The Five YAMAS

Conduct Towards Others

It is rare to hear the Yamas mentioned in a yoga class, and my first exposure was reading about them in the Patanjali Sutras. It was not until I started teacher training that I got to dive into them.

The Yamas help us understand how to conduct ourselves in life and guide our actions towards others. There are 5 Yamas:

ahimsa (non-harming)
satya (truthfulness)
asteya (non-stealing)
brahmacharya (moderation)
aparigraha (non-possesive)

Ahimsa: 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. This is taken to mean to do no harm in thought, word, or deed and is considered the highest virtue.

The concept of ahimsa has evolved to mean many different levels of not harming. 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? We can always strive for something different, but let’s start with what we have and where we are now! Begin with self-acceptance and love who you are.

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 and asana. Take that same attitude off the mat to everything you experience in life! Back off when it is no longer appropriate for your body.

Satya: The direct translation of satya is truth. Like ahimsa, this is the embodiment of truth through word, thought, and deed. Not just about avoiding telling a lie but also resisting the distortion of reality is a part of keeping satya.

But satya 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 the closest proximity to Satya is essential.

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 not harm.  Taking care to separate your opinion from observation is a great starting point. After all, who knows the ultimate truth?

We have an intimate connection with truth and feel akin to those who live and speak it. It is our yogic duty to find satya as a virtue in all our life’s activities.

On your mat, it is incumbent to be truthful with yourself. Have you come to practice today for the right reasons? Are you fully engaged and mindful with your practice?

Asteya: Asteya is non-stealing. In our culture, we judge the act of stealing by someone physically taking something from another. With asteya it is not just the act of stealing, but the thought or allusion to possessing something possessed by someone else.

Some philosophers maintain that asteya goes deeper than the act of theft even in thought or deed. It is considered stealing, for example when you possess more than you need. Taking more resources than what is required for you to live is theft.

Jealousy, envy, and coveting are all aspects of the violation of asteya. Releasing the desire to possess what others may have binds to a state of asteya.

Practice asteya on your mat by not being envious of someone else’s ability to hold a pose better than you.

Brahmacharya: Brahmacharya was at one time considered to mean celibacy or abstinance. Perhaps this is because Brahma translates to God or creation and charya translates to “one who is established in”.

Over time, brahmacharya has been modified by philosophers to mean moderation or experiencing the indulgence of pleasure without excess. How actions conerns others is however more the direction of this Yama. So excessive engagement on social media, work, sex, play, drugs and alcohol takes further away from practicing brahmacharya.

Aparigraha: Aparigraha is the non-possessiveness, non-greediness. It is keeping only what you need at your current stage of life. Aparigraha can also be seen as non-attachement. Letting go of that which is not essential to your life including emotions, people, things, and outcomes is the practice of Aparigraha.

There is a subtle difference between aparigraha and asteya. Asteya focuses more on the desires of another persons posessions, words, ideas and thoughts, while aparigraha focuses on attachments to our own posessions, words, ideas and thoughts.

Living the virtue of aparigraha means we do not clutter our lives with the distractions of attachment and all thought and action can be practiced with more mindfulness and clarity.

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