Exploring the Five Yamas in Yoga: Definition and Tips for Practice

The Yamas are the ethical, moral and social guidelines that a yogi should follow. The Yamas are expressed as positive statements, which describe how a yoga acts and interacts with her environment when she is truly immersed in a unitive state. The Yamas, while we may not aim to achieve such a state, are still valuable guides for living a conscious and ethical life.

Patanjali regarded the Yamas as the great, powerful and universal vows. He tells us to practice them on all levels, including actions, words and thoughts, and that these vows are not limited by class, place, or time ( YS 2.31).

Five Yamas of Yoga

  1. Ahimsa means non-violence. This includes violence against others, as well as self. Most often, we create violence in our reactions, creating anger, criticism or judgment. The Buddhist practice of compassion has been a great tool for me to promote non-violence. Compassion is accepting events with an open, loving heart. Compassion is the ability to let go of a negative reaction and replace it with love, kindness and acceptance. Practice compassion at first is difficult, frustrating, and not enjoyable. The key is to laugh at the contradiction and have compassion for yourself for not being compassionate.
  2. Satya (truthfulness), urges us at all times to speak and live our truth. It is difficult to walk the path of truth, particularly when you are also trying to respect Patanjali’s first Yama: Ahimsa. Ahimsa is the first thing that must be followed, so we should be cautious not to speak truths if they will harm another. Living your truth creates not only respect, integrity, and honor but also the vision needed to see the higher truths on the yogic journey.
  3. Asteya is defined as the act of not taking something that is not given freely. This may seem simple, but it can be difficult to achieve. Asteya is a practice that requires a person to not steal physically, nor cause or approve of someone else doing it, whether in words, actions, or thoughts. Asteya is a way to oppose exploitation, injustice and oppression in society. Asteya is not an easy practice, but it encourages generosity and defeats Lobha. As Patanjali says, “When Asteya has been firmly established within a yogi all jewels become available to him/her.”
  4. Brahmacharya, or continence, states that when you have control over your physical impulses to excess, you gain knowledge, energy, and vigor. We need courage and will to break the bonds of our addictions and excesses. Each time we defeat these impulses to excess, we become healthier and wiser. Yoga’s main goal is to maintain and create balance. Brahmacharya is the easiest way to achieve balance. It involves a moderate approach in all our activities. Moderation conserves our energy and allows us to use it for spiritually higher purposes.
  5. Aparigraha, or non-coveting, encourages us to let everything go that we don’t need and possess only what is necessary. Yoga teaches us that we cannot possess anything in this world, because it is subject to change. We lose sight of our eternal possession – the Atman, or our true Self – when we become greedy. When we cling on to what we already have, we lose our ability to be open and receive what we really need.

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