Yoga’s Forgotten Foundation


Upakrama उपक्रमः

imageURUDEVA TRAVELED BY AIR OFTEN, AND FROM TIME TO TIME COMMENTED ON HOW PROFESSIONALLY THE FLIGHT CREW HAD CONDUCTED THEMSELVES. HE WOULD ASK, “HOW often do you see a professional team of people misbehave on the job? You’re on a flight from San Francisco to Singapore. Do the stewardesses bicker in the aisle? Of course not. People at this level of business have control of their minds and emotions. If they didn’t, they would soon be replaced. When they are on the job, at least, they follow a code of conduct spelled out in detail by the corporation.” He would go on to say that it’s not unlike the moral code of any religion, outlining sound ethics for respect and harmony among humans. Those seeking to be successful in life strive to fulfill a moral code whether “on the job” or off. Does Hinduism and its scriptures on yoga have such a code? Yes: twenty ethical guidelines called yamas and niyamas, “restraints and observances.”§

These “do’s” and “don’ts” are a common-sense code recorded in the Upanishads, the final section of the 6,000- to 8,000-year-old Vedas, mankind’s oldest body of scripture, and in other holy texts expounding the path of yoga. The yamas and niyamas have been preserved through the centuries as the foundation, the first and second stages, of the eight-staged practice of yoga. Yet, they are fundamental to all beings, expected aims of everyone in society, and assumed to be fully intact for anyone seeking life’s highest aim in the pursuit called yoga. Sage Patanjali (ca 200 BCE), raja yoga’s foremost propounder, told us, “These yamas are not limited by class, country, time (past, present or future) or situation. Hence they are called the universal great vows.” Yogic scholar Swami Brahmananda Saraswati revealed the inner science of yama and niyama. They are the means, he said, to control the vitarkas, the cruel mental waves or thoughts, that when acted upon result in injury to others, untruthfulness, hoarding, discontent, indolence or selfishness. He stated, “For each vitarka you have, you can create its opposite through yama and niyama, and make your life successful.”§

Today’s popular concept of yoga equates it with haha yoga and the practice of the haha yoga āsanas, or postures. Many who practice yoga do so solely for health benefits. However, others pursue it in hopes of reaping the spiritual benefits it offers. It is to these spiritual seekers who have higher consciousness as the goal of their yoga that this book is directed.§

Yoga is also known as ashāga yoga because it consists of eight stages: yama, restraint; niyama, observance; āsana, seat or posture; prāāyāma, mastering life force; pratyāhāra, withdrawal; dharaā, concentration; dhyāna, meditation; and samādhi, God Realization. These two vital stages—yama, the restraints; and niyama, the observances—traditionally precede āsana, but they are omitted in most yoga classes today. We can liken these eight limbs to a tall building. The yamas are the first part of the foundation, like the cement, and the niyamas are the second part, like the steel. Together they provide the support a skyscraper needs to stand. Āsana, prāāyāma and pratyāhāra are like the lower floors, dhāraa, dhyāna, the middle ones, and samādhi is the top floor.§

I remember years ago watching the Transamerica Building in San Francisco being erected. First the construction crew dug down quite a depth with huge equipment. Then massive steel pilings were driven, inches at a time, hundreds of feet into the earth. Then thousands of yards of concrete were poured. The long lineup of cement trucks created a traffic jam in the well-trafficked business district. From the concrete, the steel rose upward as a framework for the rest of the structure. This massive foundation was needed to keep this famous modern pyramid from toppling in an earthquake.§

In spiritual life, without a foundation of good character and discipline, success in yoga will not be lasting. Sooner or later, the earthquakes in our personal life, the times of great stress and difficulty, will bring outbursts of anger or periods of discouragement, causing our higher consciousness to fall back to Earth. To quote from Gurudeva: “It is true that bliss comes from meditation, and it is true that higher consciousness is the heritage of all mankind. However, the ten restraints and their corresponding practices are necessary to maintain bliss consciousness.” We are a soul, a divine being, and it is important to reflect on that Divinity. However, we are living in a physical body, and, therefore, in addition to the soul, we also have an instinctive and intellectual nature. Gurudeva describes this as the three phases of the mind: instinctive, intellectual and superconscious.§

Making progress on the spiritual path requires learning to control the instinctive mind. This is where the yamas come into play. They give us a list of tendencies we need to control. The classical depiction of restraint is the charioteer pulling back on the reins of a team of horses to keep them under control. The practice of the niyamas develops a more cultured nature that takes joy in scriptural study, devotional practices and helping others. It focuses on expressing our soul nature in our outer actions. Together the yamas and niyamas provide the foundation to support our yoga practice so that attainments in higher consciousness can be sustained.§

How Gurudeva Created this Book§

Yoga’s Forgotten Foundation was dictated by Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami during twenty-five afternoon editing sessions with two of his āchāryas at Kauai’s Beachboy Hotel between February 14 and March 26, 1990. Gurudeva was determined to capture the essence of these ancient guidelines and bring them forward to the world in answer to the fallacy that “Hinduism has no code of ethics.” For many decades, he had known only of the five yamas and niyamas that are presented by Sage Patanjali in his Yoga Sūtras and brushed over in nearly all yoga texts as the first and second stages of ashāga yoga. But those ten guidelines were not complete enough to encompass the broad scope of human conduct. In the late sixties, in fact, Gurudeva presented his own unique 36-point code of virtuous, contemplative living, which included planting trees, perfecting an art or craft and leaving beauty where you pass (see Living with Śiva chapter 14, “Life the Great Experience”). So, finding that there was indeed an ancient and much more comprehensive set of twenty yamas and niyamas was like unearthing gold. His swamis discovered these in Rishi Tirumular’s Tirumantiram, a 2,200-year-old yogic scripture written in ancient Tamil, which Gurudeva commissioned Dr. B. Natarajan to translate into English in 1978. Now they had only to be elucidated and brought into the Hindu mainstream through cogent commentary.§

From the outset, Gurudeva envisioned his dissertations being compiled into a book—the very book you now hold in your hands. Sitting with his monastic editing team from 4 to 7pm every day for five weeks, Gurudeva spoke out from the “inner sky” on each virtue and religious practice, responding to specific questions from the two āchāryas to draw forth his wisdom. Gurudeva used to say, “I have good writers upstairs.” The answers were typed into the very first laptop computer we ever owned, a Sony TypeCorder, which recorded the text on micro-cassette tapes, which were downloaded to desktop Macintoshes at the monastery the next day. At that time, there were lots of other projects in process for the Ganapati Kulam (the monastery group that produces publications), most importantly Dancing with Śiva, so all those hours of dictation were neatly set aside for some future date when they could be compiled, cleaned up (it was horribly difficult to type on that stiff Sony keyboard) and brought back to the table for editing suggestions and for further input from Gurudeva. As unlikely as it would have seemed then, those precious manuscripts would lie untouched for a full ten years, until the turn of the millennium, when Gurudeva turned his attention to Living with Śiva, the third massive tome in his Master Course trilogy. In fact, Gurudeva considered these yamas and niyamas the heart and core of that thousand-page masterpiece on Hinduism’s contemporary culture. He worked on Living with Śiva at his editing sessions every day for almost two years, beginning in 1999, driven inwardly to complete it.§

It was only after Gurudeva’s passing into the Śivaloka in 2001 that the idea reemerged of a separate small book presenting this ancient and now fully illuminated “code of conduct.” I was inspired to extract and repurpose it to reach a broader audience as a handbook for spiritual life. Like Gurudeva, I was concerned that so many seekers are unaware of these guidelines for good character and self-discipline and therefore are not properly prepared for the practice of yoga, or even to live a wholesome, spiritual life.§


Satguru Bodhinatha Veylanswami§

163rd Jagadāchārya of the Nandinātha§

Sampradāya’s Kailāsa Paramparā§

Guru Mahāsannidhānam§

Kauai Aadheenam, Hawaii§