Yo yo yogis! The Yamas are the first of the eight limbed path, the foundation of yogic practice as prescribed by Patanjali. “Yama” means restraint or control, and it is the way in which we control or restrain ourselves – in contexts within our relationships with ourselves, each other, and the environment. The Yamas guide us away from lesser versions of ourselves and towards the ultimate goal of samadhi (realization and Oneness). The yamas can assist us in our pursuits towards our highest truth by illuminating our humanness for us. None of us is perfect, and incorporating the yamas into our practice of yoga is not an “I am going cold turkey on mistakes because yoga demands perfection of me” moment. Yoga does not demand perfection of you. You can use the incorporation of the yamas into your practice of yoga in order to alert yourself to your own behaviors and decisions and how they may be influencing your pursuit of higher truth.
Use this information as a starting point for yourself to set boundaries in terms of what your personal expression of yogic practice is. Not everyone centers the yamas in their practice of yoga. Read today in inquiry – how can I get closer to my highest truth while living in the ~modern world of temptation~ (I mean… arcade bars?!? Burgers on donuts???? Someone draw a line!). The bottom line is: “Many paths, one goal.” There are many possible journeys to the state of yoga. As yogis, all that matters is we pursue that higher being. Start by taking the nearest path to you, and open your mind to the possibility that the yamas can help you deepen (or perhaps begin) your practice of yoga.
- Ahimsa (non-violence or non-harming). Consider nonviolence and non-harm as including acts not only towards other people such as physical violence or speaking unkindly, but also those which inflict harm on others or the environment in more subtle or socially accepted ways. We as humans cannot exist without causing some form of harm. But the yamas can help us minimize the harm we do by creating conscious awareness and intent. We can choose to minimize and/or simply to be conscious of the harm we cause. Take for example the choice each of us has in what we eat. Many people choose to eat vegetarian or vegan for reasons including perhaps animal rights or reducing carbon footprint. If we do choose to eat meat, Ahimsa still empowers us to consciously choose that diet, knowing when we do that we put ourselves before others and therefore cause harm. Perhaps we can choose more specifically to eat meat that is locally sourced, or to eat only chicken. Perhaps we chow down daily on some brisket (not advisable but we understand if you feel the need… brisket is delicious). However we choose, the mindfulness with which we make that choice allows us to create boundaries for ourselves and our lives in terms of how much harm and in what ways are we willing and unwilling to harm those around us.
- Satya (truthfulness). Satya refers to each of our individual truths and the eternal truth. Your truth is rooted in your unique vantage point of the human perspective. Truthfulness requires not only that we not lie but additionally that we recognize there are always parts of the truth we will get wrong or miss. We lie through omitted truths simply by nature of having only our singular self truths and the small portion of the eternal truth each of us can see from where we stand.
It may be helpful to consider the interaction of Ahimsa (non-violence) and Satya(truthfulness). Challenges can come up between these two, any time that the truth may cause harm. Take for example when a friend asks your opinion about her new (hideous) haircut. Being truthful about your feelings about the haircut may cause harm, and really you may consider that your truth isn’t as important as your friend’s truth. If she really likes the haircut, her truth is that the haircut is amaze. In this way, staying true to both Ahimsa and Satya may mean that you make choices based on the recognition that your expression of “the” (which is really your) truth can be harmful and maybe untruthful in a way.
- Asteya (non-stealing). Of course we can steal someone’s belongings, intellectual property, publish an uncited quote, borrow something and accidentally forget to return it. It’s pretty easy not to shoplift or get your grand theft auto on. From an energy standpoint, though, non-stealing includes not wasting people’s time. Some more abstract examples of Asteya include not giving someone credit where credit’s due, being consistently late to appointments with friends. Consider ways a behavior could be taking something away from someone else.***
- Brahmacharya (moving toward eternal truth). Brahmacharya is all about discipline and moderation with the ultimate goal of attuning the mind and body for realization. Oftentimes literature surrounding Brahmacharya focuses on sexual celibacy. Well, that ain’t happening for this yogi personally, but this principle remains valuable and applicable because it encourages us to pursue practices that honor the body so that we can stay as attuned for realization as possible. In the context of sex, this may mean treating sex in a more respectful and sacred way than may necessarily be the case in your current sexual interactions (which are allowed to happen, did we mention that? Please have sex if you want to). We really don’t even know each other like this, but you just think on this and consider how this principle of moderation, discipline, and honoring could be applied in your life. Sex, alcohol, drugs, shopping… know the yoga you want to practice and act in moderation in ways and in areas of your life that you know get you closer to practice in the state of yoga.
- Aparigraha (possess only what you need). Consider taking only what you need and live within your means. There are times of abundance of course, but aparigraha invites us to know the season we are in and be responsible for taking only what we need. In the most basic sense, consider aparigraha and money. Money in and of itself is a neutral thing, but we project “good” onto “more” and “bad” onto “less.” Applying aparigraha in this practice could look like keeping only the money you need and giving the rest of it away to an ethical charity or to a family member or neighbor. It could look like being mindful about purchases as you make them and considering whether you really need something – are you buying an item you want or an item you need? Will you still own this item in a year? Five years?
There is no good or bad in however you apply this principle- you decide the boundary and your expression of every aspect of this practice (ok maybe try to take it further than a capsule wardrobe).
The above 5 are the more well known via Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. The following 5 are less discussed in Western yoga, and can be further studied in the book/ shared from the lens of: The Sacred Tradition of Yoga: Philosophy, Ethics and Practices for a Modern Spiritual Life by Dr. Shankaranarayana Jois
- Daya (mercy, grace). Take mercy on others and to ourselves. We are all human and we all make mistakes. We hold ourselves to high standards, and we should! But it is important to recognize the inevitability of making mistakes – the inevitability that we will hurt others sometimes (ahem-hem-himsa). Being generous with ourselves sure makes us more understanding with others as well.
- Arjava (straightforwardness). Consider the alignment between your words and thoughts, your actions and words, and your thoughts and actions. Instead of distorting your truth (hello Satya), just act, speak, and be straightforward. As instructors and practitioners, we may practice a pose in a flow because we like the pose. Arjava invites us to select straightforward flows which directly support pursuit of a peak pose within the time frame of the current class or time we’ve set aside for practice at home. Practice arjava by considering your ultimate aim and committing action to reach it.
- Kshama (resilience). When something we consider negative happens to us, how do we respond? When something does not go our way, do we react or respond? What do our responses look like, both internally and externally? Kshama’s interaction with dia (mercy) invites us to extend mercy to whomever or whatever, even if it has caused a negative impact to us. Kshama means meeting adversity with persistence.
- Dhriti (determination with courage). Navigate your intentions with this energy rather than with detachment. ****
- Mitahara (restriction of food). The most basic interpretation of mitahara would be eating only the amount of food you need to be satiated, a focus in Ayurveda. The concept of mitahara expands, however, when we consider the definition “food” from the Upanishads, as anything we can take through our five senses. What do we consume through our senses? We can practice mitahara by restricting ourselves from “eating” food like violent television or news clips. Or by leaving the room when a coworker starts gossipping. Perhaps you’re heavily or often processing various essential oils or incense through your olfactory senses – are you mindful of what you are experiencing? Are you appreciating fully the olfactory sensation, or just lighting the incense to light the incense?
You might consider the concepts of Ahimsa and Mitahara together with the example of eating. Just be mindful of what you receive through your senses and how those influence your ability to pursue a higher truth.
Each of these yamas invites us to consider how we are operating within our individual environments specifically and in the world in a broader sense. Each of us has to decide our boundaries within this practice, and, just as practicing a pose, you may practice *your expression* rather than a specific expression of this practice in these other ways. We as humans make mistakes – the key is that through each of these pieces of the practice we pursue nearness to that eternal truth.
Our discussion today of the Yamas is informed by the Sacred Tradition of Yoga by Shankaranarayana Jois. If you are interested in learning more about the yamas, this is a very helpful resource to you because Dr. Shankaranarayana dives into the full yamas found in both Patanjali’s yama sutras as well as those in Yoga Yajnavalkya. Namaste!
Summary by Aubrey Kearney