibilities of the mind are terrible. They are not ordinary things. Even hunger is very serious indeed and it can upset one’s peace of mind when it comes like a torture. Those who do not know what hunger is cannot appreciate this situation. One should know what it is. We should be starving for days together, and we will know what we do at that time. Any sin can be committed by a man who is hungry; no sin can be away from him. Likewise is the impetuous character of any desire when it is completely curbed and bottled up without satisfaction and not allowed to come out at all.

Bottling up a desire is not the practice of yama. Something else is intended here, because even though it is possible for a person to suddenly be away from homestead and chattel, as they call it, and go to a monastic atmosphere and live a life of complete isolation from normal satisfactions of life, the desire for satisfaction cannot cease, though the satisfactions are not there. It is rasavarjam, as the Bhagavadgita puts it – the taste for things will not cease. Whatever be the distance we maintain between ourselves and an object of sense, the desire for that object of sense cannot cease. It will be there like a drop of honey at the bottom, which we would like to lick at any moment. Though it is hidden in the midst of bushes of thorn, that little drop of honey will be there tempting us all the way, because either we have not tasted it, or we have deliberately and wrongly imagined that it is not worthwhile.

The worthwhileness of a thing does not depend upon our mere notion about it. One has to pass through it by experience. This experience may be either merely rational or sensory. One is, by the power of rationality and investigative capacity, able to understand the nature of things and be in a position to be away, psychologically, from their tempting characters. Or, one might have passed through the experience physically and known what it is, so that there is less likelihood of getting into it again – though one is not, of course, really free from it.

Hence, the stages of yoga called yamas and niyamas are not unimportant stages. They are the very things that will ask for their dues one day or the other, in a manner which will be very unpleasant, because if we do not honourably and intelligently tackle this question at the very outset, we will be compelled to do it later on under painful conditions. Therefore it would be wisdom on the part of a seeker not to be over-enthusiastic about things, and to be very dispassionate in the investigation of one’s mental make-up and susceptibilities.

If one is sufficiently honest to oneself, it would not be difficult to know one’s weaknesses. If we do not want to know them, that is a different matter. Sometimes we would not like to know that we have weaknesses; that is a very foolhardy attitude. But if we are dispassionate enough and cautious enough to probe deep into our own nature, it will be easy for us to know our weaknesses in a few days. Perhaps in a single day we can know what our weaknesses are. Many of us know them, only we would like to smother them under the veneer of a notion which is more pleasant than this painful conduct of an enquiry into one’s own nature. But this is going to be the ruin of a seeker if he is really intent upon the practice of yoga, because yoga is the blessedness which one seeks deliberately for one’s own self, and it is not thrust upon oneself by anybody else, so there is no use merely posing a perfection which one does not have.

Ahiṁsā satya asteya brahmacarya aparigrahāḥ yamāḥ (II.30). Śauca santoṣa tapaḥ svādhyāye Īśvarapraṇidhānāni niyamāḥ (II.32). These are the sutras of Patanjali which state the principles of the yamas and the niyamas. All these things are known to us. I do not want to go on in detail explaining what the yamas are, what is ahimsa, etc., because these subjects have been treated earlier. But the background of it and the rational foundations of it have to be properly understood before we step into the higher stages, because if the foundation is strong, the building will be strong. It is already well known that there is no use thinking of erecting a grand palace on a sandy foundation.

The scriptures say that the senses are our enemies, and that the mind is also an enemy when it is a friend of the senses, because a friend of an enemy is also an enemy. The mind is a friend of the enemy, which is the senses, and so mind also has to be regarded as an enemy. We are vitally associated with the mind, and it is a part of us. We ourselves are the mind; nevertheless, we have to be cautious because it is this that comes up to the surface one day and asks for its dues.

The student of yoga, in the present age especially, should exert a little more than was the case for students who lived ages back. First of all, we cannot find Gurus. It is very difficult to find a Guru in this age. We cannot find a place to sit, because every place is infected with some difficulty or the other. And, we have weaknesses of body, and mind, and senses. We have so many difficulties – personal weaknesses, unfavourable conditions outside, and an absence of a proper spiritual guide. We have all these problems, so how are we going to take up the practice of yoga?

Our exertion should be very intense. Though we cannot find a Guru, we may be benefited by staying in the midst of people who are elder to us, who have lived at least a few more years than we have – people with a little more experience and understanding. Though a person may not be helpful, at least the person may not be obstructive. Such persons may be regarded as friends, at least in the beginning, and this may be accompanied by a non-obstructive atmosphere, even if it is not positively conducive. Such wisdom should be exercised in the beginning. And one has to be, as I mentioned earlier, very intensely aware of one’s susceptibilities. One should not deliberately place oneself in conditions which would evoke these susceptibilities. If we have a drinking habit we should not live near a brewery because it is very easy to go to the brewery and have a drink. So we should go away from it, to a place where it would be very difficult to have it. Similarly, all these susceptibilities should be overcome in the beginning by physical apparatus of the dissociation from objects which are likely to stimulate these susceptibilities.

Then, one has to engage oneself in deep study. Most of us lack study, lack learning, lack understanding, because we lack proper information about things. If we have not the fortune of having a good teacher who will give us all the necessary information directly by personal instruction, at least we should have recourse to what we call negative satsanga with sages – namely, the study of scriptures such as the Upanishads, the Bhagavadgita, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, etc., which will keep us engaged throughout the day and enable the mind to absorb these thoughts into itself – which itself is a process of strengthening the mind to a large extent. And one has to take to a disciplinary sadhana, like japa of a mantra, which will also keep one engaged so that the mind should not be given a chance to think idle thoughts, because any single idle thought is enough to draw the attention of all the unwanted forces of the world. Thus, with these fortifications, one has to take to strengthening one’s personality by the practice of these yamas: ahimsa, satya, asteya, brahmacarya and aparigraha.

As I mentioned, I am not going to explain every one of these, as I have already touched upon them earlier and we know what they are: non-injury in thought, word, and deed; truthfulness in its proper spirit, which is very difficult to understand; an absolute refraining from accepting what is not earned by the sweat of one’s brow; continence of the senses; and not appropriating things which do not really belong to oneself, by the law of the spirit itself. All these are well known to everyone, but are most difficult things to assimilate and practise for reasons which are obvious.

Śauca santoṣa tapaḥ svādhyāye Īśvarapraṇidhānāni niyamāḥ (II.32). The purification of the body, the speech, and the mind, and an attitude of contentment and satisfaction with what is bestowed upon oneself by the grace of God and by the circumstances of life; an austere type of living, which accepts not anything of a luxurious character and is satisfied only with the minimum of needs; and a life devoted to sacred study of scriptures and love of God – all these are the basic foundations of the yamas and the niyamas.

In scriptures like the Manu Smriti, it is said that the yamas are more important than the niyamas. These canons called the niyamasśauca santoṣa tapaḥ svādhyāye Īśvarapraṇidhānāni niyamāḥ – are less important than the yamas, as the yamas are more difficult to practise because they lay the foundation for one’s moral character and the toughness of one’s personality. Therefore, one has to bestow a little more attention on the yamas, as the niyamas may take the form of a daily routine of a positive character, but the yamas are not a routine – they are a spirit that we maintain, which is very difficult to entertain in the mind always.

When one is properly placed in an atmosphere of mastery which is provided to oneself through the practice of the yamas and niyamas, the Yoga Shastra tells us that one is spontaneously endowed with an energy which is an indication of the extent of mastery that one has already gained. These disciplines, or preparations, are not merely punishments meted out to us by the scriptures or the Gurus – they are necessary processes of purifying one’s personality in order that it may receive the energies of the cosmos. Strength immediately follows as a matter of direct experience when the purification is effected thoroughly, or at least to an appreciable degree.

It is very clear that it is the presence of impurities of the mind – such as kama, krodha, lobha, etc. – which prevent the entry of the light of the divine into oneself and make one feel famished, physically as well as psychologically. As it was mentioned earlier, the weakness of one’s personality is due to one’s isolation from nature – ultimately an isolation of oneself from God Himself, Who is the source of all strength, power and energy. Therefore, this isolation is artificial. Really we are not so isolated. It is a psychological isolation, and this has come about on account of the dross in the mind – the presence of rajas and tamas. It is necessary that these impediments to the revelation of the divine light and the force of nature within oneself in the form of rajas and tamas be completely eradicated by such disciplinary practices as these yamas and niyamas in their true spirit, and not merely in their letter.

The letter is very easy to understand, whereas the spirit is difficult to understand. The spirit comes into question when it is understood that this practice is intended for the growth of one’s personality and the increase in the depth of one’s being towards the evolution of oneself for unity of oneself with the Absolute. This understanding will give an idea of the spirit which has to be maintained in the practice, apart from merely an appreciative understanding of its literal meaning.