Asking More of Us: The Niyamas/Yamas & the 10 Commandments

There are 8 suggested “limbs” to a yoga practice- only one of which is the postures and physical exercises.

The first 2 limbs of yoga are actually the 5 suggestions for spiritual practices (the niyamas) and the 5 behaviors one should avoid to live a spiritual life (the yamas).  These are considered the foundation of a yoga practice.  Without these “life practices”, any exercises, meditations and energetic control will be less effective at creating love, joy, peace and harmony in one’s world (aka: yoga).

While studying these sutras, I was struck by the fact that the ni/yamas bear a very very strong resemblance to the religious and judicial code of the Abrahamic faiths- aka, the 10 commandments of Judaism, Christianity and Islam- but that they are more open ended and demand much more of the practitioner.

Let’s take yamas- yoga’s suggested restraints.  In the Talmud, the Old Testament and the Koran for example, there are commandments against Murder, Adultery, Stealing, Coveting thy Neighbors’s stuff, and Bearing False Witness.  In Yoga, the parallel Yamas call for Nonviolence, Restraint of Sexual Energy, Non Stealing, Non Greed, and Truth Telling.  In each parallel example, the yogic yama is making a much higher introspectively driven  behavioral demand on the individual:

  • Truth Telling (Satya) for example, is a practice not only of not lying, but of awareness of what is, and the speaking of those truths- not simply avoiding false witness.
  • Non Greed (Aparigraha), is a much more expansive concept than not coveting your neighbor’s stuff-  it applies equally to not using more than your share of the world’s resources, or perhaps more importantly, to not being in the mental state of always wanting more, more, more.
  • Restraint of sexual energy (Brahmacharya), may sound less proscriptive than the prohibition against adultery, but in fact calls for more self control- to know even when inside a blessed relationship how to use your sexual powers for good.

Now, you may say that I jumped to the easy ones- the second 5 commandments that are the easy matches with the yogic texts, but I think the same case can be made with the sutras and the first 5 commandments as well.

Take for example the first 3 of the 10 commandments- all ways of putting god first.   The Yogic sutra that corresponds to these is one that advises the aspirant to practice “Ishvara-pranidhana”- or single minded focus on god in all things.  That seems to be to be a higher bar than not making idols, not taking the name of the lord in vain, or having no other gods before god.  The yogic god idea is also all encompassing as the great reality:  a broader conception of god, much more than a sort of uber-tribal elder.

There are some shaky correlations to the remaining commandments:  Yoga suggests that we actively practice contentment or appreciation (Santosha) whereas in the 10 commandments, the closest I can come is “appreciating or honoring your mother and father”.    Yoga suggests that we practice “fire” or austerity (Tapas)- turning the heat up on ourselves in the way we live, and Purity/Cleanliness (Saucha)- whose closest parallel is the commandments is “keeping the sabbath holy”.

But, possibly the most important omission from the commandments relative to the Yogic guidelines is the one than enables all the other broad suggestions for living the good life, and that is the Niyama of self-study- or Svadyaya.

It is this text- Svadyaya- that seems to be the lynchpin differentiator.  It suggests that a daily practice of self examination, self awareness and self study is missing as a foundational principle in the 10 guidelines in the Abramahic traditions.

Why does this matter?  Without self study you actually have to tell people not to murder.  But with self study and an admonishment to general non violence, you actually get a much stronger set of behaviors- not just absence of murder, but peaceful speech and loving interaction.

I know the rational atheists out there have their own versions of the 10 commandments, that are about living in society with respect and joy. For me the ancient wisdom of this tradition serves us well without dogma, and hits a secular/metaphysical note that chimes just right.

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