The first of Patanjali’s eight-fold path of yoga are the Yamas. They are moral, ethical and societal guidelines. These guidelines are all expressed in the positive and can be interpreted as descriptions of how a yogi behaves and relates to their world. The Yamas are applicable to modern life, and a good guidance system on how to lead an honest, ethical, and conscious life.
Patanjali teaches that Yamas are meant to be practiced in our actions, thoughts, and words. The Yamas are applicable to everyone regardless of socioeconomic class, gender, or ethnicity. The Yamas are something that can make life more peaceful for people who observe them. It’s possible that observing the Yamas will lead to a life of less conflict, deceit, and even stress.
Here is a brief overview of each Yama, to reflect on how these Yamas show up in your life and how you can live them more.
Ahimsa. Non-Harming: Ahimsa is a practice of non-violence towards others or yourself, physically, mentally, or emotionally. It is about carrying an energy of peace and compassion instead of one of harm.
While not inflicting physical violence seems straightforward and clear, Ahimsa is more subtle than it seems. Aside from not harming others physically, your words and even your thoughts matter. Do you talk negatively about others behind their backs, or hurl personal insults to their face? These are examples of harm, and not in alignment with Ahimsa. Treating others with respect, and never intending to do harm is in the spirit of Ahimsa.
Ahimsa is also meant to be applied in your relationship with yourself. Do you harm yourself with self-destructive habits or relentless self-criticism? The opposite of that, and the practice of Ahimsa, is to take loving care of yourself and treat yourself with compassion and care, even though you are not perfect (no one is).
On your yoga mat, the practice of Ahimsa can also be applied. Your yoga practice is meant to be a healing and beneficial practice. Listen to your body and make sure you’re not pushing yourself too much and overdoing it, or self-critical of your practice while you’re on your mat.
Satya. Truthfulness: Satya is about speaking, acting, and thinking with integrity. In simplest terms, Satya is about being honest. Satya is also about being honest with yourself and expressing unsaid truths that need to be expressed.
When someone speaks from a place of integrity and honesty, it feels different than when someone isn’t being honest. An honest person’s words land differently and with more impact. Life is simpler if one is not concealing the truth or running from lies.
In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, he says that the words of those firmly established in the practice of Satya become so powerful that everything they say comes true.
Asteya. Non-Stealing: Asteya teaches us to not take anything that has not been clearly given to us. Taking what is not yours and stealing comes from a place of lack.
While non-stealing is at the core of Asteya, it goes deeper. Things you may not think of, like perpetually being late, are examples of stealing the time of other people. It’s also about not taking things that have not been clearly given. For example, do you ever assume that it’s okay for you to take something, without it explicitly being given to you?
Brahmacharya. Self-Restraint: Brahmacharya is about having self-control over our impulses of excess. When practiced, this can lead to an increase in vitality and energy. It takes courage and will to break some of our addictive tendencies, but each time we overcome these impulses we can become stronger, healthier, and wiser. Yoga teaches us to maintain balance and avoid extremes and that practicing Brahmacharya can help create moderation in all of our activities.
Brahmacharya is related to sexual energy but it does not necessarily mean celibacy. It is about preserving and using our sexual energy with purpose, instead of wasting it and letting it control us. It is some of the most powerful and vital energy we have, and we can utilize it in our pursuits and practice.
Aparigraha. Non-greed: Aparigraha is about non-attachment. This is not a vow to live in poverty, but more of an invitation to be satisfied with what you have and avoid excess and perpetual dissatisfaction. There is abundance in the spirit of aparigraha. A person with a lot of money who steals from others and is constantly worried about not having enough is not really rich in the truest sense of the word.
Yoga teaches us that our greatest satisfaction comes from within. In many modern societies, there is tremendous emphasis on acquiring more and more excess materialism. While having nice things and living comfortably is wonderful, Aparigraha is about not becoming greedy.
On the yoga mat, this non-attachment shows up in how we treat the practice. If you’re striving to be better to the person next to you on the mat, you’ve likely lost sight of why you love yoga and came to practice in the first place. It’s about going inwards and connecting deeply to yourself.
By Keith Allen
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