The 5 Yamas of Yoga: Universal Morality
Yama – The First Step on Patanjali’s Path to Liberation
This series will build on our introduction to Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga and dive deep into each limb or step on the yogic path to liberation. This article will focus on the first limb – The 5 Yamas. But first, let’s have a quick recap.
The Eight Limbs of Yoga
The Eight Limbs of Yoga is a system of right living (ethics) and practice (techniques) that enables us to control the mind and silence our thoughts so that we can realize the true nature of the Self, thus dissolving the ego into wisdom and attaining Moksha – liberation from suffering. Moksha is the ultimate goal of yoga, not full lotus or headstand, as many people believe!
The Eight Limbs of Yoga are:
The 5 Yamas
The first step on Patanjali’s path to liberation is the 5 Yamas. The Yamas are an ethical code of conduct and a set of behaviors in which we should refrain from participating. Most spiritual systems include ethical guidelines that they recommend practitioners follow. Observing ethical behavior allows the mind to be free from unskillful mental states such as worry, fear, anger, revenge, and guilt.
If we have behaved in an unethical way, we will experience negative or unskillful emotions. This negative emotion is likely to involve regret or guilt about what we have done, anger towards ourselves, or another person, or we may become fearful about the consequences of our actions. When we think, act, and speak ethically and do not harm ourselves or other people, we preserve our precious mental and emotional energy for more skillful endeavors.
The Yamas are restraints or abstinences – they detail behaviors that we should refrain from. The next limb, the Niyamas, explains the actions that we should take to behave skillfully and ethically.
The 5 Yamas are:
- Ahimsa – Refrain from harming
- Satya – Refrain from lying
- Asteya – Refrain from stealing
- Brahmacharya – Refrain from sense indulgence
- Aparigraha – Refrain from greed
Let’s look at each Yama in more detail and explore how we can observe them both on and off the mat.
Ahimsa – Refrain From Harming
Literally translated from the Sanskrit, Ahimsa means ‘not hurt’ – ‘A’ = ‘not’ and ‘Himsa’ = ‘hurt.’ To ‘not hurt’ means to do no harm and practice non-violence in thoughts, speech, and actions. Therefore, Ahimsa is usually translated into English as ‘non-violence.’ Interestingly, Ahimsa is reflected in all 5 Yamas.
Ahimsa in Action
In practicing non-violence, we must behave in a way that does not physically, mentally, or emotionally damage ourselves, another person, or another being. Yes, Ahimsa applies to ALL sentient beings, not just humans. This means that not only must we refrain from causing physical harm to other humans, but we also need to take a serious look at our diet and lifestyle choices if we are to take the Yama of Ahimsa seriously.
Deciding to cease harming animals by adopting a vegan diet and lifestyle is one of the very best things you can do for your spiritual advancement. We have created a three-part series about the potential benefits of a vegan lifestyle for awakening. Article one explains the benefits and mechanics of a plant-based diet. Article two details the effects of living a more compassionate lifestyle on spiritual advancement. Article three goes into greater depth about the spiritual aspects of a vegan lifestyle and their potential for spiritual evolution.
Not physically abusing someone is an obvious way of not harming others, but we also need to be aware of other ways in which our actions might cause physical harm. An example of this is neglect. Not taking proper care of those humans and animals for whose wellbeing we are responsible is a form of physical harm. Ahimsa in action applies equally to the deeds that we perform that are harmful or helpful, and those we refrain from doing, which can also be harmful or helpful.
Ahimsa in Speech
When we think about how to practice Ahimsa in everyday life, we need to consider all areas of behavior, not just our actions. Speech and thought are both elements of our behavior. The words we say can have an extremely damaging effect. A flippant remark or an insult made in the heat of the moment can affect someone for a long time. Even gossiping about others behind their backs causes negative energy and ill-will towards them. Before you speak about someone, consider whether you would say it to them directly. If not, don’t say it at all. Carefully choosing our words in every situation guards against causing harm to others with our speech.
Ahimsa in Thoughts
Thoughts are energy, just like everything else, and to practice Ahimsa authentically, we must also refrain from ill-will and thinking negative thoughts about people, including ourselves. You don’t know what’s going on in someone’s life that causes them to act in a certain way. So next time you feel negative towards someone, remember that they are suffering just the same as you. Try to bring compassion and Metta to your thinking about them. When you think about yourself in a negative way, flip it around to a positive statement. Repeating these thought processes will make them come more naturally and automatically.
A great way to increase our capacity for Ahimsa is to develop Metta or loving-kindness. We can do this by practicing Metta Bhavana meditation. Metta Bhavana is the cultivation of positive feelings and well-wishes towards other people, and also towards ourselves. Metta takes non-violence to the next level – it is not merely the absence of harm, but also the presence of kindness.
Ahimsa in Asana
It is easy to become frustrated with ourselves when practicing Asana if the body does not do what the mind wants. This frustration can lead to harmful thoughts about ourselves, and even violent actions if we push ourselves too far into the posture. Next time you face this in your posture practice, remember the first of the 5 Yamas is Ahimsa, and release ill-will and negativity toward yourself.
Being kind and accepting of your body will help you improve faster anyway because when you are relaxed and not tense with frustration, your body can open more deeply into postures. Remember to use your breath, relax, and send Metta to any body parts that are struggling.
Satya – Refrain From Lying
The Sanskrit word Satya is translated as ‘virtue’ or ‘truth.’ So the second of the 5 Yamas, Satya, can be understood as abstaining from distorting reality through one’s communication and action. To refrain from lying, we can practice truthfulness in our thoughts, speech, and deeds. Before speaking, we should assess whether the statement is useful, accurate, and positive. If not, we should explore our intentions for sharing it, and consider whether we should share it at all.
Lying or withholding the truth is a form of causing harm, and therefore if we are following Ahimsa, we should automatically be practicing Satya – truthfulness and positive speech. There are times when telling someone the truth may cause them to suffer; if it is something that they don’t want to hear or accept. But It will always be more harmful to them and you if you withhold the truth or lie about it. Find a way to speak the facts as kindly and compassionately as possible.
Satya in Asana
Similar to practicing Ahimsa, Satya is essential in posture practice if we want to progress. Are you being honest with yourself when you decide that you should push a bit further into that problematic pose? Is it honestly not causing you pain? When you notice that your breath becomes labored or shallow, are you listening to this warning sign that the body has reached its limit? Or are you ignoring it because you want to push a little harder?
Asteya – Refrain From Stealing
The etymology of Asteya is ‘A’ = ‘not’ and ‘Steya’ = ‘stealing.’ So Asteya means ‘not stealing.’ To refrain from stealing is virtuous for sure, but even better is to practice Satya around the reasons why we feel compelled to take what is not freely given. This volition usually relates to craving – wanting something to fulfill a sensory desire. In Buddhism, the word for craving is Taṇhā, the Pali term for ‘thirst.’ This thirst for conditioned experiences is the root cause of Dukkha or suffering.
Stealing does not only apply to taking material things such as money and possessions. You can steal other resources from a person, such as their time, energy, knowledge, and skills if they are not offered freely.
Like all of the 5 Yamas, Asteya can be linked back to Ahimsa and the notion of violence. If you choose to consume animals, you are not practicing Ahimsa or Asteya because you are practicing violence and stealing someone’s life – the worst type of theft that you could possibly commit. The animal definitely did not give up its life freely to you.
To oppose ideas of stealing, we can practice generosity. Not only refusing to take what is not freely given to us but being generous with our own resources. Again, we can make this Yama even more positive by turning it from the absence of stealing to the presence of generosity.
Asteya in Asana
The craving we feel when we thirst for a particular posture robs us of our present moment experience of the practice. It also steals many of the benefits that yoga has the potential to provide, such as peace, tranquility, presence, and surrender. By letting go of our desires to achieve, we generously give ourselves all the gifts that Asana practice can offer.
Brahmacharya – Refrain From Sense Indulgence
The translation is: ‘Brahman’ = ‘Universal consciousness’ and ‘Charya’ = ‘behavior’ or ‘conduct.’ So Brahmacharya means ‘to behave in a way that leads to consciousness.’ We can understand this as abstaining from sense indulgence and sexual misconduct to preserve our energy for more worthwhile pursuits that lead us toward our spiritual goals.
The fourth of the 5 Yamas is sometimes thought of as celibacy, and in ancient times, it was practiced as such. However, these days it is commonly associated with any waste of energy in excessive sensory indulgences – sexual contact, food, intoxicants, gambling, etc. To observe this Yama, we can practice using our energy more skillfully, for example, practicing Asana, meditation, and selfless service.
Brahmacharya in Asana
Where focus goes, energy flows. Where is your focus during your Asana practice? Are you practicing presence with your body and your breath? Or are you preoccupied with what you will be doing later that evening? This is a waste of mental energy, and it means you will not progress as quickly towards the ultimate goal of yoga – union with pure awareness or Divine consciousness.
Another point to consider is matching the style of practice to your available energy and not your ego. Do you always choose a vigorous or challenging form of yoga, no matter how you feel or where you are in your menstrual cycle? Sometimes the body has less available energy and needs a slower, more relaxed practice. By ignoring your energy levels and pushing on with your Ashtanga or Bikram class no matter what, you are not honoring your body’s needs, and you are misusing your energy.
Similarly, in a mixed ability class, do you always choose the most advanced variation despite how your body feels? Practicing Brahmacharya for you might be assessing your body’s available energy and resting in Balasana rather than doing that tenth Chaturanga.
Aparigraha – Refrain From Greed
The etymology of Aparigraha is: ‘A’ = ‘not,’ ‘Parigraha’ = ‘to grab, grasp, or seize.’ So Aparigraha means to refrain from grasping or coveting.
How do we refrain from greed and covetousness? We practice gratitude and contentment with what we have. It is so easy these days to see social media posts and TV ads and covet things that we don’t have. These advertisements and photos are specially designed to make us feel that we are missing out or somehow unworthy if we don’t have the latest piece of tech, item of clothing, or whatever. The truth is, we do not need any of this stuff to complete us, and we will never find true happiness in material things. Concentrating that energy into our spiritual practice will bring abundant rewards much greater than anything we could buy.
The last of the 5 Yamas is also concerned with non-attachment. Releasing attachments to things, people, places, and ideals that we believe define who we are is an effective way of surrendering the ego and expanding consciousness. Practicing non-attachment doesn’t mean that we don’t care, quite the opposite; we can care more deeply because we have taken our ‘need’ and ‘greed’ out of the situation and can then act with generosity and selfless service.
Lastly, we couldn’t discuss Aparigraha and not touch on simplicity. There is something extremely pure in choosing to live as simply as possible. Without all the clutter and unnecessary elaborate distractions, more space, energy, and peace is available for spiritual practice. Try to find some areas of your life where you can simplify. Whether that means your social media and news consumption, your diet, your social life, or even your daily routine, anything you can do more simply will bring you peace and allow more space and energy for your practice.
Aparigraha in Asana
You can practice Aparigraha in your Asana practice by not coveting the postures that other people can do, and experiencing contentment for where you are right now. Practicing gratitude for your amazing body and all the things it allows you to do is particularly important.
Focus on the journey and not the end destination – don’t be attached to what you think you should be able to do or what you want to achieve. That is not the point of yoga. Being present in every moment, learning about your body and mind, and enjoying seeing the path unfold in front of you will bring you greater enjoyment, progress, and peace. This is a beautiful convergence of all 5 Yamas on the mat and a wonderful way to integrate your practice of the 5 Yamas of yoga.
We hope you have enjoyed our in-depth guide to the 5 Yamas – the first limb of Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga. This series explores all eight limbs so by the end you will have a great working knowledge of this yogic system of awakening. Please put this knowledge into action as that is how transformation takes place.
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