An Insider’s Guide To The Yamas Of Yoga
By Julie Schoen
The first time I was exposed to the idea of yamas was in one of my first yoga teacher trainings. I was there for the yoga – the real yoga – the “let’s-move-and-bend-and-twist-and-fly” yoga. Each day our morning sessions were filled with my idea of “real yoga”, but the afternoons were a different story. Gathered on the floor in a circle, similar to what you would see in a Kindergarten class for story time, we would open our books and discuss what others, including the teacher trainers, believed to be “real yoga”. They were passionate and excited and knew their shit. I, on the other hand, was less than enthused…
One of the first discussions that really perked me up was a brief introduction to Yamas. “Rules! Great…” I thought as I prepared for class the night before. But that day, piled on the floor at the feet of our trainers, I heard five principles (rules, some would argue, but phrased in the positive there is a much more appealing reaction upon hearing them) that I agreed wholeheartedly with. These were principles that I believed, in some form or another, since, I would argue even, childhood.
That brief introduction into the five yamas of yoga launched me into studies that have consumed the last five years of my life. The guidelines for living shape who I am – my actions, my thoughts, my beliefs, my perceptions, my interactions. They help me make sense of the world and my role in it.
And my favorite part about them is that they do not exclude anyone.
People from any background, any culture, any religion, any ethnicity, any gender, can follow these principles without having to reframe their previous beliefs. The yamas, like yoga, are all-encompassing and welcoming to everyone.
The Five Yamas Of Yoga
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are considered one of the first written records of the yamas. They are at the very beginning of his Eight-Fold Path to yoga, describing how a person who is following the yogic path, truly immersed in the universal union yoga brings, would act and behave in the world.
According to Patanjali these five yamas are more than just guidelines – they are sacred vows. Vows a yogi takes when beginning their studies (and by studies he means more than mastering Pincha Mayurasana or Scorpion Pose) and ones they adhere to for the rest of their lives.
Like any ancient text, the Sutras are constantly being deconstructed, rebuild, debated, and discussed. What one person believes to be proper adherence to the yamas might look different from the life another yogi leads. This isn’t a bad thing; in my opinion this just reaffirms that, yes, we are all on our own journey. I believe that once you become familiar with the general principles of the yamas and the remaining seven limbs on the Eight Fold Path your job in this life is to do your best to live those out as honest and as wholeheartedly as you can. Accept the decisions you make as well as those others make – that’s good yoga.
Yoga Sutras II-30: Yama consists of non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, continence, and non-greed.
- Ahimsa: Occasionally you will see Ahimsa defined as “non-killing”, but that is not correct according to Patanjali. Ahimsa, rather, is best defined as “non-violence” or “non-harming”. This principle asks yogis to not cause pain in their world. Many people think if they become a vegetarian and don’t physically hurt anyone they can check this off their list. This thinking, however, is incorrect. Not causing pain is much more complicated. Words can cause pain. Thoughts can cause pain. Daily actions and interactions, even small things like not calling someone or excluding someone, can cause pain. Following ahimsa means being mindful of your physical actions, your mental states, and your emotions towards others and yourself. Embracing compassion on a daily basis is a fabulous way to bring more ahimsa into your life.
Yoga Sutras II-35: In the presence of one firmly established in non-violence, all hostilities cease.
- Satya: Satya or Satyam means truthfulness, or not lying. Again, it’s not as simple as refraining from lying about your whereabouts, being sick to get out of something you don’t want to do, etc. Satya means being honest to others and yourself. This is hard and one I’ve struggled with for many, many years. Living your truth means not doing things simply to please or impress someone else. It means checking in daily to see how you feel about your life and your actions. Are you proud of what you are doing? Are you happy with your life right now? Are you upholding your principles no matter what?And then, take it one step farther. When you add Satya to the principle of Ahimsa it gets tricky. Satya is not an excuse to always say exactly what’s on your mind. “Screw everyone else I’m doing me!” is not what Patanjali meant by this, which is why Ahimsa becomes an important filter. Will your truthfulness harm another? If so, it’s not enough just to hold your tongue, because the thoughts will remain the same. You need to get down and dirty with your thoughts, with your truth, and see how you can change the relationship so that both truthfulness and non-harming can walk hand-in-hand. It’s not easy. This is why yogis meditate.Yoga Sutras II-36: To one established in truthfulness, actions and their results become subservient.
- Asteya: You can probably guess at this point that although Asteya means “non-stealing” it’s trickier than not taking off with a box of crayons from the store down the street (in my defense I was triple-dog-dared and at six that’s serious business). Non-stealing is also an attitude. In the words of Sri Swami Satchidananda, “All of us are thieves.” He goes on to explain that every day, every minute we steal things that are not ours – time, ideas, even air. He jokes by saying that the answer isn’t to stop breathing, but it’s to change our attitude. “Instead, we should receive each breath with reverence and use it to serve others; then we are not stealing.”
Non-stealing then also means not being greedy. Once you obtain something you shouldn’t consider it yours to keep. Give and give freely. Be grateful for what you have received and are receiving in each moment. Don’t lock up your possessions and throw away the key, because these possessions, these things, aren’t really yours to begin with in the first place, right?Yoga Sutras II-37: To one established in non-stealing, all wealth comes.
- Brahmacharya: So let’s talk about sex. (See, I just jumped right in there. I wanted you to know it was coming and rather than try to bury the lead I did you the favor of putting it up front and center – SEX!) Brahmacharya means continence or celibacy. Now before you bolt for the door let’s get into this a little deeper (my inner immature voice is screaming “That’s what she said!” – and now that I wrote that she’s happy and I can continue). What Brahmacharya really wants us to do is to practice control over our inner impulses. For many people this is sex, but it can also be other addictions like food, alcohol, drugs, body image, etc.
Depending on your relationship to these addictions and how much energy they are draining from your life, you might have to cut them out completely, at least for a bit. Brahmacharya is learning how to live a life without extremes or excess. It’s really just the by-product of all of the other yamas discusses so far – Ahimsa (is there something causing you or others harm that you can cut out or cut back on?), Satya (is what you are doing your highest truth, does it really make you happy or are you hiding from the real truth?), and Asteya (are your actions stealing from others or yourself, are you appreciative of what you are receiving, do you honor each moment with your actions?)
This is where the physical practice of yoga can be incredibly useful – take your energy and instead of misusing it redirect it into something that is productive and good for you and those around you.
Yoga Sutras II-38: By one established in continence, vigor is gained.
- Aparigraha: Often translated as “non-greed” or “non-coveting”, Aparigraha is really just an offshoot Asteya (non-stealing). This life principle urges us to receive things without feelings of greed, possession, or (this one’s really tough) obligation. It also works in reverse – when we give something. We also shouldn’t feel like someone owes us something because we gave them something. These thoughts and behaviors quickly escalate into a deep and dark downward spiral that destroys even the best of relationships.By learning to “let go”, not being attached to things whether objects or emotions, we free ourselves to see things clearly.Yoga Sutras II-39: When non-greed is confirmed, a thorough illumination of the how and why of one’s birth comes.