The Yamas were laid out by the sage Patangali over 2000 years ago. They were intended to provide guidance for the ethical life or restraints of a yogic practitioner.There are five Yamas or ethical principles to follow:
Ahimsa - Do no harm
This is perhaps the most commonly referred to Yama. Himsa comes from the Sanskrit and it means harm or injury. The A in front is the opposite or no harm. In Hinduism, this is often taken to mean to do no harm in thought, word or deed and is taken as the highest virtue. We find the concept of ahimsa in most of the eastern philosophies including Buddhism and Jainism.
The concept of Ahimsa has evolved to mean many different levels of not doing harm. This includes doing no harm to any being and often includes not harming or eating animals or taking their products.
Ahimsa starts with non-harming to ourselves. When you look in the mirror are you critical of your image? Are you hard on yourself because you missed a yoga class? Do you harshly judge yourself because you are not good enough, fast enough, smart enough or whatever you don’t meet up to a self-imposed standard? Begin with self-acceptance and love who you are. We can always strive for something different, but let’s start with what we have and where we are now!
On your mat you can practice ahimsa by not harming your body. Finding your edge to experience a great stretch and damaging your body are very different approaches to an asana. Back off when it is no longer appropriate for your body. Take that same attitude off the mat to everything you experience in life!
Satya - Truth
The direct translation of satya is truth. Like ahimsa, this is the embodiment of truth through word, thought and deed. Not just about avoidance of telling a lie but also resisting the distortion of reality is a part of keeping satya.
But satya really goes way beyond this. After all where is the line between reality and truth, fact and observation, illusion and scientific observation? So in a way, taking the time to craft what we think and say to find closest proximity to satya is important.
Is there such a thing as the absolute truth? Probably, but can we always know the absolute truth? Probably not, but it is an unending to strive for what we can honestly feel in our hearts and minds be the closest to the truth.
Another way to look at truth is from its opposite. When we exaggerate, knowingly say something we know is false or simply spread a rumor, we stray from satya.
In our yoga practice we can exercise the practice of satya inside ourselves every time we come to our mat. Start with the simple idea of being truthful that you intend to practice. If you only go through the motions of your yoga practice because you want others to see you practice or daydream while doing meditation or asanas, you have not been true to yourself. And when you are not truthful to your self, it becomes more challenging to be truthful to others.
Many scholars take the line that ahimsa and satya should come together and that in truth we also should do no harm. One must take time to construct truth around doing no harm. Taken care to separate your opinion from an observation is a great starting point. After all, who knows the ultimate truth?
We have an intimate connection with truth and feel akin to and connected to those who live and speak it. It is our yogic duty to find satya as a virtue in all our life’s activity.
Asteya - Non-Stealing
Third of the five Yamas, also known as virtues of self-restraints or ethical values, is Asteya. Asteya is essentially non-stealing.
Drilling down a bit further, we find more depth to this practice. It is like the other Yamas in that we must consider non-stealing in thought, word and action. While we may think of ourselves as full practitioners of Asteya because we did not take something that did not belong to us, have we considered our words and our thoughts?
Examples of other forms of failure to practices Asteya include cheating, manipulation and deception. Did we not report all our income on our taxes? Did we fail to report getting too much change at the grocery store? Did we misconstrue events to the insurance company to get more money?
Even if we think about taking what belongs to another is counter to the practice of Asteya. If we think about situations that benefit ourselves at the expense of others, we fail to practice Asteya.
Most of us would consider ourselves good practitioners of Asteya. But there is a subtle level that may need work. How often are we in such a hurry that we "steal" time from ourselves and our friends because we did not pay attention to the moment. How often did we steal someone's opportunity by getting ahead of them in line or take a portion of food without thinking about someone who may go hungry?
Let's take our Asteya to the next level and meditate on how we can truly practice this Yama.
Brahmacharya - Right Action
Brahmacharya is one of the most "interpreted" of all the Yamas, or ethical principles of yoga. At the most literal level it means actions which lead to Brahaman or the creator.
In many religions, Brahmacharya is taken to mean celibacy for the individual or fidelity in marriage. As a result many feel that this Yama is irrelevant today.
But if we go back to the literal translation and see how it could get construed in its religious context, then perhaps it is more relevant than ever! So let's cut to the chase. If we are spending our time having sex with anyone we please, are we really making our lives better? What about if we are just thinking about it? What if we are talking about it? While the concept of celibacy is extreme for many, it hones in on the idea that the focus of non-celibacy is not unifying us with our creator. This is not to be confused with procreation and lovemaking which can be important parts of our Brahmacharya.
So taking this to the next step, we can see that the concept of non-celibacy may just be equated the with the concept of self-indulgence and that does not equate to leading us to the creator-like existence.
So why "Right Action"?
If we become more cognizant of each action we take and how it is more purposeful in life, we can stop filling our time with exhausting busy stuff and find more time for happiness and bliss. Every moment, with every breath, we can take a step that finds us making a choice of action that can feel right on our path to unity with creation or we can choose actions that take us away from that intention.
Right Action leads to choices that bring us peace and inner harmony. We can feel connected to everything without attachment. Right Action helps us find our bliss. Like all the Yamas, Right Action is practiced in thought, word and deed.
Aparigraha - Non-Possessiveness
The fifth yama of the yoga restraints is called Aparigraha. This restraint pertains to non-possessiveness. Similarly it can be taken to mean non-greed or non-grasping. This is a particularly challenging in a culture where material gain has such a great importance.
One of the lessons from many Native American tribes is the idea that you only take what you need from the land. This too is Aparigraha in practice, and the idea that you only take what is necessary to live is the core of its practice.
Twice in my life, I have shed everything material except for a couple changes of clothes. This has served me well to redefine my life and remove the attachments to material things that bog down my life. This may not be for everyone, but even a milder version may be helpful. For example, you could give away all the things you have not worn or used in a year. Or at least sell them so that you can purchase what you really need now.
In the yoga sutras, non-possessiveness also extends to accepting gifts inappropriately or the idea that you would do good in exchange for a gift. Good should be done for its own sake only.
But at the same time I don't think that Aparigraha means a life of monk-hood either. I have had many times when I have been the caretaker of a lot stuff. But that stuff served many people and when no longer necessary it went away. For everyone it will be different. You will not need a winter jacket if you live on the beach in Mexico and you will not need extra pairs of shorts if you work in Antarctica.
Like the other yamas, Aparigraha should be practiced in thought, word and action. Even the desire to have more is not in line with this restraint.
Because our lives are so materially oriented, it is easy to begin to practice. Make it a point shed one item a week you do not need. Clear the clutter. And very soon Aparigraha is just a part of our lives.