Last week we introduced the 8 Limbs of Yoga, a pathway derived by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. Now we’re going to explore the first part of Ashtanga Yoga – the Yamas.
It can be confusing to learn that Asana is not the first but the third step, since the physical postures are so often the first to be taught in modern Yoga. This is because practicing Asana makes you strong, initially physically but also mentally. It brings health and mental clarity so students can have a good foundation and mindset to then approach the ethical guidelines of Yoga – the Yamas and Niyamas, which Patanjali placed before Asana in the eightfold path.
So, what are the Yamas?
They are restraints regarding interaction with the external world. It is benefical to practice the Yamas as they help with an individual’s personal growth. They cultivate desirable qualities in a yogi (gentleness, honesty, kindness, discipline) which creates a state of being that allows them to live in unity and peace with society.
There are five Yamas, as follows:
1. Ahimsa, Non-Violence
Practising Ahimsa means refraining from causing harm to all living beings. It is one of the reasons why most yogia avoid eating animal products. But Ahimsa does not just apply to physical actions – it also involves speech and thoughts. All living beings have a spark of the shared divine energy, therefore, to hurt another living being is to also hurt yourself, whether it be through physical violence, hurtful words or negative thoughts.
Patanjali defined Ahimsa as a necessary foundation for progress in Yoga, implying that we cannot be truly successful in our Yogasana practice until we purify our deeds off-the-mat too.
2. Satya, Truthfulness
Truthfulness is considered a form of reverence for the divine and is an important virtue in Yoga. We practice Satya, or honesty, by always trying to speak and act with integrity; stating the truth without distortion and choosing silence when we do not know the truth.
We can even apply Satya to the physical Yoga practice. Have you ever pushed through an injury while ignoring pain signals from your body, or allowed your ego to force you into performing a posture that you weren’t ready for? With the virtue of Satya we learn to be honest with ourselves in every moment and this is when we can make real progress in our Yoga practice.
3. Asteya, Non-Stealing
Of course, we should avoid physically taking things from other people without permission – this is stealing in the most basic sense. But the act of stealing can also be done with non-physical objects; for example, we can be guilty of stealing joy, time, energy, relationships, peace, freedom or success from others.
Sometimes, the reason behind the desire to steal is a lack of faith in ourselves. If we lack the belief that we are capable of fulfilling our needs by ourselves, it is tempting to take from others. We can also fool ourselves into thinking that our worldy desires are our actual needs – Asteya means letting go of the desire to possess these things. When we start rejoicing in what others have, rather than being envious, we can find a greater sense of contentment and freedom.
4. Brahmacharya, Right use of energy
In the strictest sense, Brahmacharya translates to celibacy as it means following the path of the Brahman who abstains from sexual activity. However, we can also interpret Brahmacharya in a broader sense: using your energy in the correct way by managing your sensory cravings.
Why should we manage our sensory desires? We can obtain temporary enjoyment by indulging in these cravings, but overindulgence depletes our Prana (vital life force) which leaves us in a worser state in the long term. By practicing Brahmacharya, we can enjoy control over our senses rather than letting them control us. When we are a slave to our desires, our happiness becomes reliant on external factors such as money, status, people and objects. Any dependency like this is unhealthy since nothing in the world is permanent – money can be lost, status can be taken away from us, people can leave and objects can be broken.
Practicing Brahmacharya rejuventates the body and mind, bringing clarity and an opportunity to deepen our spiritual awareness. It teaches us to experience enjoyment from inside, from a source of happiness that is non-fleeting.
5. Aparigraha, Non-Possessiveness
Aparigraha means letting go of greed and attachment to worldly objects. We can practice not being overly attached to our possessions by donating things we no longer need and being conscious when making new purchases.
Non-possessiveness also applies to people and emotions; we do not have control over other people, nor can we control our feelings (positive or negative) – it is their nature to come and go. While it is natural for humans to pursue happiness, having the unrealistic desire to feel happy all the time can ultimately lead to suffering when it is not possible. Instead of being attached to a state of happiness and living in fear of losing it, we can enjoy it while it happens and allow it to pass. The final verses of the poem “Hokusai Says” by Roger Keyes encompass the virtue of Aparigraha in the mind…
“Contentment is life living through you.
Joy is life living through you.
Satisfaction and strength
are life living through you.
Peace is life living through you.
He says don’t be afraid.
Don’t be afraid.
Look, feel, let life take you by the hand.
Let life live through you.”
If you enjoyed learning about the Yamas, you can return next week to read about the second limb of Yoga – the Niyamas!