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The Yamas Explained

While you continue to practise yoga, do you find a seed of curiosity germinating about the history and philosophy of yoga? Do you want to dive a wee bit deeper into the essence of yoga? As I have said time and time again, yoga is more than just physical postures; it is a philosophy that offers timeless wisdom for a meaningful and balanced life. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, a key text on yoga written over 2000 years ago, the eight-limb path of yoga is used to demonstrate the central principles of yoga. I have an entire article dedicated to explaining the eight limbs of yoga and in this article, I am going to dive deeper into the Yamas, the first limb of yoga.


Why are the Yamas the first limb of yoga?

The eight-limb path is used to demonstrate the central principles of yoga and is a clear framework that you can return to again and again to deepen and expand your understanding and practise of yoga. The eight limbs comprise: the Yamas (moral disciplines, ethics), the Niyamas (positive duties or observances), Asana (posture, physical movement of the body), Pranayama (breathing techniques), Pratyahara (withdrawal of senses), Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation) and Samadhi (enlightenment). The Yamas serve as the foundation of your yoga practice and are primarily concerned with the world around us, our interaction with it and are a guide of how to act towards ourselves and others. By considering these aspects of your life as part of your yoga practice both on and off the mat, all your actions and decisions in the world come from a more mindful and considerate place.


The word Yama is often translated as ‘restraint’, ‘moral discipline’ or ‘moral vow’, and Patanjali states that these vows are completely universal, regardless of who you are and where you come from, your current situation or where you are going. To be ‘moral’ can be challenging, which is why this is considered such an important part of yoga. The Yamas are designed to provide the peace, energy and time required for spiritual practice. When we are caught up in emotional disturbance, energetic drain and the time-consuming nature of greediness, addictive behaviours, lying, stealing, and causing harm to ourselves and others, it becomes extremely difficult to pursue the practice of yoga. It can be difficult in the long run to sustain a balanced and meaningful yoga practice without integrating these ethical precepts.


Why do you observe the Yamas?

The Yamas are both a prerequisite for and an expression of spiritual liberation (the journey of yoga). If yoga is viewed as a means of overcoming mental disturbances and afflictions (for example, ruminating, anxious thoughts and feelings, lack of focus and concentration), it makes intuitive sense to reduce conflict in our larger lives. The word yoga means ‘unity’, ‘wholeness’, or ‘connectedness’, and this creation of unity and the benefits of yoga can only be cultivated by translating the teachings of yoga off the mat and the meditation cushion and into our day-to-day lives. The practice of the Yamas also points to a larger theme in Indian philosophical traditions which emphasises the importance of taking responsibility for our moral legacy. By acknowledging our failures and cultivating an attitude that seeks constructive ways to address and grow beyond them, we can prevent destructive patterns from destroying ourselves, others and our broader society.

Who are the Yamas for?

Yoga as a philosophical way of living your life is not only for those renouncing everyday life; dedicating their life or a stage of their life to the practice of yoga and retreating to live in a cave in the wilderness. Yoga is also for me and you. Yoga of the ‘householder’ (those who lead a life engaged in social and familial responsibilities as referred to in many yogic texts) is as valid and as profound as the yoga practised in monastic traditions. The Yamas, and the wider eight limbs of yoga acknowledge the different contexts in which they can be observed and the observance of these Yamas is adapted to the realities of social life or the realities of a monastic life. And in fact, there are opportunities for spiritual growth in both contexts. For example, the experience differs for practitioners who have chosen renunciation of household life; they can fully invest in the practice and surround themselves with others who are on a similar path. Monastic traditions are rooted in the notion that spiritual progress can be enhanced or accelerated by participation in intensive spiritual communities. For a householder, they will not have this time to dedicate to spiritual growth, however, you can argue that long-term relationships, having children, interacting daily with friends, family and co-workers all offer experiences that encourage mastery over our emotions and actions. There is also crossover; those dedicated to living in spiritual communion will often teach householders and householders will often attend retreats to dedicate time to their yoga practice.


What are the five Yamas?

Let’s delve into each Yama individually:


1. Ahimsa (non-harming or non-violence in thought, communication, and action)

Ahimsa, or non-harming, can be seen as the foundation principle behind all the Yamas. The observance of truthfulness, non-stealing, restraint from addictive behaviours and non-greed all stem from the intention of avoiding harm to ourselves and others. Ahimsa is understood as refraining from physically harming or killing humans, animals, and other living beings. However, Ahimsa also extends beyond the physical realm and includes harmful thoughts, words, and intentions, both externally to other people, animals and living beings but also internally, by the thoughts, words, and intentions that we express within our inner landscape. The practice of Ahimsa begins with us and by being compassionate towards ourselves, this Yama teaches us that we can be more compassionate to others. We can engage more compassionately and practise more effectively by releasing internal struggles with self-judgement and anger. Non-violence or non-harming as an action is not just acts of destruction, it is also awareness of how we interact with the world, our environment and our society and the impact that has. Ahimsa encourages us to bring awareness to our consumption and the moral implications of our choices, for example our diet (although it is not prescriptive about certain diets) and our impact on the welfare of others. The teachings of yoga are rooted in caring for ourselves, our communities, and the world around us.


2. Satya (truthfulness)

Satya, or truthfulness, emphasises speaking truthfully with honesty, integrity, authenticity, and conscientious communication. Satya is not about ‘brutal honesty’ but more about speaking with care, avoiding destructive criticism, and cultivating a mindful approach to relationships. Words have impact both externally and internally and therefore, this honest approach to communication also encompasses your inner dialogue. Experiencing the world with truthfulness means aligning how you perceive the world with the reality of the world. Satya helps to maintain your inner and outer integrity and helps to build deeper connections based on trust and sincerity.


3. Asteya (non-stealing)

Again, the observance of Asteya, or non-stealing, goes far beyond the literal translation. Yes, stealing material possessions is an example of causing harm to others, but you can also steal someone’s ideas and someone’s energy. Value is linked to money and material goods but it is also linked to our time, our mental and physical energy and our intellectual property. Asteya calls for unearthing the subtle ways in which we may take what is not ours or participate in systems that harm others. Asteya calls for mindfulness in our actions and by practising non-stealing, we contribute to a more equitable and compassionate world. Asteya also further demonstrates the concept of yoga creating ‘wholeness’, ‘unity’ and ‘connection’. By practising yoga and exploring Asteya, we can cultivate more wholeness and less lacking within ourselves and this place of lack is often the root of stealing. The need to steal arises because of a lack of faith in ourselves to be able to create what we need for ourselves and the moment we feel a sense of ‘lack’ in life then desire, want and greed arises. By following the teachings of yoga, we can move further towards feeling as though we already are enough, and we already have enough.


4. Brahmacharya (celibacy, chastity, integrity in sexual relationships, right use of energy)

Brahmacharya is an example of a Yama where different contexts might observe this Yama differently. The yogic texts recognise that ‘householders’ will probably experience sexual relationships and that those renouncing ‘householder’ life might practice celibacy for a stage of their life or for the rest of their life. Brahmacharya teaches that sexual expression, like all actions, should not cause harm to oneself or others. Brahmacharya can also be translated as ‘right use of energy’. Traditionally, the idea was that practising celibacy would conserve your energy to further the progress along the Yogic path. When you consider this translation for the ‘householder’, the Yama teaches the practitioner to reflect on how they use and direct their energy. The teachings highlight the importance of maintaining respectful relationships, practising self-control, and conserving vital energy. When you direct your energy away from addictive behaviours and other external desires, you can begin to focus on nurturing peace and contentment within yourself.


5. Aparigraha (non-greed or non-attachment)

The fifth and final Yama is Aparigraha, or non-greed and non-attachment. This Yama invites us to let go of attachments to the material world and to let go of the desire for more possessions and assets. Aparigraha teaches us to recognise the impermance of life and that material possessions can, in fact, weigh us down. Only taking what you need are the foundations of Aparigraha. By removing our attachment and desire for more things and certain outcomes, we create space for truthfulness in our experience of reality and we create space for lightness, appreciation, and gratitude for the present moment. We might become attached to creating a desired outcome. Aparigraha teaches us to focus on the action rather than the outcome because ultimately, we can never control the results of our endeavours in the world. Aparigraha is the epitome of “it is the journey, not the destination” and again, like all four other Yamas, Aparigraha goes far beyond the material world and bleeds into our thoughts and how we process the world around us.


As we continue to observe the Yamas, they become an integral part of our being. As you explore and reflect on what each Yama means for you and how it impacts your life, you begin to recognise that the common thread amongst all five Yamas is this encouragement to cease looking outwards for gratification, peace and contentment. The Yamas offer you an invitation to explore your inner landscape and as your journey evolves, you begin to recognise the peace and contentment that is already within you. Each Yama is interconnected with the other four Yamas and by practising, observing, and exploring each Yama, you can’t help but influence the other Yamas. The Yamas, when practised individually and collectively, strengthen each other. They provide fertile ground for the development of the other seven limbs of yoga and help create the embodiment of enlightened living.


As you embark on your yoga journey, exploring the Yamas can offer profound insights and guidance for living a more meaningful and fulfilling life. Remember, the Yamas are not about perfection but rather an ongoing journey of self-discovery and growth. Embrace the Yamas, integrate them into your daily life, and watch as they transform not only your yoga practice but also your relationships, your mindset, and your overall well-being.


Keep exploring, keep evolving, and let the wisdom of yoga philosophy light your path. May the Yamas inspire you to cultivate compassion, live in truth, respect boundaries, find balance, and let go with grace. As you weave these ancient teachings into your modern life, may they guide you towards a more conscious and vibrant existence.

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