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About Foundations of Yoga

Ten Important Principles Every Meditator Should Know

Foundations of Yoga header
Yama and Niyama are often called the Ten Commandments of Yoga, but they have nothing to do with the ideas of sin and virtue or good and evil as dictated by some cosmic potentate. Rather they are determined by a thoroughly practical, pragmatic basis: that which strengthens and facilitates our yoga practice should be observed and that which weakens or hinders it should be avoided.

It is not a matter of being good or bad, but of being wise or foolish. Each one of these Five Don’ts (Yama) and Five Do’s (Niyama) is a supporting, liberating foundation of Yoga.

Yama means self-restraint in the sense of self-mastery, or abstention, and consists of five elements. Niyama means observances, of which there are also five. Read this to learn about these 10 Foundations:

  • Ahimsa: non-violence, non-injury, harmlessness
  • Satya: truthfulness, honesty
  • Asteya: non-stealing, honesty, non-misappropriativeness
  • Brahmacharya: sexual continence in thought, word and deed as well as control of all the senses
  • Aparigraha: non-possessiveness, non-greed, non-selfishness, non-acquisitiveness
  • Shaucha: purity, cleanliness
  • Santosha: contentment, peacefulness
  • Tapas: austerity, practical (i.e., result-producing) spiritual discipline
  • Swadhyaya: introspective self-study, spiritual study
  • Ishwarapranidhana: offering of one’s life to God

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Excerpts from Foundations of Yoga

Satya: truthfulness, honesty

“Satya is said to be speech and thought in conformity with what has been seen or inferred or heard on authority. The speech spoken to convey one’s own experience to others should be not deceitful, nor inaccurate, nor uninformative. It is that uttered for helping all beings. But that uttered to the harm of beings, even if it is what is called truth, when the ultimate aim is merely to injure beings, would not be truth. It would be a wrong.” So says Vyasa.

Shankara says that truthfulness means saying what we have truly come to know is the truth–mostly through our own experience or through contact with sources whose reliability we have experienced for ourselves.

“Untruthfulness in any form puts us out of harmony with the fundamental law of Truth and creates a kind of mental and emotional strain which prevents us from harmonizing and tranquillizing our mind. Truthfulness has to be practiced by the sadhaka because it is absolutely necessary for the unfoldment of intuition. There is nothing which clouds the intuition and practically stops its functioning as much as untruthfulness in all its forms,”

says Taimni regarding the most personal and practical aspect of satya.

Bending the truth, either in leaving out part of the truth or in “stacking the deck” to create a false impression, cannot be engaged in by the yogi. Regarding numbers it is said that “figures do not lie–but liars figure.” The same is true here. Equally heinous is the intentional mixing of lies and truth. (Some liars tell a lot of truth.) This is particularly true in the manipulative endeavors of advertising, politics, and religion.

Refusing to speak the truth, as well as avoiding speaking or facing the truth, is a form of untruth.

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Shaucha: purity, cleanliness.

Shaucha means purity and cleanliness within the context of attaining unobstructed clarity of consciousness. “He is not grasped by the eye nor even by speech nor by other sense-organs, nor by austerity nor by work, but when one’s (intellectual) nature is purified by the light of knowledge then alone he, by meditation, sees Him who is without parts” (Mundaka Upanishad 3.1.8).

“When nature is pure, memory becomes firm. When memory [smriti–memory of our eternal spirit-Self] remains firm, there is release from all knots of the heart. To such a one who has his stains wiped away, Bhagavan Sanatkumara shows the further shore of darkness” (Chandogya Upanishad 7:26:2). Which is why Jesus said: “Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.” (Matthew 5:8) And Saint John: “Every man that hath this hope in Him purifieth himself, even as He is pure.” (I John 3:2-3)

“Internal shaucha is the washing away of the stains of the mind” according to Vyasa. “Shaucha implies purity in seeing and listening… and washing away the stains of the mind, such as desire and anger, by the waters of meditation,” adds Shankara.

Physical cleanliness is important for it eliminates bodily toxins and prevents disease. Inner purification is important for it eliminates mental toxins and prevents inner ills. For the yogi, the most important external aspect of shaucha is purity of diet. This is because the food we eat determines the vibration of our body and our mind. For this reason it is only wisdom to eat a purely vegetarian diet.

Those who carefully–yes, scrupulously–adhere to a vegetarian diet, omitting all meat, fish, and eggs, and avoiding anything that contains them to any degree will perceive how valuable it is to keep such a dietary regimen. (Again, see Spiritual Benefits of a Vegetarian Diet.) Not only will their general health improve greatly (assuming that they eat a balanced and nutritious vegetarian diet), they will see how much lighter and intuitive their minds become.

A vegetarian diet greatly facilitates the practice of meditation, making very subtle states of consciousness readily attainable and perceptible. Those who have eaten meat, fish, and eggs for a long time may have to wait a while before fully gaining the benefits of vegetarianism, but it will not be long before they begin to see its beneficial effects to some degree.

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Swadhyaya: introspective Self-study, spiritual study

Swadhyaya means “Self-study.” This is usually interpreted as the study of the sacred texts which deal with the nature of the true Self (spirit) and its realization. “Swadhyaya is study of works on liberation (moksha),” says Vyasa. “Swadhyaya is study of works on liberation such as the Upanishads,” comments Shankara.

But it also means keeping a careful watch on the ego-based mind so as to be aware of its delusive and destructive tricks. For it is no external “devil” or “Satan” we need fear, but the “enemy within,” the “Dweller at the Threshold” which is our ego-mind complex that has blinded and enslaved us from life to life and has no intention of giving up its domination of us just because we practice a bit of meditation.

Therefore we must be wary of its cunning and subtle ways and carefully analyze the debris it casts up into our consciousness in the form of thoughts and emotions. In this way we will see the direction in which it would pull us. We must take our susceptibility to its machinations most seriously. In swadhyaya we look at and analyze the mind in the calmness and intuition born of meditation.

The highest form of Self-study is that which is known as Atma Vichar–inquiry into the Self (spirit). We must never let go of the vital question: Who am I? We must do all we can to find the answer–not from others or from our intellectual ponderings, but by direct experience of ourselves as pure spirit.

Taimni puts it this way: “Though swadhyaya begins with intellectual study it must be carried through the progressive stages of reflection, meditation, tapas, etc. to the point where the sadhaka is able to gain all knowledge or devotion from within, by his own efforts. That is the significance of the prefix swa (self) in swadhyaya. He leaves all external aids such as books, discourses, etc. and dives into his own mind for everything he needs in his quest.”

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