Outlined in Chapter 2 of the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali (2:30-31, 2:35-39), the Yamas are the first of the eight limbs of Classical Yoga. Sometimes referred to as the “Yoga No's” Patanjali infers that if you restrain yourself as prescribed by the Five Yamas (non-violence, non-lying, non-stealing, non-excess, and non-greed), you will suffer less. Through practicing the Yamas, we create an environment for joy, freedom, and empowerment that yoga offers. Though the action from which we must restrain may seem extreme (i.e. - non-violence), we often perform these actions subtly, either through unconscious thought patterns or more passive actions. Like all aspects of yoga, the Yamas are asking us to be mindful of our thoughts and actions toward others and toward ourselves.
The Five Yamas (Restraints)
Ahimsa - non-violence
Satya - non-lying (truthfulness)
Asteya - non-stealing
Brahmacharya - non-excess (restraint of the senses)
Aparigraha - non-greed
At its core, non-violence is truly the practice of compassion for ourselves and others. When this is done, we hate no one and we have no enemies. Even when someone has wronged us physically, energetically, or philosophically, we bear them no ill will. Great examples from history of leaders expressly practicing Ahimsa are Gandhi, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Buddha.
Though it’s seemingly straight-forward to do no harm to others, much of the violence we do/experience in our circles is self-inflicted. In our negative self-talk and negative beliefs about ourselves, we establish an inner ethos of turmoil and discontent. When we work to rewrite our inner dialogue, we open ourselves to the capacity for greater self-love that we can then perpetuate into the world.
Satya is allowing ourselves to lift the veils of ignorance that surrounds our thoughts and actions. Of course, this refers to telling the truth to others, but often we do not allow ourselves to see the truth of a situation due to internal obstacles such as attachment, denial, and fear. Long-held beliefs about the world or ourselves can cause us to obstruct our own personal evolution and thus create stagnation and internal suffering. An example of this is if you see yourself as a reliable and eager person, you might have a tendency to over-commit yourself well beyond your energetic capacity. When we are honest with ourselves and others, it allows us to live our lives with authenticity and grace.
Another point to make is when we’re faced with situations that cause discomfort, we must be honest with ourselves about our limitations. Yoga asks us to grow beyond perceived evolutionary boundaries, but if we believe that we’re not strong enough, flexible enough, coordinated enough, then we may never grow beyond our current incarnation. For example, when you’re practicing an uncomfortable yoga posture and your mind tells you to leave due to the discomfort. If you leave the pose, you will never grow beyond that point. Conversely, if you stay (even just a moment longer), you’ll push yourself further in your practice. Satya, in this case, is understanding the truth of why you stay and why you leave.
Like Satya, Asteya implies honesty. In the physical realm, it means not taking what isn’t yours, but there are more subtle ways to practice non-stealing. Interrupting someone when they are speaking is a form of theft. Not considering someone’s viewpoint in a conversation is a form of theft. Not being present when someone is talking to you is a form of theft. Thinking of a reply when someone is talking to you versus truly listening to them is theft. Mindfulness can help us to keep from committing these smaller slights.
Oftentimes, we steal from ourselves. When practicing a yoga posture, are you staying present with what the pose is offering you physically, energetically, and mentally? If not, you might be taking yourself away from a profound moment in your practice. In a yoga class, are you constantly looking around and comparing yourself and practice to the people nearby? By focusing on them, you’re not doing “your” practice, but attempting theirs. The Bhagavad Gita says that it’s better to do your duty incorrectly than to do someone else’s well.
Again, Asteya is asking us to remain present so that we don't miss out on life. Anytime we stray from our center, we risk losing out of the present moment. I use the analogy of time traveling (which many of us are good at) to describe non-presence. Anytime you are not focused on the present moment, you are, by default, traveling into the past or the future.
Classically, Brahmacharya implies chastity, but we can dissect the meaning further to mean “moderation” or “non-excess.” This Yama is asking us to manage our energy in a way that we do not experience depletion. Anything done in excess creates an imbalance in our lives, from food to sex, and to work. When we don’t practice moderation, we are wasting energy that is needed to be vital and to fulfill our purpose.
Internally, Brahmacharya can be understood as not indulging in habitual tendencies. This can include certain strains of thought (for example, being critical) or physical habit patterns. In your yoga practice, you may really like a certain posture or flow, but if you only stick to that flow or practice it beyond necessity, you can create physical and energetic depletion or imbalance. For example, when practicing a standing balancing posture, I favor my left leg. Over time, the muscular definition of my left calve has become dramatically different from my right. The practice of Brahmacharya is to be aware of such tendencies and to be vigilant in changing/correcting them.
Aparigraha (non-grasping, non-greed)
Intrinsically, Aparigraha is asking us to not grasp at our wants and desires. We can still have ambitions, but we must practice patience while pursuing our paths. Sometimes this non-attachment can be translated to mean minimalism, and that is true. But it also refers to not being attached to beliefs, thought patterns, and philosophies about ourselves, others, and the world at large. It calls us to question the necessity of the things around and within us and to make changes (be not attached) to reduce our personal suffering.
In physical practice, it can mean having patience in a posture and not pushing ourselves beyond a safe point (attempting to have the posture “look” a certain way). Patience for ourselves in our practice allows us unconstricted space to grow. Now staying with this “safe point” is not being fearful of a pose. I only imply the exercise of caution; understanding why you shouldn’t go further into a pose (maybe you’re not warmed up enough or going further could cause undue injury). Fear of moving further and caution while proceeding are two different concepts.