The first step of Patanjali’s Noble Eightfold Path


  1. Yama (morality)
  2. Niyama (observances)
  3. Asana (sitting posture)
  4. Pranayama (awareness of the natural uncontrolled breath)
  5. Pratyahara (withdrawing the senses)
  6. Dharana (momentary concentration)
  7. Dhyana (access concentration)
  8. Samadhi (absorbtion concentration)

Patanjali, a great Yogi who lived in India around 100BC is the author of the Yoga Sutras. He outlines a system to free the mind from negative habit patterns so that it can dwell permanently in happiness and peace. Patanjali teaches an eightfold path to achieve this goal, based closely on the noble eightfold path of Buddha, his predecessor by 300 years. There is a common misconception that Patanjali is referring to physical yoga in his eightfold path, particularly when he mentions asana and pranayama. In fact Patanjali’s science is purely pertaining to the mind. Asana refers to the sitting posture for meditation and pranyama refers to the practice of observing the natural breath in meditation. Patanjali’s principles can be helpfully applied to physical yoga to deepen our understanding, however it is important to remember that Hatha Yoga was a separate system developed by the Nath Gurus and that Patanjali focused entirely on the science of mind.

The Five Yama

The first and foremost step that Patanjali teaches is Yama. These are the five yama principles:

  1. Ahimsa – nonviolence (to remove anger or hatred from the mind)
  2. Asteya – non stealing (to remove greed from the mind)
  3. Satya – truthfulness (to remove fear from the mind)
  4. Brahmacharya – non sexual misconduct (to remove lust from the mind)
  5. Apaarigraha – non intoxication/ addiction (to prevent slavery of the mind)

The resolution to give up any action which causes harm to ourselves or others by body, speech or mind is the foundation stone of the path of Yoga. Buddha calls these principles ‘Sila’ and they are the first principle of Buddhist Dhamma. Buddha and Patanjali teach us that matter how much meditation, how many rituals, how many spiritual books we read or how much charity we do, it is of no use without this basic morality.

This code of conduct is also recognizable in the tenets of most of the major religions throughout the world. If people of the world maintained these five basic principles it would be a very different place, free from violence, terrorism, corruption, addiction and sexual abuse.

The Five Sila

Yama is the first step on Patanjali’s Noble Eightfold Path. Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path further categorizes Sila into three main areas, right speech, action and livelihood correspond to the five yamas.

Right speech (Sammavaca) consists firstly of abstaining from speaking untruth. It also includes avoiding harsh words that may cause hurt to someone. Here, the volition is important. At times a teacher may reprimand a student or a mother may speak firmly to a child. If the intention is to help the other person, to set them on the right path and if the words however stern are spoken with compassion in the mind then this is not considered to be harsh speech. There are many instances when Buddha admonished his monks for their mistakes. Another aspect of right speech is to avoid backbiting or slanderous speech. The principle is to try as much as possible to discuss peoples’ good qualities rather than dwelling on their weaknesses. If you have to mention someone’s weaknesses then keep it to a minimum and do not elaborate much. The precept of refraining from idle gossip is also part of Right Speech.

Right Action (Samma-kammanto) includes avoiding harming or killing any living being, not stealing and not misusing ones sexuality. This would refer to any sexual activity that may cause emotional or physical harm to oneself or others such as cheating on a partner. When there is a commitment to compassion, honesty and respect for others, our action becomes right (samma).

Right Livelihood (Samma-ajivo) advocates that we avoid certain occupations of an unwholesome nature. These include: butchery/ killing animals for a living, manufacturing or trading in arms and weapons, manufacturing or trading in drugs and alcohol and manufacturing or trading in poisons and pesticides.

Why are these 5 principles so important?

On the path of yoga the goal is to remove all negative tendencies from the mind. That is why the first step is to stop doing any action that increases those tendencies and reinforces unwholesome behavioral patterns. For example, every time we tell a lie we increase the stock of fear in the unconscious mind. If we want to live without fear, the first thing we do is to make a commitment to always tell the truth. It is not possible to experience anger and peace simultaneously. When we shout at someone we flood our bodies with adrenalin and other unpleasant chemicals that get deposited as a cellular memory at the unconscious level of the mind. These stored impurities will eventually resurface and find a new object to attach themselves to. Or they may manifest as health problems. It is said that if we shout at one person, in turn 100 people will shout at us sometime in our future. This is the law of karma; cause and effect, seed and fruit, stimulus and response. When we cause harm to anyone else through our negative actions, we simultaneously cause much more harm to our selves.

The volition behind the action has the effect of making it weak or strong, so for example accidentally treading on an ant is not breaking the principle of non-violence as long as it was not done out of strong negligence or carelessness. However, if we curse someone or wish ill on them mentally, even if we do not outwardly do anything to harm them, the violent action of the mind has been performed and we will reap the results. For this reason refraining mentally from unwholesome actions is specifically mentioned. For example, having the intention to confuse or mislead someone amounts to breaking sila even if the words uttered are not literally a lie. Likewise, covetousness is the mental violation of the principle of non-stealing even if the hand does not touch the object of desire. The first step is to refrain from the action outwardly by body and speech but just as important is developing the mental tendency to shrink away from any thoughts of hatred, greed for others belongings, excessive or inappropriate lust, deception and desire for intoxication.

Maintaining the five Yama principles gives the aspirant a sense of confidence and relief. It creates a lightness and calmness in the mind. The calmer the seas, the deeper we can dive. When the seas are choppy and stormy, it is very difficult to enter the water. In order to practice meditation effectively, we must create the conditions that will reduce mental agitation so that we can concentrate and explore the mind.