Yama is the translation to restraint, meaning moral disciplines that according to Patanjali are universal.
It is the first limb as it is a really important one. It is not easy to be moral at all times, and the objective of Yoga as a whole is really to reach an unity within body, mind and spirit, and without morality, this can’t be attained. Patanjali guides us on some of these moral vows and he explains it carefully and clearly in his book, but basically is a guide on how to behave with the world around us and with ourselves. The beauty of the Yamas is that every person can understand it differently and apply it to different moments of their lives. This means we should not only apply these Yamas on the mat, but also off them, in our everyday activities and actions.
According to Patanjali, there are 5 main Yamas:
Ahimsa: non-harming or non-violence
Usually described as “nonviolence” but more literally translated from Sanskrit as “absence of injury” is an ancient concept originating in the Vedas—Indian spiritual and philosophical wisdom dating from as far back as 1900 BCE, or nearly 4,000 years ago.
This Yama is for me one of the most important. It is really broad, so you are free to interpret it as you want, but as a guidance it mainly means not to do bad to any living beings. It is not about hurting others only but also not to hurt ourselves. And this is not just on a physical but also at an emotional level.
How many times we hurt ourselves with negative thinking, with blame, guilt, and how many times we mirror that to other people, being aggressive due to the lack of our own compassion? It is so important to first be kind with ourselves and then dealing with all lives is much easier and kinder, as we are doing to others what we are doing to us, which is only good.
Many people also take Ahimsa as a foundation for their vegetarian diet In this post I discuss about whether it is actually necessary to be a vegetarian to become a Yogi.
We could also apply this Yama on the mat, by really not pushing our boundaries and avoiding injuries, trying not to harm ourselves with poses that we are not ready to practise yet. This brings me to the next Yama, Satya – or truthfulness.
Satya is about being honest, with ourselves and with the rest. But it goes even beyond that. ‘Sat’ means unchangeable, the true essence. And it takes a lot of practise to identify and understand there is an unchangeable essence that lies within us.
To discover this true essence calm in the mind is needed. Stillness. And that takes a lot of practise.
When we fill ourselves with thoughts, we are not being truthful with ourselves. We tend to think we are those thoughts, we become those thoughts. For example ‘ I am not good enough for this..’ ‘ I will never be able to change this..’. How many times we believe what those thoughts say? Being able to let the thoughts happen and be there without getting involved takes a lot of practise and understanding of true essence.
If we know our true essence, we will know those thoughts are passing through our minds but we will not be attached with them emotionally. That is they key.
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras says:“To one established in truthfulness, actions and their results become subservient”, hence, if we know ourselves, if we are in our true essence, anything that comes after that will be based on truth, and not on fear or ignorance, as it usually happens when we let the fluctuations of the mind interfere on our stillness.
A daily practise can help us to visualize those thoughts, to learn to identify them, knowing they are there, without getting attached. It means that practising Yoga, not only the physical practise but also the other 7 limbs, will help us towards attaining a space between essence and mind, and gain more clarity on what we really are.
And also, related to the physical practise itself, Satya is linked to Ahimsa in the sense that we need to be honest with ourselves in what asanas we can do at the moment or not. There is nothing like a perfect pose, nothing that says that we need to do an armstand to be a perfect Yogi. Understanding the movements we can do without extra forcing ourselves is really important. How many times do we see these ‘perfect’ Yoga postures and we believe we will never be able to do those? I am a Yoga teacher and I can’t definitely get to those poses! But there is nothing that says you have to reach those postures, every person’s body is different, and you need to challenge yourself, yes, but to the point where you know your body will be comfortable, and you know your body, you know when you are extra doing it. Practise make the master, be patient. Asanas teach us to be patient and to be content with what we can achieve TODAY. It is all about today at the end.
The 3rd Yama, is about non-stealing. And here it is clear the concept of not taking things from others, but it also goes beyond that.
“To one established in non-stealing, all wealth comes.”
It is about accepting and being content with what we have, without looking and comparing ourselves to what we lack by looking at others. If we are content, we would never have the need of stealing anything from any living. By living morally with ourselves and others, wealth will come as a result of our own actions.
Also, we are not talking only about material stuff, such as stealing a bike, a purse, etc. Non-stealing can also be broadened to any other aspect in life. For example, not stealing time from others. Let’s say we have a meeting and we are running late. Trying to be punctual is another way of avoiding stealing the most precious gift, which is time.
More spiritually, we can also think about non-stealing our own dreams and hopes. Many times our thoughts let us down with negative thinking, taking away the enthusiasm and motivation. We should not let that happen.
There are so many diverse ways to think about this Yama, that is the magic about it!
On the mat, we can think as non-stealing as giving you the time to practise. Even if we only have 20 minutes a day to be on the mat, we can make the most of it to become better and healthier every day. Not stealing our own commitments, and giving us time to enjoy will lead in a calmer and patient mind and spirit.
Brahmacharya: celibacy or ‘right use of energy’
The translation of this Yama is usually polemic, especially nowadays, as one could read it as if we had to be a celibate in order to be a Yogi. Traditionally, it was meant to encourage Yogis to conserve their sexual energy to channel it through their Yoga practise. As traditions evolved, this Yama started to be interpreted as the right use of energy, meaning that it is not asking people to be cast, but to use their own light and energy towards the right purposes.
Many times we feel that negativity for example drains us and takes energy out of us. Same could happen with toxic thoughts, arguments, stress, anxiety and excessive worries.
The idea of ‘ saving’ energy for good things also includes the Yoga practise. If we are able to keep energy to be better on and off the mat, we would be using that energy for positive things, and energy would be multiplied rather than destroyed.
Other ways to save energy is by trying to move away from external pleasures and trying to focus more on our internal peace and happiness. As human beings it is hard not to have pleasures, and that is not something bad at all, we all have them! This is more about the excess, about putting too much energy on the external world, on things we want that don’t belong to us when we could save that energy to be content with our inner self and be more spiritual to achieve personal growth and calmness without so much need of what happens around.
I definitely like this Yama – despite its bad PR – it is at the end all about placing our focus in the most important things in life.
Aparigraha: Non-greed, Non-attachment
The last but not least Yama is all about not being attached to anything or anyone.
And by non attachment, we don’t mean only not to be attached to material things, but also to emotional barriers and prejudices we have.
Many times we do things just for the result we will achieve, rather than for enjoying and becoming aware of what we are doing. They have this prefixed idea that only the result is what matters and we seem to be attached to that, hence, if we do not achieve the result we want – let’s face it, it never happens – we then frustrate just by the ideal we had in our mind of what perfection was.
Non attachment is about letting go, letting go of anger, letting go of mistakes or someone else made,letting go of people, letting go of unwanted feelings. It is about understanding everything as it comes it leaves, it passes. It does not mean that we should not care about people, about things in general. Not at all. It just means that we should let people and things flow as they are/happen if that is the course they have to take.
I think for me this is one of the hardest Yamas to put into practise, but the most challenging and rewarding.
We can apply this Yama into every single aspect of our lives, on our diet, on our clothes, on our jobs, on our personal relationships.
On the mat, it is about not attaching to those concepts of what Yoga should be. You create your own style according to what is good for you. Don’t attach yourself to a concept imposed from the media or from others about what should be, when, and where. You are the owner of your own life and spirit and learning to let go every heavy bag will make yourself lighter and open to more experiences.