The Sweet Spot: Grooving in the Yamas and Niyamas

In The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work, Christine Carter advises readers on how to achieve that coveted position “where you have the greatest strength, but also the greatest ease.” Many of Carter’s suggestions for attaining this sweet spot involve some trial and error, but mostly she discusses practices that, once mastered, become habits that can place you in that balanced groove. Carter’s approach is especially appealing because she does not suggest that everyone has the same sweet spot, though she does assert that we can all find our own sweet spots in a similar manner (hence the book).

I propose that as twenty-first century yogis, we approach the yamas and niyamas with a methodology akin to Carter’s in The Sweet Spot – with trial and error, practice, a recognition of the nuances inherent in Patanjali’s precepts, and, most importantly, a fairly constant self-assessment that considers all ten precepts. Because finding the sweet spot in embodying this portion of Patanjali’s philosophy requires balancing ten tenets that can sometimes conflict. Are there times when the truth might cause harm? Are there moments when we must sacrifice some contentment in the name of self-discipline? If and when it becomes an ingrained part of one’s daily habits, a full and fulfilling yama/niyama practice can exist with some ease, but it will never be easy.

In Book II of the sutras, the book generally considered the one most focused on “practice” of the yogic lifestyle and philosophy, Patanjali details the eight limbs of yoga. The five yamas and five niyamas form the first and second branches, respectively, of these eight limbs. These ten guidelines are like ready-made New Years resolutions.  The yamas primarily focus on our actions when in community with others while the niyamas focus more generally on our relationship with our physical and psychological selves. In his commentary on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Charles Johnston dubs the yamas “commandments” and the niyamas “rules” and differentiates them in the following manner:

…we can see that these Rules are the same in essence as the Commandments, but on a higher, more spiritual plane. The Commandments may be obeyed in outer acts and abstinences; the Rules demand obedience of the heart and spirit, a far more awakened and more positive consciousness. The Rules are the spiritual counterpart of the Commandments, and they have finer degrees, for more advanced spiritual growth.

Both the yamas and the niyamas can apply to large, long-term goals for living, as well as the small decisions we make daily in our interactions with others. My approach to discussing them below will address both these levels. How do we live with skill and ethics, peace and self-protection, in a world that is not necessarily following these precepts as well? In particular, how do we enact these principles when they seem at cross-purposes?

I do not have the space here to discuss each yama and niyama in depth (please explore our archives for some excellent discussions of individual yamas and niyamas). Instead my goal is to suggest a general method of incorporating these ten principles in your life, such that they become a habitual part of your decision-making process. Honoring the spirit of Patanjali, however, I do provide the sutra for each yama and niyama below because one-word translations do not give enough of a sense of their meanings. I use English translations for each sutra quotations in this article, relying on Sri Swami Satchinanda’s translation of the Yoga Sutras. For additional translations, please visit the Online Study Resource for the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, a complex and truly useful digital tool for anyone studying the sutras. But first, a little more overview on why these two limbs of yoga are so important in living your yoga.

As I noted in an earlier blog post on Ahimsa, the yamas can be read as “what not to do” – the Sanskrit word yama translates most literally as “restraint” or “abstinence” – though I prefer to think of them more in terms of positive guides for action rather than restrictive codes against certain behaviors. But linguistically, it is still easier to translate each by centering the action not to be taken. So, in order they are: Ahimsa, or non-violence; Satya, or truthfulness; Asteya, or non-stealing; Brahmacharya, or continence; and Aparigraha, or non-greed. Patanjali asserts that the yamas are “universal, not limited by class, place, time or circumstance” (Sutra 2.31).

The niyamas translate most literally as “observances” and so are more easily viewed as positive guidelines, though they are not as popularly cited as the yamas. In order, the niyamas are: Saucha, or purity; Santosha, or contentment; Tapas, or Self-discipline; Svadhyaya, or Self-study; and Ishvara Pranidhana, or surrender to a supreme being. The niyamas, particularly the last two, are not as prevalent in Western yogic discourse as the yamas. This may be due to their solitary nature, requiring, as Johnston suggests above, more inner work from the yogi; they are also more difficult to measure or evaluate, because they do not involve outside forces. Nevertheless, they are just as vital to practice in building a yogic life.

Given that Patanjali places the yamas and the niyamas at the beginning of the eight limbs of yoga - before asana, before meditation, before enlightenment – we should think of them as foundational to the practice of yoga. Patanjali lists the yamas and niyamas in sutras 2.30 and 2.32 respectively, but then moves on to treat each one separately, emphasizing the practice and the reward to be gained from practicing each successfully. In order, the relevant sutras (2.35 – 2.45) are as follows:

  • Ahimsa – In the presence of one firmly established in non-violence, all hostilities cease.
  • SatyaTo one established in truthfulness, actions and their results become subservient.
  • AsteyaTo one established in non-stealing, all wealth comes.
  • BrahmacharyaBy one established in continence, vigor is gained.
  • AparigrahaWhen non-greed is confirmed, a thorough illumination of the how and why of one's birth comes.
     
  • SauchaBy purification arises disgust for one's own body and for contact with other bodies. Moreover, one gains purity of sattva, cheerfulness of mind, one-pointedness, mastery over the senses, and fitness for Self-realization.
  • SantoshaBy contentment, supreme joy is gained.
  • TapasBy austerity, impurities of body and senses are destroyed and occult powers gained.
  • SvadhyayaBy study of spiritual books comes communion with one's chosen deity.
  • Ishvara PranidhanaBy total surrender to God, samadhi is attained.

It can be argued that the individual yamas and niyamas are listed in terms of ease of practice, with for example non-violence/ahimsa being an easier entry-point for a new practitioner than non-greed/aparigraha and therefore the yamas being less difficult that the niyamas. However, given that our natures and attachments are varied and various, those who embark on this path of practice will find some yamas or niyamas more difficult than others. We each must find our own sweet spots within these first two limbs on Patanjali’s hierarchy.

The formulaic structure of each entry in Patanjali’s list, however, should not be overlooked. He first states the virtue that is to be practiced, and then lists the reward for successfully making that virtue a habit. This is not just poetic parallelism, it is proven strategy. Even as we also practice non-attachment to results, we like to know what we are working toward; we like to know what reward to expect for practicing particular behaviors. Patanjali lays out the rationale for each yama and niyama and whether you read them as literal – the vigor gained from Brahmacharya – or metaphorical – a “thorough illumination of the how and why of one's birth”? – there is still a reward linked to each principle.

Back to Carter’s Sweet Spot for a moment. In her book, she discusses this behavior/reward connection in establishing habits (which is what, ideally, our practice of the yamas and niyamas will approximate). Her research confirms that disconnected external rewards are not as effective as intrinsic to the behavior, supporting Patanjali’s centuries-old approach.  On the practical side, Carter suggests that in making your way to your groove, you start with micro-habits, or baby steps, in order to get the ball rolling to a bigger version of the practice you wish to make habitual.

In this case, there are ten balls to get rolling into one large yama/niyama practice, so not only should you think in terms of baby steps when building this practice, but you should also take one (baby) step at a time. Ten “commandments” and “rules” are a lot to work on at one time, but you do not have to begin them all at once. The yogic path is one of practice and there is time and space for gradual progress along this path. The keys here are constancy and commitment (abhyasa) and detachment (vairagya) from linear definitions of progress.

Of course, the ultimate sweet spot is Samadhi, but no one begins there. And even after Samadhi, one still has to live in balance with this newfound enlightenment (for an excellent discussion of this, see Jack Kornfield’s book, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry). So, along the way to enlightenment, find your various sweet spots along the way. What does your santosha look like at this point in your life? How do you want it to look? How might the latter desire be more about greed than satya? How is spiritual study and tapas vital to discovering your sweet spot amongst the ten precepts? And what might you be stealing from one to give to the other?

No one else can accurately prescribe the specifics of your yama/niyama practice for you but yourself. Indeed, the finer points of your definitions of things like harm and purity, santosha and aparigraha will change over time, so even present-day you cannot prescribe a practice for future you. You will need to check-in with your practice regularly, assessing if you are in harmony across the ten precepts, to ensure that you achieve and maintain that sweet spot in your yama/niyama practice.


Kelly Josephs. An old Raquel Welch book on beauty, tucked away on a shelf in the public library, introduced Kelly to yoga in her teens and set her on a lifelong love affair with the practice. Kelly’s yoga practice helped sustain her through graduate study and after completing her PhD in literature and assuming a faculty position, she certified to teach with YogaFit in 2007. She later continued her yoga studies and completed her 200-hour and 500-hour certifications with Yogaworks. She has also done additional training to work with the families of addicts and terminally ill patients, a population whose need for self-care is often over-looked. Kelly believes changing people’s bodies can change their lives and so she teaches classes with an emphasis on strength balanced by meditative movement that prepares the body, heart, and mind to open to transformation. She teaches at Yogaworks and RetroFitness in Brooklyn. She can be found blogging somewhat regularly atcalmstrength.net and more often on Twitter at @kbjosephs.


Kelly Josephs. An old Raquel Welch book on beauty, tucked away on a shelf in the public library, introduced Kelly to yoga in her teens and set her on a lifelong love affair with the practice. Kelly’s yoga practice helped sustain her through graduate study and after completing her PhD in literature and assuming a faculty position, she certified to teach with YogaFit in 2007. She later continued her yoga studies and completed her 200-hour and 500-hour certifications with Yogaworks. She has also done additional training to work with the families of addicts and terminally ill patients, a population whose need for self-care is often over-looked. Kelly believes changing people’s bodies can change their lives and so she teaches classes with an emphasis on strength balanced by meditative movement that prepares the body, heart, and mind to open to transformation. She teaches at Yogaworks and RetroFitness in Brooklyn. She can be found blogging somewhat regularly atcalmstrength.net and more often on Twitter at @kbjosephs.

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