The Yamas

Posted in Yoga on 29th November 2023

Although the guidance in the philosophies was developed long ago, with a little thought it can  easily be applied to modern life.

The Yamas are the first of the Eight Limbs of Yoga.

They encourage us to be aware of our thoughts and actions and so by being conscious we can change our behaviour and become empowered to shape our own destiny By acknowledging that we can be prone to negative thought patterns if we don’t check in with ourselves we are able to move into a higher sense of being and not get drawn into the chaos of the world.

The Yamas

Yamas means “restraint” or “modifying” in Sanskrit. In yoga philosophy, the Yamas are those things we should refrain from doing. When you use the Yamas to improve your self-control (restraint) and purify your intentions, your experience of life is better.

The 5 Yamas in Yoga?

 Many yogic texts describe five  or 10 Yamas, Yamas

The five below can be found in the  The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali:

  • Ahimsa (non-violence)
  • Satya (truth)
  • Asteya (non-stealing)
  • Brahmacharya (non-indulgence)
  • Aparigraha (non-possessiveness)

A further five Yamas have been described in various other texts:

  • Ksama (patience, forgiveness)
  • Dhrti (fortitude, perseverance with the aim to reach the goal)
  • Daya (compassion)
  • Arjava (non-hypocrisy, sincerity)
  • Mitahara (measured diet)

How to Perform the 5 Yamas of Yoga

Yama 1: Non-Violence (Ahimsa)

The Sanskrit ‘himsa’ means violence or harm and ‘ahimsa’ means its opposite: non-violence. This is a simple concept with surprising depth. It encourages avoiding violence to ourselves as well as to other beings, whether human or not.

The harm or violence Ahimsa refers to is not limited to physical violence. It also includes mental and emotional harm.

How to practice Non-Violence (Ahimsa)

Violence or harm appears in our lives in many forms. The first step in practicing Ahimsa is to become aware of the harm we might be causing. It may be impossible to completely avoid all harm. The Niyamas teach us to practice good hygiene, but washing will cause harm to the bacteria and other microbes that live on our skin. Housekeeping might destroy the homes of spiders, or the spiders themselves. We have to find a balance so that we can live a productive and healthy life, while causing as little harm as possible.

Strategies for practicing Ahimsa include:

  • Avoid physical violence to yourself and others. This might mean resisting peer pressure to engage in dangerous activities, and managing your ego to reduce your need to prove your bravery.
  • Avoid foods or drinks that will harm your body.
  • Practice kindness, acceptance and forgiveness towards yourself and others.
  • Minimise your harm to tiny creatures that try to share your home – you may be able to relocate them or stop them entering the home instead of killing them.
  • Reduce harm to yourself by learning to control negative thought patterns, and manage negative emotions in a healthy way.

Yama 2: Truth (Satya)

In Satya, we are encouraged to recognise the universal truth in comparison to our personal truth. Once you can start to recognize the universal truth you also start to live it. This is what makes the Yamas of Satya mean more than simply not telling lies. How can you speak the truth if you don’t know the truth?

How to practice Truth (Satya)

Satya is about understanding and accepting the truth about yourself and the world around you.

Strategies for practicing Satya include:

  • Acknowledge that your perceptions are influenced by your feelings, emotions or expectations.
  • Look beyond your initial perceptions to see what is real. For example, “I sent a message to my Boss and I haven’t received an answer” is real. The explanations we create in our minds – they’re ignoring me, they don’t like me, I may have offended them, thoughts are not the truth.
  • Follow through on promises.

Yama 3: Non-Stealing (Asteya)

Defined as non-stealing, Asteya is the practice of not taking something that isn’t yours. As with all the five Yamas of yoga, it goes beyond the obvious. It isn’t just about not stealing objects like cars or money. Theft in yoga philosophy refers to taking unfair advantage or unfair exchange – this could mean deliberately making unfair bargains, not doing a job as well as you could have, or pretending someone’s ideas were your own.

How to practice Non-Stealing (Asteya)

Awareness is important because most people think they don’t steal. However, theft creeps into our lives in forms like slacking off at work, or making a spiteful comment that steals someone’s joy. Often the urge to steal arises from an internal unhappiness or jealousy, so we can reduce the urge by becoming more self-aware and finding healthy ways to meet our needs and feel contentment.

To avoid stealing, choose personal aims such as:

  • Doing your best at work or when helping others.
  • Acting kindly and supportively.
  • Making fair deals and bargains without seeking a better deal for yourself.

Be generous with the things you can afford to give to others, even if it’s just a smile. Generosity is the opposite of stealing, and creates positivity that counters the urge to steal.

Yama 4: Non-Indulgence (Brahmacharya)

Overindulging in sensory pleasures can cause problems and unhappiness in our lives. Brahmacharya encourages us to control our desires and reduce our use of sensory indulgences. Our senses distract us from more important and effective ways of finding happiness and contentment.

Brahmacharya doesn’t require abstinence, or completely avoiding everything enjoyable. It simply asks you to enjoy what you already have in life, and seek pleasure in moderation.

How to practice Non-Indulgence (Brahmacharya)

Avoiding overindulging in physical pleasures is the basic principle of Brahmacharya. You may consider ideas such as:

  • Avoiding activities or substances that are known to be addictive.
  • Eating for pleasure on occasion, but making most of your food choices for health rather than pleasure.
  • Making wise choices about entertainment (books, movies, games etc) so that your mind is not constantly distracted by thoughts of seeking more entertainment.
  • Observing your wants versus your needs.

When seeking pleasure, consider activities that are good for your health or wellbeing as well as being pleasurable. Walking in nature or getting a restorative massage could fit this description if used in moderation.

Yama 5: Non-Collection (Aparigraha)

We live in a world where materialism is encouraged. We constantly receive suggestions that owning more will make us happier – more clothes or shoes, more gadgets, bigger houses and fancier cars.

Aparigraha encourages us to reject this urge to own more things. It also urges us to feel less possessive about the things and people in our lives. This is closely related to the feeling of jealousy, so Aparigraha suggests that we should not act on our feelings of jealousy, but instead learn to find contentment in a simpler life.

How to practice Non-Collection (Aparigraha)

Begin by contemplating what you possess, why you possess those things, and how you feel about them. Do you cling to possessions out of fear of losing them? If so, you might reduce your openness to receiving other things that might be more important to your wellbeing.

Ideas to consider include:

  • Before acquiring a new item (shoes, a streaming subscription, a car), ask yourself if you really need it. Do you already have enough? Do you need the new thing now or could it wait?
  • Understand that possessiveness also applies to people. Learning how to manage and reduce possessive feelings will lead to healthier relationships.
  • Make good use of the things in your possession, without becoming emotionally attached to the ownership or outcome. This will likely lead to less need for more possessions.
  • Take care of items equally well regardless of whether they are your possession or belong to someone else.

Living the Yamas

Practicing the Yamas is deeply rooted in contemplating the concepts and assessing how they apply in your life. Much of the benefit depends on altered thought processes more than altered behaviour. If your contemplation reveals areas you wish to make changes in, remember to make changes slowly and gently. Reflect on your progress with kindness and generosity.

Striving to improve our awareness and stimulate inner growth can be very challenging. There may be aspects you think you understand now, that you will understand very differently in a few years. It will be an evolving process, and you will find deeper layers as your inner character strengthens and grows.