Before exploring the steps of Yama and Niyama of eight-fold Yoga, we must ask ourselves this simple question: What are the essential human ethics? According to Hinduism, ethics pertain mainly to our conduct, which being based in moral concepts, is considered to be the ultimate foundation of our spiritual and practical life.
The attitude we have toward things and people outside ourselves is called Yama. “Yama” has many different meanings. It may mean discipline, restraints, or rein, but in the present context it is used to mean “self control, forbearance, or duty.” There are five different Yamas, through which we, as individuals, interact with and relate to the outside world: Ahimsa (harmlessness), Sathya (truth), Asteya (abstention from stealing), Brahmacharya (control of the senses), and Aparigraha (diminishing materialistic desires). When we sincerely adopt these moral principles in our daily life, each and every act of interacting with the world would become utmost ethical, as it would be based on pure intensions devoid of violence, falsehood and selfish desires.
Ahimsa, means harmlessness or nonviolence. Believing and practicing non-violence displays our consideration towards all living beings. By following this essential ethical behavior, one can expect not only a peaceful social life, but a rich spiritual one as well. The second Yama; Sathya, meaning truthfulness, plays a vital rule in not just eight-fold Yoga, but in many aspects of Hinduism, and other religions as well. The immense power of truthfulness combined with non-violence, demonstrated by Mahatma Gandhi, resulted in freeing a nation of 500 million people from its 200 years of foreign rule without shedding a drop of blood. It cannot be stressed enough how important Satya is as a human ethic in our daily life; its absence can poison not only one’s family life, but also the social life as a whole. Another principal rule of Yoga is Asteya, meaning, “to abstain from stealing.” This being such a widely broken rule in our society today has resulted in high crime rates and distrust. Asteya is an essential ethical principle as it teaches us that it is simply wrong to obtain anything that does not belong to us. Brahmacharya is a movement toward the essential truth. Brahmacharya suggests that we should form relationships that foster our understanding of the highest truths. Aparigraha means to take only what is necessary, and not to take advantage of a situation or be greedy. After all, greed is the root cause of all sins including all unethical acts and immoral behaviors that take us away from the righteous path to God.
Like the five Yamas, the 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. The five Niyamas are Sauca (cleanliness), Santosa (happiness due to contentment), Tapas (body fitness), Svadhyaya (introspection or self-evaluation), Isvarapranidhana (laying all actions at the feet of God).
Sauca means cleanliness of both the inner mind and the outer body. Cleansing the body on a regular basis relates to the basic human ethic of showing respect towards oneself and others around. Cleansing our inner-self can be cultivated through the regular practice of Yoga, and also by keeping the body rid of harmful chemicals, such as alcohol, tobacco, and drugs. Another important Niyama is Santosa, the feeling of being content with what we have. There are occasions when we work hard to get something. We get very disappointed when we do not get the desired result. Some people may get into extreme depression as a result. We let ourselves into such hopelessness because we lack the discipline of being content with what we have. We should accept that there is a purpose for everything – that God has a plan for each one of our lives. We should accept the fact that we will not always get everything we want. Things do go wrong. This is the reason why Santosa is so important, as it teaches us to appreciate what we have. The next important Niyama; Tapas refers to the activity of keeping the body fit or to confront and handle the inner urges without outer show. Isvarapranidhana means “to lay all your actions at the feet of God.” While the Yamas teach us to do the best we can under all circumstances, the Niyama of Swadhaya encourages us to adopt continuous quality improvement through self-evaluation. After putting forward our best effort, Isvarapranidhana teaches us to offer the fruits of our actions to God in our daily prayers.
As a result of following the moral principles in Yama and Niyama Yoga, we will expect to experience a certain peace within ourselves and with others. Many times, people find themselves feeling depressed or overwhelmed by life. Many of these same people also may resort to seeking professional help and medicines to help overcome these problems. Little do they realize that if these simple ethical values are followed, it could diminish their problems faster than any medication could. If everyone would adopt and follow these simple ethics of human life, taught by Yama and Niyama in eight-fold Yoga, it would purify human nature and contribute to the health, happiness and harmony in our entire world.