A Reflection on the Yamas and Niyamas of the Eight Limbs of Yoga and Viveka.  

Esther Pockrandt – Australia

Theosophy YN Esther b

What is a tree without strong, deep roots? Just imagine! When storms rage, will the tree be able to weather them or be uprooted?  What too is a tree without strong roots to support its limbs to grow and bear viable fruit? Without strong, vital and deep interconnected roots, limbs will be frail, brittle and vulnerable to any adversity, and without the flexibility to bend and sway with the wind, the limbs will just break. Nature is such an extraordinary teacher, is it not?

Many of the readership here will be Yoga practitioners, maybe even teachers. We may have studied the Yoga Sutras. The Yoga Sutras were compiled by Patanjali, as we know, and they contain the core knowledge of Yoga and are considered guidelines to living a meaningful life.

The Sutras, or guidebook of threads to contemplate, start significantly with one of the 196 aphorisms, yoga chitta vritti nirodha which translates into yoga is the stilling or controlling of the modifications or fluctuations of the mind. This aphorism becomes clearer, by a listing of all the modifications of reality the mind leads us into: the constant brain chatter, modifications through our sense perceptions, distortions of memory, judgements, labels, our emotional charge and beliefs, the stories we tell ourselves and more. Is it any wonder then, that all of these influence the choices we make in life, how we relate, how righteous we are to proclaim our truth, how focused we can stay. Is not life an endless kaleidoscope of choices all day long, even though habit driven, unconsciously mostly, from the moment we open our eyes in the morning?  

When we go back to the metaphor of a tree, are we perhaps able to see the analogy of brittle limbs? Of course, this is a mere proposition. But can we see how the mind chatter which drives all our choices, unconsciously or not, from the mundane and the worldly, when we stay still enough to notice, still enough to watch and listen, how this chatter would undermine the growth of resilient vibrant limbs? We would then see also, how our every and best-intentioned effort, its results, can but be minimised. We might even adjust or modify our choices, with this insight, yet when we have not anchored these in strong enough focused attention, we frustratingly watch, how we still continually break our own rules and resolves.  We all know the merry-go-round very well. We know we should … but we don’t, or we do this thing we should for a little while and then stop. And we justify this by affirming we have freedom of choice … yet, are we truly free? Are we avoiding confronting that something that distracts us from following through? Are we deluding ourselves? How do we become free? How do we gain insight to stop this?

Krishnamurti says in Commentaries on Living: 

There is ignorance when there is no self-knowledge. The ignorant man is he who is unaware of himself, who does not know his own deceits, vanities, envies, and so on. Self-knowledge is freedom.

But what is self-knowledge? In Sanskrit it is called Swadhyaya, self-study.

The Voice of the Silence book SEM MOLD

Madame Blavatsky says in The Voice of the Silence, Fragment I, such a well-used quote by so many, which she translated from the Tibetan Buddhist esoteric text, The Golden Precepts:

The mind is the great slayer of the real

Let the disciple… (or student in pursuit of self-study)

Let the disciple slay the slayer

And the first step to that, the text says, is for the pupil, to

…become indifferent to objects of perception, to seek out the Raja of the senses, the thought producer, he who awakes illusion…

Now that is quite a task, as we might also argue and rightly question, how does the mind, which seems to dominate all we do, our senses too, become witness to itself, and not create more delusion or illusion, of self-deception even?

No wonder Theosophy promotes, its three limbs, study, meditation upon that which we study and the application of those insights in the practice of living, in service!  Of course, there is more which follows the quote above, from The Voice of the Silence, and worthy a further contemplation, as a guide on our quest, just as is the first Yoga Aphorism quoted above.

All of this wisdom of how to gain self-knowledge, to explore the origin of our thoughts, has been passed down to us from those who walked the path before us, just in different cultural contexts, but all talking from the same spiritual heart. Those are the fingers pointing, if we cared to follow just one of the fingers ourselves, not just look at the finger, and debating the finger, but testing the path and prove its worth and truth to ourselves. 

MeisterEckhart 600039509 e39d06dc4c6948f190efc75b3626ef7e

Meister Eckhart

A quote, attributed by some, disputed by others, to Meister Eckhart, a German theologian, and mystic (1260 – 1328) states:Theologians may quarrel, but the mystics of the world speak the same language.

Madame Blavatsky writes in the Preface to The Voice of the Silence:

…such ethics fill volumes upon volumes in eastern literature.

We only need to take a closer look at one of the many fingers pointing, the one pointing towards the Eight Limbs of Yoga. In this guidebook to self-study and to living a contented life, the yamas and niyamas, are listed as the observances we might engage with, which, it is said, form the foundation, without which none of the other limbs would hold, when life’s storms strike, as inevitably they do. In fact, these observances, in a sense reflect that which is described in Madame Blavatsky’s beautiful poem in three parts, The Voice of the Silence, just in another format, looking in from another angle, perhaps in some ways more directive or concrete, for our minds to grasp and to apply to our daily grind

These yamas and niyamas, when we see their merit, by observing these, and how they could change the world in fact, and our own lives to start, what a strong motivator they could be for the consequent life choices we make.  These observances are indeed practical, like a mirror we hold up to ourselves, in how we show up in life, not to beat ourselves up with, nor as a confessional of our short comings, nor to compare ourselves with others, or by which to start judging others, but as a means to deepening our own self-knowledge, our self-study.

We are reminded at this point, of Krishnamurti, and of the theme in many of his recorded talks on what pure observation and intelligence are.  The theme he pursues is for us to observe our thought patterns and to become aware of how socially conditioned we are to judge, analyse and evaluate, which he argues are counterproductive to self-understanding.  Within the context of this article, this caution may be worth considering in our quest, when, what we might now see, or be tempted to evaluate in ourselves, as not being all that pretty. Can we just observe?

Without judging but just observing we become aware of what has in the past driven us in our daily lives, mostly unconsciously. All that, which was the underbelly of the metaphoric iceberg, safely submerged under the water, for image making also, now comes to the surface.  We see our unconscious habits, the masks we wear, our beliefs, our fears even, the cultural customs and celebrations we have accepted unconsciously, all things we have considered normal. We notice the things we unconsciously do, or not do, to belong to, or conform to the tribe, not to stand out, not to offend, for fear of being locked out. It is our comfort zone.

After all, the tribe gives us a sense of place, of worth and fulfills that primordial need for security. 

It takes courage to step out of what is socially and culturally acceptable, doesn’t it?  Many a teenager knows this well, realising, when they have broken loose from the confining old, they have ironically chosen the wrong tribe to follow in their quest of finding their own identity,. Even we as adults find breaking away from the socially accepted hard, although these days, for example, choosing to be a non-smoker, or not partaking in alcohol consumption at social gatherings, are fully acceptable. Vegetarianism also has become fashionable in mainstream society in many cultures, yet it wasn’t like that, not so long ago. Do we ever question our personal motives for the choices we make? Do we see ourselves as part of a bigger picture, even a continuum of consciousness, each little effort contributing to the whole? Sometimes we walk a tight rope, indeed. It is not that easy shuffling our priorities, as in the end all is relationship. It is the dilemma of Arjuna as he dialogues with Krishna, in the epic, Bhagavad Gita.  

Krishnamurti, says, in a 1967 talk given at Saanen, Switzerland:

…there is no escape, ultimately, even to retreat into a monastery or to become a recluse in a cave, because everything is relationship…

Indeed, all we need to do, is ask a nun or a monk about the reality of retreating. The challenges of interrelating persist. They will confirm the above, that there is no escape from ourselves, from the world. Our feelings and thought remain and continue to drive our actions.

In Saanen Krishnamurti continues:

…No one can live without relationship. Relationship implies responsibility, as freedom does. And to be related is to live, that's life, that's existence.

Without a doubt the greatest test of the observances, is in relationship.

However, as all wise teachers throughout the ages continue to say: don’t just believe or blindly follow, but test this out within yourselves, observe, and meditate upon these.

Let us meditate on relationship and see where it leads us in all its constellations.


Ayurvedic Medicine

An Ayurvedic doctor, from a long family lineage of practitioners of this ageless health wisdom of India, once said, when we, Westerners, were all in classification mode, our obsession with labels, of what dosha (body temperament) we and others were:

Forget all that you have studied!  You are all of those doshas all the time, but the dominance of one over the other, is a daily movement for you to observe.  For this you don’t need a fixed system to box everyone into, nor do you need an expert.  YOU are your own best Physician.  All you need to do is OBSERVE:

How alert are you when you wake in the morning, for example? How well did you sleep? Reflect on what you did, or ate, or drank the night or day before, the conversations you had, what you watched and read, what your mind occupied itself with, what you talked about with others…Did you do some physical work or exercise, or were you sedentary most of the time?

And with such observations you will see what dosha imbalances you have created even within a day. And there is your remedy right before you.

In fact, we may recognise the Gunas, the three attributes, the energetic forces which weave together to form the universe and everything in it. These attributes in nature are: tamas, lethargy or ignorance, rajas, passion both negative and positive and sattva, purity, balance and harmony…by which foods also are classified according to their energetic effect on the body system.

And this is transferable advice, is it not?  How deep and interconnected it all is. How awe inspiring it is to see a metaphoric holographic universe unfold before us, of infinite correspondences, the deeper we gaze, eyes and hearts wide-open.

To become aware, awake to all this, is mindfulness practice. The consequences of such awareness are life changing. That mirror we hold up to ourselves daily, is powerful beyond measure for self-study.  How extraordinary it is, when we consider the yamas and niyamas, these daily observances, that they could grow the metaphoric deep roots of the tree, not just be the first two limbs or branches of the tree, but be that fertile ground even, from which the roots grow strong and deep, as is proposed here in this reflection. To see the observances running parallel, like the veins of the tree carrying nutrient upward from the rich humous, which we are actually creating in this process, and thus supporting the six other limbs of Yoga to flourish and bear viable fruit, is a wondrous insight. It is also an organic farmer’s wisdom that if we want a healthy plant we must focus on building up the soil, to be nutrient rich in microbes and compost.  Without this, a plant is prone to all kinds of diseases and insect attack. Are we that unlike plants in our needs?

Yet to stay with that mirror to our daily lives, is a hard one to stick with. Is our soil healthy, balanced? That mirror when we ask, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all”, may not respond how we’d like it to.  No wonder we want to jump ahead. It is indeed hard. As Madame Blavatsky rightly reminds us, it is:

… a road steep and thorny

beset with perils of every kind,

but yet a road …

and yet, we are encouraged to strive onward, despite the lure of short cuts, and by-passes: 

… there is no danger that dauntless courage cannot conquer;

there is no trial that spotless purity cannot pass through;

there is no difficulty that strong intellect* cannot surmount.

For those who win onwards there is reward past all telling—

the power to bless and save humanity …

*(intellect here meaning, the eternal intellect, that which cannot be divided)

And the poem comfortingly ends with:

for those who fail, there are other lives in which success may come.            

                                              Lucifer, Vol. IX, No. 49, September, 1891, p. 4

And elsewhere Madame Blavatsky adds:

It is an occult law moreover, that no man can rise superior to his individual failings without lifting, be it ever so little, the whole body of which he is an integral part.

                                                The Key to Theosophy, London: Theosophical Publishing House, 1987, p. 203 

So, let us remember, that, no effort, no matter how small we think it is, is ever in vain.  Building up the soil that we wish to grow our lives on, is never wasted. There are generations of lives to follow. How consoling, indeed it is, also, that other twin law, reincarnation, and karma, that if we don’t get it this time around fully, we have many lifetimes yet to master this art of living! What an encouragement, that there are no failures, just learning spirals.We surely also are not alone on this quest for a long while yet!

Let us then now make that effort and have a closer look at the yamas and niyamas.

Theosophy YN Esther c

For those of us, however, always curious to jump ahead, to fast track, beyond the yamas and niyamas, or just to see all of this in context, these six, these other limbs are, in order of growth upwards, culminating in samadhi, so the ancient texts say, as follows:

  1. asanas-yoga postures,
  2. pranayama-breath awareness,
  3. pratyahara-withdrawal of the senses,
  4. dharana-concentration,
  5. dhyana-meditation, and the crown of the limbs of the tree,
  6. samadhi-absorption

When now we see the yamas and niyamas in context, isn’t it curious, how asana practice today, is mainly practiced out of context, without these foundations being given as lifestyle recommendations even, as that parallel thread, nor as prerequisites. It is common to say: I’m going to Yoga class, meaning a yoga exercise class, totally unaware of the context in which asanas are meant to be practiced. How more powerful mindful asana practice could be, when the yamas and niyama observances throughout our day have laid a firm foundation for insight also into our asana practice. We could for example observe Tapas and Bramacharya together as we move into our poses.  How more powerful our asana practice could be, if we saw our practice as but one limb of the Yoga practices, in context, as preparatory practices for meditation proper? How powerful our asanas would become, if we practiced them observing our mind chatter, as an insight, that constant battle in our minds, that which also distracts us from building a solid asana practice, a deeply rooted practice of uniting mind and body, to something even bigger still? Are we aware of how our breath changes? What if, we saw our internal thought battles, even as we do our asana practice being mirrored and played out in the world even?  It sure is time for gratitude to our practice, for this opportunity of deep self-study and all that is. We the microcosm of the macrocosm and visa-versa.

thich nhat hanh JPG 3178 1642835551

Thich Nath Hahn

As Thich Nath Hahn says:

We often think of peace as the absence of war, that if powerful countries would reduce

their weapons, arsenals, we could have peace. But if we look deeply into the weapons,

we see our own minds, our own prejudices, fears and ignorance.

                                                            Living Buddha, Living Christ, Goodreads, 1997

There is another quality which in Sanskrit is called, Viveka, discrimination, i.e., knowing the difference, when we make these choices, between that which is a fleeting pleasure, the unreal and the real, the lasting.  And from our own experience we know all about craving. It is this fleeting nature of happiness that is the torture. Are we ever satiated? Discrimination, however helps us recognise this craving trap, or equally torturous trap of aversion, i.e., our likes and dislikes, our judgements. The wisdom gems of old tell us, that it is our attachment to maintaining a fixed state that is the issue, dependant on that external thing. The if only syndrome, that if things were different, if I regain my health, then I will and would be happy.  Yet that which maintains our sense of contentment lies within, it is, where we grow that rich fertile humous, and those deep roots of deep knowing. All earthly things are in fact transitory.  Nature again, our great teacher, as we watch flowers blossom and wilt, as the seasons change.

Viveka, this wisdom teaching reminds us, once fully understood, to make those choiceless choices Krishnamurti talks about, when we have reached a state of self-knowledge where choice no longer is necessary. Where there no longer is confusion, he says, there is no choice, adding, that a mind which makes choices is still a confused mind. 

That’s a big statement, and most of us are not quite there at Krishnamurti’s level of self-knowledge, of total presence to what is. Nevertheless, perhaps we still can be helped by recognising this, even though we are still limited at our stage of development. Opting to take the spiral road, rather than the fast track up to the summit, is perhaps more sustainable for us. Indeed, science tells us that everything moves in spirals in the universe. Let us proceed then and observe, making choices consciously, persevering, despite the many obstacles and distractions. And maybe, just maybe, we will grow those new life enhancing life choices, till they become choiceless choices, we are no longer confused as to what is right action. 

Already we see a parallel teaching in Buddhism emerge, the paramitas, the Four Noble Truths and Eight-Fold Path. When we see the many parallels, like the Beatitudes in Christianity, in Islam and in Indigenous cultures also, we recognise the truth in the statement attributed to Meister Eckhart earlier in this article, worth quoting again:

  …the mystics of the world speak the same language.

Like the facets of a diamond all these wisdoms shine out at us, of how we can attain and maintain an inner happiness, to illuminate and deepen our understanding of the why’s and how’s of our lives, and how to live contented yet more engaged lives. That is the art of living, is it not?

But talk does not cook the rice, nor does reading endless recipes!  We just need to pick one of these facets, follow one of those fingers pointing and start walking.

C W Leadbeater

C.W. Leadbeater

C.W. Leadbeater, in a commentary, rightly notes:

These books put forward ideals which men in the world are not usually prepared to accept. Only so far as a man lives the teaching, will he be able really to understand it. If he does not practice it, it will remain a sealed book to him and he will think of it as unpractical and useless. But any honest effort to live it will at once throw light on it.

                                                            Light on the Path, Third Adyar Edition, 2012

Put simply in At the Feet of the Master by Alcyone, but attributed to Krishnamurti for his instruction in his youth, it reads:

To look to food and say that it is good will not satisfy a starving man;

he must put forth his hand and eat.

                                                               At the Feet of the Master by Alcyone Vesanta Press, 2001

The choices we make in life really are simple. Choice implies not a try, nor a maybe but a YES or a NO. Krishnamurti says the same:

…do it or don't do it, but get on with it...

                                                               Beginnings of Learning, 1975.

So it is with the yamas and niyamas, when we make the choice, to not merely try them out, but to decide on a YES. In fact, there is a muscle test that can be done to test the energetic charge that is created in our body when we focus on the word try and then by contrast test when the word yes or no is either thought about or spoken out loud. If there are Kinesiologists reading this, you will know this. This simple test is quite revealing! How powerful our thoughts and the words we say, are on our energetic systems. There is no commitment in trying unless of course we mean, try and try again, not giving up if first we fail, as the Masters meant try to be understood. In that try there is an absolute unwavering determination, a YES choice.

So, choosing to explore the Yogic system for self-study, we might focus on one of the yamas or niyamas to observe in our day, and at the end of the day reflect. Resolving to do this for a week or maybe even for two weeks or a month, choosing one of these observances for the duration, could become a daily insight meditation upon this particular yama or niyama. What a revealing mindfulness practice this offers, as we are witness to ourselves during the day in all our interactions with ourselves and others, with all of life.  Afterall, all life, as Krishnamurti again reminds us, is relationship. A journal to note down personal insights daily could be helpful and to review also as we journey spiralling onwards.

Finally, may we always remember too, this chart of the observances is mainly a gift from those who walked before us, and their fingers pointing us in a direction, if we care to look and explore further in our pursuit of self-knowledge and so, ultimately be ourselves the change agents in the world.  But again, to stress, these are but their fingers, the fingers of those who went before us wanting to guide us, if we were willing to be guided. It is for us to check it out, to do the work, to cook the rice.

Krishnamurti Humana


To close, here are final words on self-knowledge, self-study, from Krishnamurti:

To learn about yourself, there must be perception to see yourself as you are,

not as you would like to be or trying to change what you are.

                                                                            Public Talk #5 in New Delhi, 24 December 1970


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