History of the Yamas and Niyamas
This section, relating to the history of the Yamas and Niyamas, is an ongoing work in progress; as I, intending to be a lifelong student of Yoga, continue to deepen and broaden my relationship with, and understanding of the practice, and with the Yamas and Niyamas especially so. There is a complexity to the history of the Yamas and Niyamas simply because they arise within Classical Yoga from the hidden nature of 6000 years of known Indian history, and our western translation of that history. I do not claim to be a historian, nor am I attempting to cover all of Yogic history here, but I will share, what I do know so far, specific toward the Yamas and Niyamas and their inclusion in Classical Yoga. I hope, over time and in the nature of Yoga, for the addition of continual notes and references. For now, it’s as described here: Specifically addressing where did the Yamas (practices of restraint) and Niyamas (practices of discipline) come from, and how is it that they are included as techniques that are helpful to uncovering layers of ourselves toward inner freedom, as described by Patanjali?
As a science, Classical Yoga is laid out in a logical “eight limb” or eight step sequence (Yoga’s “Eightfold Path”) that stems from philosophies, or rather, what was a lifestyle, as in the case of the first two steps, the Yamas and Niyamas. The precise and sequential way that the “Eightfold Path” of Yoga is shared, was laid out by a man named Patanjali, of whom there is little known. Hints throughout historical documents and his writings on Grammar, suggest that Patanjali was alive during the point in time of 184-148 BCE of Earth’s documented history (those dates aren’t his lifespan, they’re merely a timeframe with reference). Just as he developed writings on Grammar for the purpose of purity of speech, Patanjali developed the Yoga Sutras of Classical Yoga for the purpose of purification of the mind. The Yoga Sutras were the first systematic presentation of Yoga, acting as an account of techniques used by Sages for a free and peaceful mind.
Having been compiled in an order of precision, the Sutras (or “verses”) themselves, as Patanjali wrote them, are able to fit on a single page document. This sequence, as laid out, eliminates impurities of the mind, acting as an answer for those seeking liberation from the bondage of themselves…not at the negation of self, but free from the pulls of self. By threading philosophies into the structured Sutra’s form, Patanjali brought influence of Jainism, as reflected in the first two steps, or the Yamas and NIyamas, whereas meditation is a later-period Buddhist influence. Meaning, the Eightfold Path, which unfolds as a prescription for liberation, extracted the best from what was essentially a commonplace lifestyle of right living through the Yamas: ie. non violence being the core value of Jainism, and such practices seen in the older Vedic Yoga, such as the three practices of Kriya Yoga, which are included as the final three of the Niyamas. Seeing that the ethical principles and lifestyle practices that are the Yamas and Niyamas extend from a philosophy older than the science of the Yoga Sutras, from where do they come? The philosophy of Samkhya.
Samkhya, defined as “accurate knowledge”, reaches back to an ancient peace-loving people of the Indus Valley region, known as the Harappan Civilization (dates leaning toward 2600BCE), equivalent in scale, education and prosperity, to that of Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. Archeological finds from this region have uncovered evidence revealing it to have been a matriarchal civilization. Ancient seals discovered in the region, disclose images not only of the status of women in this civilization, but depict them seated in what is identified as the Hatha Yoga posture of Bhadrasana, compounding indications of Samkhyan philosophy. Further, without evidence of any kind of central figurehead nor organized rulership, it is considered to have been a society that was free from violence (the first principle of the Yamas). Without authoritarian rule, it appears that civil discipline (the Yamas as self-discipline) seemed a natural way of life for these people.
Therefore, Classical Yoga lies on a bed of tradition that relies on the Dharmic foundation of right living, through the Yamas and Niyamas. This sees them then, as a significant foundation from which to follow the path of spiritual liberation through the remaining “limbs”. This is because they endure, they bring forward enduring traits of our humanity, and demonstrate our natural inclination toward right living. As in all Yoga, the real learning is through personal experience, understanding, and insight, through dedicated and sincere practice, becoming familiar with how our own inner Guru lives in and guides our own lives. In this way we uncover our true selves, freeing ourselves from our own turbulence and attachments, as a way to eliminate suffering. In Yoga, the One who masters the self is considered the true hero, otherwise known as Mahaveer.
*Indus Valley image credit: By Avantiputra7 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33202416
*Trimurti in Elephanta Caves image credit: By Ricardo Martins - originally posted to Flickr as Shiva @ Elephanta Caves, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6997547