Yoga Philosophy - Guidelines for Life

From The Yoga Sutra
By Patanjali
(circa 200 A.D.)


Home Page / Index of Writings / Art Gallery Lobby  

            The art and science of yoga is dedicated to creating union between body, mind and spirit. Its objective is to assist the practitioner in using the breath and body to foster an awareness of ourselves as individualized beings intimately connected to the unified whole of creation.  In short it is about creating balance and equanimity so as to live in peace, good health and harmony with the greater whole.  This art of right living was perfected and practiced in India thousands of years ago and the foundations of yoga philosophy were written down in the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, approximately 200 AD.  This sacred text describes the inner workings of the mind and provides a blueprint for controlling its restlessness so as to enjoying lasting peace. 

The first two limbs of the philosophical yogic tree that Patanjali describes are the fundamental ethical precepts called the yamas, and the niyamas. These can also be looked at as guidelines of universal morality and personal observances.  The Yamas and niyamas are suggestions of how we should deal with people around us and how we can optimally shape our attitude and behavior. The attitude we have toward people and things outside ourselves are the yamas, how we relate to ourselves inwardly are the niyamas (pronounced nee yamas).  Both are mostly concerned with how we use our energy in relationship to others and to ourselves.

(Moral Disciplines and Restraints)

The yamas are broken down into five “wise characteristics.”  Rather than a list of dos and don’ts, they tell us that our fundamental nature is compassionate, generous, honest and peaceful. They are the moral virtues which, if attended to, purify human nature and contribute to health and happiness of society.

Ahimsa:  Nonviolence  ~  Non-harming  ~  Compassion for all living things

The word ahimsa literally mean not to injure or show cruelty to any creature or any person in any way whatsoever. Ahimsa is, however, more than just lack of violence as adapted in yoga. It means kindness, friendliness, and thoughtful consideration of other people and things. It also has to do with our duties and responsibilities too. Ahimsa implies that in every situation we should adopt a considerate attitude and do no harm.

Satya: Commitment to Truthfulness  ~  Being sincere, considerate, genuine and honest ~ Commitment to Truthfulness

Satya means "to speak the truth," yet it is not always desirable to speak the truth on all occasions, for it could harm someone unnecessarily. We have to consider what we say, how we say it, and in what way it could affect others. If speaking the truth has negative consequences for another, then it is better to say nothing. Satya should never come into conflict with our efforts to behave with ahimsa. This precept is based on the understanding that honest communication and action form the bedrock of any healthy relationship, community, or government, and that deliberate deception, exaggerations, and mistruths harm others.


Asteya: Non-stealing  ~  Not taking anything that hasn’t been given freely ~ Honoring other’s trust in us

Steya means "to steal"; asteya is the opposite-to take nothing that does not belong to us. This also means that if we are in a situation where someone entrusts something to us or confides in us, we do not take advantage of him or her. Non-stealing includes not only taking what belongs to another without permission, but also using something for a different purpose to that intended, or beyond the time permitted by its owner.   The practice of asteya implies not taking anything that has not been freely given. This includes fostering a consciousness of how we ask for others’ time for inconsiderate behavior demanding another’s attention when not freely given is, in effect, stealing.

Brahmacharya:  Moderation and self-control in sex and the senses  ~  Resistance to seduction ~ To be beyond reactivity

Brahmacharya is used mostly in the sense of abstinence, particularly in relationship to sexual activity. Brahmacharya suggests that we should form relationships that foster our understanding of the highest truths. Brahmacharya does not necessarily imply celibacy. Rather, it means responsible behavior with respect to our goal of moving toward the truth. Practicing brahmacharya means that we use our sexual energy to regenerate our connection to our spiritual self. It also means that we don’t use this energy in any way that might harm others.

Aparigraha: Non-grasping  ~  Not being greedy  ~  Letting go of our attachments to things ~ Neutralizing the desire to acquire and hoard wealth

Aparigraha means to take only what is necessary, and not to take advantage of a situation or act greedy. We should only take what we have earned; if we take more, we are exploiting someone else. The yogi feels that the collection or hoarding of things implies a lack of faith in God and in himself to provide for his future.  Aparigraha also implies letting go of our attachments to things and an understanding that impermanence and change are the only constants.  


(Disciplines of Self-restraint and Personal Observances)

           Niyama means “rules” or “laws”. These are the rules prescribed for personal observance. Like the yamas, the five niyamas are not exercises or actions to be simply studied. They represent far more than an attitude. Compared with the yamas, the niyamas are more intimate and personal. They refer to the attitude we adopt toward ourselves as we create a code for living soulfully

 Sauca: Purity of body and mind

The first niyama is sauca, meaning purity and cleanliness. Sauca has both an inner and an outer aspect. Outer cleanliness simply means keeping ourselves clean and our lives orderly and unclutterd. Inner cleanliness has as much to do with the healthy, free functioning of our bodily organs as with the clarity of our mind. Practicing asanas (yoga postures) or pranayama (using the breathe to strengthen the flow of life force/prana) are essential means for attending to this inner sauca. Asanas tone the entire body and remove toxins while pranayama cleanses our lungs, oxygenates our blood and purifies our nerves. But more important than the physical cleansing of the body is the cleansing of the mind of its disturbing emotions like hatred, passion, anger, lust, greed, delusion and pride.  When we clear the clutter from our personal environment and our mind we are more able to remain focused on the higher aspects of living consciously; we are less distracted by outside stimulations that take us away from being centered and grounded in our loving nature.  

Santosa:  Modesty  ~  Contentment with what we have  ~  Acceptance that there is a purpose for everything

Santosa is having a sense of modesty and the feeling of being content with what we have. To be at peace within comes from fostering contentment with one's life, even while experiencing its challenges.  When we accept that life is a process for growth all of the circumstances and experiences we create for ourselves become valid teachers and vehicles for expressing our highest nature. Accepting that there is a purpose for everything - yoga calls it karma – we can cultivate contentment and compassion, for ourselves and for others.  Santosa  means being happy with what we have rather than being unhappy about what we don't have.

 Tapas: Disciplined use of our energy  ~  Burning desire to reach self-realization

Tapas refers to the burning enthusiasm to learn and understand how all facets of our life are tools for self-realization. Literally it means to heat the body and, by so doing, to cleanse it. Behind the notion of tapas lies the idea we can direct our energy to enthusiastically engage life and achieve our ultimate goal of creating union with the Divine. Tapas helps us burn up all the desires that stand in our way of this goal.  Another form of tapas is paying attention to body posture, eating habits, breathing patterns, and generally honoring the body as the vehicle that contains our life force and makes our human existence possible.

 Svadhyaya: Self study and observation  ~  Cultivating self-reflective consciousness

The fourth niyama is svadhyaya. Sva means “self” adhyaya means "inquiry" or "examination". Any activity that cultivates self-reflective consciousness can be considered svadhyaya. It means to intentionally find self-awareness in all our activities and efforts, even to the point of welcoming and accepting our limitations. It teaches us to be centered and non-reactive to the dualities of being both human and spirit at the same time, to burn out unwanted and self-destructive tendencies so we can live in balance with all aspects of our being.    

Isvarapranidhana:  Celebration of the Spiritual within us and all things ~ Concentration on and surrender to divine flow

Isvarapranidhana means "to lay all your actions at the feet of God."  It is the contemplation on God (Isvara) in order to become attuned to the natural expression of love and heartfulness in all our relations. It is the recognition that spirituality suffuses everything, that through our attention and care we can attune ourselves with our role as part of the Creator and see the good in all things. The practice requires that we set aside some time each day to recognize that there is some omnipresent force larger than ourselves that is guiding and directing the course of our lives.  When we adopt this practice we make internal space for comprehending the complex and pervasive working of divine expression in everything around us.


Home Page / Index of Writings / Art Gallery Lobby