In yoga philosophy the yamas and niyamas are ethical principles that guide how yoga practitioners should relate to each other and care for ourselves. In the Yoga Sutras, these are referred to as “various forms of absention from evil-doing (yama),” “observances (niyama),” and “basic rules of conduct” to enable the yogi to have peace and live in harmony with herself and others. The Yoga Sutras are attributed to Patanjali, who is known as a sage, but it’s very unlikely that one man wrote these texts – and far more likely that the texts are the culmination of what a group of Patanjali’s disciples wrote over a period of time. B.K.S. Iyengar calls them “universal moral commandments,” “ethical codes,” “universal ethical fundamentals,” and states that “the Yamas and Niyamas are the foundation, the pillars, and the culmination and proof of yogic authenticity.”

How are yamas and niyamas different from the ten commandments?

In some yoga traditions, the overarching goals of the yamas and niyamas overlap with Christian ethics. By observing the yamas and niyamas, we are avoiding behaviors that produce suffering and difficulty, and embracing those that lead to harmony and happiness for ourselves and others. This goal aligns with the second greatest commandment, which is to love your neighbor as yourself — by refraining from murdering, coveting, stealing and committing adultery. Rather than viewing these observances as a list of thou-shalt-nots, both the (ni)yamas and Biblical commandments provide a blueprint for living in society with ease. In the yamas and niyamas, and the 10 commandments there are no thoughts of heaven or hell – rather the core concern is love for God and for humankind. There is no guidance in the Yoga Sutras on how to “do” the yamas and niyamas. In the Bible, there is guidance sprinkled throughout on how to keep the 10 commandments, perform these ultimate acts of love. The wisdom literature (Proverbs, Psalms, Ecclesiastes) is a good place to start as they are easy to read and full of sage advice for living.

What does svadhyaya mean?

The niyama Svadhyaya means the study of self and developing the capacity to find answers without judging or praising ourselves.

How to practice svadhyaya on the mat?

In the wheel pose tutorial  I talked about practicing svadhyaya by breaking down the asana to each of its key actions, which allows us to look within and feel what is going on inside our bodies. Writing these observations in your yoga journal, noticing the differences in the challenges you face each day as you progress through the stages will enable you to build self-awareness— which is the foundation of svadhyaya.

What is svadhyaya off the mat?

Svadhyaya is the process of learning to understand ourselves by watching our thoughts and actions constantly, without judgment. This in turn allows us to uncover our true selves and to act independently from the ego. In some yoga traditions, our true selves (pure consciousness) is hidden by characteristics, beliefs that we hold based on social conditioning and our personal experiences. We can know our true selves by interrogating our assumptions, and our reactions to people and events. Meditation and the study of scriptures and inspirational literature is an integral part of this process, which guides us in our evaluation of our thoughts/actions as aids or impediments to union with God.

Self-awareness is the key to humility and social harmony, particularly in Christian service. Paul advised the early Roman Christians to not think of themselves more highly than they ought, but to take a sober and accurate assessment of themselves. Doing so would have two outcomes: enabling right service to God and preserving harmony within the church and society at large. Our true gifts can be hidden by many factors including pride, low self esteem, or inaction. The key to an honest and accurate evaluation is knowing the basis of our self-worth—which is our identity in Christ. The apostle Paul warns followers of Christ against pride and advises that the best way to remain humble is to remember the source of our gifts. Failing to study/learn what it takes to gain self knowledge can result in a waste of time as we can end up doing what we shouldn’t be doing, or through ignorance/false humility hiding talents that could be of benefit to the community and the world. In our self assessment, the safe-guard against pride or despair is in the realization that our gifts are not our own creation. The undertaking of a sober self assessment is best taken through meditation (quiet reflection), prayer and action. At the same time, it’s important to note that we will better know our talents by doing rather than through long bouts of withdrawal and contemplation.

In comparing the two types of self knowledge, the goals are quite similar- peace and harmony with ourselves and within the context of Christian ethics—service to God and humankind. We are tasked to develop the capacity to find answers without harsh judgment/praise of ourselves. In some yoga traditions the goal of svadhayaya is self realization, while the goal of self-knowledge in Christian ethics is to assess our gifts to better serve God and humankind.

When we practice svadhyaya on the yoga mat — we protect the physical body from injury as we go deeper into challenging asanas/poses. Off the mat, building self awareness expands our minds, hearts and capabilities; and facilitates harmony with ourselves and others. Through this process, we protect the social body from harm by guarding against pride, and directing our energies and talents where they are meant to go.

What are your thoughts to this? How do you practice svadhyaya – both on and off the mat?