Yoga philosophy – The Yamas
Updated: Jan 12
A guide to to be at peace with the world
What is yoga?
If you’ve been practicing yoga for a while, you’re familiar with asana (postures), pranayama (breathing practices), and meditation. That's already a good start, but there is so much more to the practice of yoga and being a true Yogi. Thousands of years ago, Patanjali wrote the Yoga Sutras, a collection of 196 short verses that serve as a guide to attain wisdom and self-realisation through yoga. The heart of Patanjali’s teachings is the eightfold path of yoga, also called the eight limbs of Patanjali.
Imagine a tree with eight branches; each branch is a limb, each limb is separate but they are all connected via the roots and the trunk. They were designed to help us live a better, meaningful and purposeful life through yoga ; and to help us alleviate our suffering by remembering our true nature, and that our essence is infinite love and perfection.
In this article, we'll focus on the five Yamas, the first limb; but let's first have an overview of the seven others.
The eight limbs of yoga
1. Yamas – Restraint or control. Yamas are guidance to cease certain actions so we can be good to others, ourselves and the environment.
2. Niyamas – Personal Observances so we can adopt a healthy attitude toward ourselves.
° Saucha, cleanliness
° Santosha, contentment
° Tapas, self-discipline
° Svadhyaya, self-study
° Isvara-pranidhana, surrender
3. Asana – Physical Postures. On a deeper level, asana is used as a tool to calm the mind and prepare for meditation.
4. Pranayama – Breathing practices designed to control our vital life forces.
5. Pratyahara – Sense Withdrawal, more precisely withdrawal of the senses from attachment to external objects. Turning your attention inwards.
6. Dharana – Concentration. It is the practice of intense concentration, usually focusing on one object, such as the flame of a candle or a picture of a deity. This practice trains the mind in stillness and focus.
7. Dhyana – Meditation, perfect contemplation. It is the state of being deeply aware, yet without focus. It is awareness without judgment or attachment; it is peacefulprecedes complete bliss.
8. Samadhi – Union. It is a state of bliss and ecstasy. It refers to union with the Divine or true Yoga.
According to Patanjali, these five vows are completely universal, no matter who you are or where you come from, your current situation or where you’re heading. To be ‘ethical’ can be difficult at times, which is why this is considered a very important practice of yoga.
1. Ahimsa, Non-Violence.
The practice of kindness and peacefulness.
“My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.” - Dalai Lama
This Yama asks us to restrain against violence or harm towards others in our deeds, in our thoughts as well as in our actions. For example, refrain from judging or criticising others, snapping at others, killing animals, littering on the streets, etc.
It’s easy to understand how Ahimsa applies in our treatment to other people, animals or the environment, but Ahimsa actually starts with ourselves. How do you treat your physical body? How do you speak to yourself? What’s your inner dialogue?
I believe that watching our thoughts is key to practicing Ahimsa. All day, every day, if we are not aware and careful, we have countless negative thoughts and they take a toll on our inner peace. Anger, jealousy, criticism, fear, doubt, anxiety – they all cause disharmony within us as they can be quite violent. Even when conflict arises or when the ego is hurt, it’s essential to train ourselves to choose thoughts of peace, forgiveness, and (self-)compassion.
2. Satya, truthfulness
Living an honest life.
“Three things cannot be long hidden; the sun, the moon and the truth.” Buddha
Satya asks us to be honest, in what we are doing with our lives, who we are in relationships with, and in our intentions. Satya means total commitment to truth— in our words, thoughts and actions.
Honest communication and living a life of integrity are the foundation for all of our relationships: with ourselves first, with others, and with society as a whole. That is why the practice of Satya is so essential to live a happier and more fulfilled life at both the personal and professional levels.
Now, here is something to consider. Many people consider being bluntly honest as truthful. It is very easy to be blunt and truthful – and those around me would tell you that I can myself be quite blunt - but it can be hurtful to the person in front of you (which is not in line with the practice of Ahimsa). Does it serve any purpose? Does that help in any way in your relationships?
Yoga is first and foremost a practice of awareness. Practicing Satya in accordance with Ahimsa requires awareness of the effect our words and thoughts have on others and ourselves.
3. Asteya, non-stealing
Not taking from yourself or others.
“We have not inherited the earth from our forefathers, we are only borrowing it from our children” Native American Saying
The literal translation of Asteya is not to steal. The first things you would think of are money, clothes, food, and other tangible stuff. But there’s more to Asteya than that. Here are a few other subtle layers and definitions to consider:
· Taking more time, space and food that you personally need;
· Hoarding, stockpiling things, being greedy;
· Taking from others: time, ideas, energy, feelings;
· Taking credit for someone else’s work;
· Stealing from the earth’s resources through waste or overuse (think of your consumption of energy, water, etc.);
· Taking more than you give, wondering what you can get out of a situation rather than what you can put into it;
· Putting your needs before others.
Now, you can also be taking from your own self – and this is maybe where the practice of Asteya starts. You take from yourself by wasting your time and energy; by comparing yourself to others; by not being appreciative of your body; or pushing yourself beyond your own limits. Does that sound familiar?
You also steal from yourself when you are not present, when you dwell on the past or worry about the future. Remember that being here in the present moment is the best gift you can give to yourself, and those around you.
4. Brahmacharya, self-control
The ability to moderate the senses.
“Dedicated to self-control, great energy is gained” Sutra ii.38
Brahmacharya asks us to moderate ourselves and concentrate our energy (mental, physical and emotional) to create balance into our life. I find that scheduling less and keeping periods of stillness every day gives more space and time to equilibrate within. Notice that when you rush through life, trying to control everything and everyone, throwing away energy, you lose your vitality and balance.
Practicing Brahmacharya also asks us to make wise choices about the books and magazines we read, the food we eat, the movies we see, and the company we keep so we conserve energy and keep our mind focused and dynamic.
Historically, Brahmacharya meant celibacy; but it can nowadays be seen as being moderate in all sensual activities so that you don’t dwell on them, staying committed and faithful to one partner in a relationship.
So think about it. How much energy and time do you use thinking about the past? What or who drains your vital energy? How do you overspend your energy? In what ways do you need to practice more self-control?
5. Aparigraha, non-greed or non-covetousness.
Practicing non-attachment and letting go.
“When you let go, you make space for better things to enter in your life.” Buddha
Aparigraha is defined as not holding on to, not grasping, not attaching to possessions, thoughts, relationships, jobs, or simply ways of being. It’s the art of letting go. Aparigraha teaches us to take only what we need, keep only what serves us in the moment, and to let go when the time is right.
To invite aparigraha into your life, acknowledge abundance and practice gratitude. You might realise that you don’t need more than what you already have. You probably don’t need a new pair of shoes or a new pair of yoga pants to match the new t-shirt (guilty as charged). The next time you feel you need to buy something new, take a moment to think of why you need it so much – will it bring lasting happiness? Will it help you find peace?
And it also works with relationships. What relationship(s) are you holding on to and don’t really bring you any joy or happiness? Who are you ready to let go so you can be more at peace?
How to practice the Yamas?
Now that you know a little more about the five Yamas, it'd be a cool idea to apply them into your life. I reckon that working on the five of them at the same time would be quite a challenge, so why not starting from the beginning, and give yourself a couple of week to work with one Yama at a time?
For example, if you're working with Ahimsa, try to catch yourself every time you snap at someone or get impatient because someone is moving slower than you are. Be aware of your thoughts when you talk to yourself in a harsh or negative way. When it happens, when you notice the violence in your actions, thoughts or deeds, simply repeat 'Ahimsa' three times (trust me, I repeat it quite a few many times a day). When you feel like you're done with one, move on to the other one.
When challenges or trials come your way, living by these five principles will help you find the right direction in which to go. By considering these aspects in our daily practice on and off the yoga mat, all of our decisions and actions come from a more considered, aware, and ‘higher’ place, and this leads us towards being more authentic towards ourselves and others.
Love & light.