Rules for living, commandments and yoga

Stone tablet with script
Image CC by Ronit on OpenClipArt

I accidentally heard a programme on the radio with writer, philosopher and broadcaster Alain de Botton who was discussing his atheist ‘commandments’ which are part of his new book ‘Religion for atheists‘. He actually says they are not commandments but virtues, or suggested ways of living to re-focus on ‘being good’.

As I was idly (no, mindfully) washing the dishes at the time I began pondering what my virtues for living would be. I starting thinking of compassion, non-harming of any living thing, honesty, respect. Alain’s list is: resilience, empathy, patience, sacrifice, politeness, humour, self-awareness, forgiveness, hope and confidence. Alain said that his list isn’t necessarily the right list for everyone, but that he wants to get people thinking about what virtues could benefit them. And benefit society.

As I washed up I thought of the yoga connection. Writing around 2000 years ago Patañjali ‘codified’ yoga by writing his yoga ‘sutras‘ (short statements that encapsulate philosophical points). In chapter two Patañjali outlines the eight limbs (or parts) of yoga, of which the yama and the niyama are the first two limbs (Ch 2.29-45). There are five yama and five niyama, and they can be seen in relation to the 10 commandments or other rules for living.

Yama constitute the first limb of yoga and they outline restraints one should practise. They are:

  • ahimsa – non harming, non violence (in word, deed, thought)
  • satya – truth, honesty, sincerity
  • asteya – non-stealing, non-misappropriating
  • brahmacharya – continence, chastity, sexual restraint
  • aparigraha – without possessions, non-acceptance of gifts, non-covertness.


Like the yama, the niyama are the general actions and behaviours that are necessary for a truthful and harmonious life. The niyama ask us to aim for:

  • sauca – cleanliness, purity (internal and external)
  • santosa – contentment
  • tapah – religious fervour, burning desire, discipline
  • svadhyaya – study of the self, studying leading to knowledge of the Self (the universal ‘thing’)
  • Isvara pranidhanani – surrender to god/supreme being.

Unlike de Botton’s virtues which he sees as bringing benefits for society, the yogic reasoning for applying the yama and niyama are to enlighten the yogi and purify the mind and body. By living a more pure and honest life, there will be fewer impurities in the mind and body, and thus the yogi is more likely to reach the ultimate goal of self-realisation. Patañjali goes on to say: “When the body is cleansed, the mind purified and the senses controlled, joyful awareness needed to realise the inner self also comes.” (2.41). Iyenga’s commentary says that “Success or failure at higher levels of consciousness depend on yama and niyama.” (Iyengar, 2002, Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, p. 147).

I see the value in people aiming to live better lives, but my view would be that we should be doing this for the benefit for society, rather than just for our own selves.

We’re now in Lent, when people often give something up for 40 days to represent when Jesus spent 40 days fasting in the wilderness prior to entering the ministry. According to this website though, we shouldn’t think of ‘giving something up’ for Lent, but going deeper to change our behaviour for ever. I think it takes on average 20-60 days to make a habit, so the time is right to choose a quality we wish to incorporate in our lives and give it go from now until Easter, and beyond.

What would your rules for living or virtues be? Here is a list of the Dalai Lama’s 18 rules for living.

4 thoughts on “Rules for living, commandments and yoga

  1. What programme was this and what station? I would like to look it up to see if I can listen to it too – sounds very interesting. Diolch am y sylwadau diddorol.


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