The Yamas are the ethical, moral, and social guidelines that a yogi should follow. The Yamas are expressed as positive statements, describing how yoga interacts with her environment when she is genuinely immersed in a unitive state. While we may not aim to achieve such a state, the Yamas are still valuable guides for living a conscious and ethical life.
Patanjali regarded the Yamas as the great, powerful, and universal vows. He tells us to practice them on all levels, including actions, words, and thoughts, and that these vows are not limited by class, place, or time.
Five Yamas of Yoga
Ahimsa means non-violence. This includes violence against others, as well as Self. We often create violence in our reactions, creating anger, criticism, or judgment. The Buddhist practice of compassion has been a great tool for me to promote non-violence. Compassion is accepting events with an open, loving heart. Compassion is letting go of a negative reaction and replacing it with love, kindness, and acceptance. At first, practicing compassion can be frustrating and difficult. The key is to laugh at the contradiction and have compassion for yourself for not being compassionate.
Satya (truthfulness) always urges us to speak and live our truth. It is difficult to walk the path of truth, particularly when you also try to respect Patanjali’s first Yama: Ahimsa. Ahimsa is the first thing that must be followed, so we should be cautious not to speak truths if they will harm another. Living your truth creates respect, integrity, honor, and the vision needed to see the higher truths on the yogic journey.
Asteya is defined as the act of not taking something that is not given freely. This may seem simple, but it can be difficult to achieve. Asteya is a practice that requires a person to not steal physically nor cause or approve of someone else to do so, whether in words, actions, or thoughts. Asteya is a way to oppose exploitation, injustice, and oppression in society. Asteya is not easy, but it encourages generosity and defeats Lobha. Patanjali says, “When Asteya has been firmly established within a yogi, all jewels become available to him/her.”
Brahmacharya, or continence, states that you gain knowledge, energy, and vigor when you control your physical impulses to excess. We need courage and will to break the bonds of our addictions and excesses. Each time we defeat these impulses to excess, we become healthier, wiser, and stronger. Yoga’s main goal is to maintain and create balance. Brahmacharya is the easiest way to achieve balance. It involves a moderate approach in all our activities. Moderation conserves our energy and allows us to use it for spiritually higher purposes.
Aparigraha, or non-coveting, encourages us to let everything go that we don’t need and possess only what is necessary. Yoga teaches us that we cannot possess anything because it is subject to change. When we become greedy, we lose sight of our eternal possession, Atman, or our true Self. When we cling to what we already have, we lose our ability to be open and receive what we need.
Yamas: Tips on how to practice the Yamas
By contemplating the Yamas, we can begin to practice. Aligning thoughts, behaviors, and actions with moral, ethical, and societal guidelines is difficult and demanding. The practice of the Yamas is best done slowly and over a long period. It should also be combined with hatha Yoga. You should practice applying the Yamas using a structured method like the seven steps listed below.
Begin with just one Yama. Start by reading and understanding each of the five Yamas. As you consider how each Yama could unfold in your life today, pay attention to your emotions and thoughts as you make changes to suit each Yama. One or two Yamas will have a powerful charge for you. You may choose to begin with the one that has the strongest charge for you, or you can wait until you have more inner power. You should consciously decide to practice this Yama for a specific period. Start by committing to 40 consecutive days of practice.
Begin practicing your Yamas. Start practicing the skillful effort and awareness of your chosen Yama. Use your Yama to guide your practice. Let it be your intention or Sankalpa’s. Don’t judge yourself when you fail. Just vow to try again. Be kind, patient, compassionate, focused, dedicated, and willful.
Track your commitment to your goals and your progress. Use a journal or another way of keeping track. You may have epiphanies or gain powerful insights. It’s important to record them. It is also helpful to reflect and contemplate your experience with the Yamas to integrate them further into your life and yoga practice.
Explore and deepen your observation. You will notice patterns in your emotions and thoughts as you focus on the Yama during your yoga practice. You can contemplate these patterns and determine where they come from. The patterns are most likely a result of a Samskara – a wheel of suffering that is deeply rooted. The Yamas can be a powerful tool for bringing awareness to the dark, murky parts of ourselves and to reprograming our Samskaras.
Remove your Yama from your mat. You can use the Yama you have chosen daily once you feel comfortable with it. You may feel that you are losing progress as you leave the defined and controlled environment of your yoga or meditation practice. Notify yourself of any aspect of your life that you find problematic (work, family relationships, health, money, etc.). This is the area that seems to be the enemy of your Yama. Permit yourself to use your Yama only after success in other areas.