The first limb of the 8 limbs of Yoga is divided into 5 parts and they are collectively referred to as the Yamas. Yama is often translated as ‘restraint’, but it can also mean ‘self-control’ or ‘great moral rule’ or ‘duty’.
Most people gloss over the first limb as it seems to convey what all great religions and spiritual practices teach as part of their moral obligation: Don’t harm, don’t steal, don’t lie, etc.
Plus, most people don’t like to ‘feel restrained’: we want freedom, not restriction. However, it is easy to confuse freedom with hedonism and if we view ‘restraint’ in the same way that raindrops are the restraint form of water (otherwise we would have a deluge coming down every time it rains) than it starts to make sense why we want to create boundaries around our actions.
So, let’s take a closer look at the Yamas and see what inspiration we can derive from them to live, again and again, a more holistic and yogic life:
The first Yama is Ahimsa which is often translated as ‘non-harming’ or ‘non-violence’. But this translation only serves the surface: a better translation is ‘the absence of harm’, which means there is no inclination for harm whatsoever. When a person embodies true Ahimsa, the people that come into their sphere feel the peacefulness and kindness that comes from that person and are immediately put at ease, in one word: they trust.
When we want to apply Ahimsa into our lives, it’s not enough to think of not physically harming ourselves or others. Ahimsa has a much broader meaning: Think about what foods you eat, which resources you use, how you think about others or yourself. These thought processes start to give you a sense how prevailing Ahimsa can be in our lives: as soon as we feel unhappy about the way we look, live, or react, we get frustrated, angry, jealous or depressed – and all these actions are essentially subsets of Ahimsa. This is why Ahimsa is the first Yama, because it is the most important one. It is the base for peaceful living within us and with others. However, Ahimsa does not mean you let yourself be taking advantage of, be hurt, or manipulated by others. Yogic Ahimsa is always courageous, kind and compassionate.
The second Yama is Satya, often translated as ‘truthfulness’ or ‘honesty’. How many times did you use a white lie because it was inconvenient to tell the truth? How many times did you do something that wasn’t right, but you did it because ‘everyone else is doing it’? All these are actions that go directly against Satya. However, a lot of people use the excuse of speaking the truth to be intentionally hurtful and manipulative “Well, if you can’t handle the truth, you are obviously not cut out for the job.” This is why we need to look at the Yamas in context with one another: Satya (truthfulness) in context with Ahimsa (non-harming) means speaking the truth like you are helping someone into a coat, rather than slapping the truth into their face. Satya also does not mean that you need to be proselytizing about what you consider to be the truth. The yogic truth should not be subjective but for the collective good. Which may mean that sometimes not speaking is better than to speak and not be heard or to cause adverse reactions.
The next three Yamas (Asteya, Brahmacharya, Aparigraha) are all specific actions that fall under the broader category of detachment (Vairagya), meaning, you do something without looking for a reward or a specific outcome. Let’s look at them one by one:
The third Yama is Asteya means ‘non stealing’. Taking it a step further, it is not only taking what doesn’t belong to you (e.g., wealth or words, as in plagiarism) but also being content with not needing what other people have. Whether that be looks, wealth, fame or success. That means, ‘keeping up with the Jones’s’ is not exactly yogic living. The more we desire what other people have, the more likely we are to go down the spiral of actions that go against the yogic path, like winning at every cost or working so hard to achieve that illusionary goal that you neglect your family. Asteya means you can be happy for other people’s good fortune without desiring it for yourself.
The fourth Yama is Brahmacharya and does not mean celibate, as it is often referred to. It means fidelity to one partner and being responsible with one’s intimate relationships. It comes back to the meaning of Yama (restraint) and implies that you restrict your most intimate feelings and actions of love to your soul mate. It also means letting go of romantic notions like waiting for the knight in white shining armor or wishing for that ‘Number 10’ woman to walk into your life. By letting go of projections of those romantic notions onto our partner, we value them for who they are: truthfully and wholly.
The fifth and final Yama is Aparigraha, often translated as ‘non-hoarding’ or ‘non-grasping what’s around you’. To the layperson that may sound like we need a good garage sale to clean out all the junk that we accumulated over the years; and that’s actually not so farfetched. However, what we really need to ask: What made us accumulate those things in the first place? Of course, there is always the childhood teddy bear with sentimental value, but what about all these status symbols that we felt we needed to have to appear a certain way to society? The clothes, the make-up, the hairdo, the car, the house … and the list goes on. Most importantly, we have to think of the tragedy of the “Zero Sum” approach: A lot of people believe that life is a Zero-Sum game, meaning, if someone is doing worse than them, they must be doing better. Which means, the actions are geared towards making others feel worse and making us feel better. Instead, life works through reinforcement (or “Like attracts Like”): by doing little good things every day and spreading good vibes, we are getting more in return.
Aparigraha is essentially happiness that can be found outside of people, objects and circumstances. Radhanath Swami put it very succinctly: “In an enlightened society, people use objects and love people. In our society today, we love objects and use people.” Aparigraha is flipping the equation of modern society on its head.
In summary, the Yamas are guidelines for how to interact with our world and the people that are in it. Some Yamas may resonate more with you than others, and at the end of the day, we can always see where we could have done better, acted kindlier or didn’t give into the temptation to buy that unnecessary thing. Its not about being perfect or to punish yourself when you slipped up. Its about getting up each day and reaffirming the effort to do Yoga in all our actions – on and off the mat 😉
Inspiration for this blog was taken from:
Eddie Stern, 2019, “One simple thing”, North Point Press
Gregor Maehle, 2007, “Ashtanga Yoga”, New World Library