Yoga Principles: The 5 Yamas of Patañjali

by Judith Lasater on May 21, 2014

By my early 20s I had taken up the study of yoga, and I really wanted to “understand” what life was all about. Soon I realized that I couldn’t figure it all out by thinking, and my questioning became more practical: How was I going to act in this life? What choices would I make? It is said that the only things we really own are our actions, and if that was the case, I wondered, what exact principles could I use to guide my actions in my everyday life?

One of the biggest helps to me in this search for how to live well was the discovery of the five yamas of Patañjali, elucidated in his Yoga Sutra, Chapter II, v. 30.

What Are Yamas?

Yama is a Sanskrit word that means “restraint.” Restraint is not a popular idea in today’s culture. We don’t want to restrain anything. But restraint is the paradoxical key to freedom. Restraint in the form of awareness of our thoughts and actions allows us to discover exactly where we are holding on and thus where we are unconscious. What remains unconscious in us has great power over us, limiting our happiness.

When we restrain as a practice, we deliberately hesitate so that we can feel and observe what is going on. This is not the hesitation of denial or avoidance. It is the hesitation of introspection. The yamas help us to hesitate so we can make better choices in life.

First Yama: Doing No Harm

The first yama is the most famous and the most universal. It is ahimsa, or nonharming. Ahimsa is not only the foundation of the practice of yoga; it is the foundation of a life well-lived and a basic principle that allows society to exist. Ahimsa is actually based on the fundamental understanding that we are all connected. Physicists tell us that all that really exists is a sea of atomic and subatomic particles and lots and lots of space. If we extrapolate this idea to human beings, on our most basic level we are all made up mostly of space, and our sense of separateness is an illusion.

If we remember this fact, we then realize that harming others is harming ourselves, and harming ourselves is the same thing as harming others. The mistaken belief in separation allows us to harm, whether that separation is from other people or from our very selves.

One can practice ahimsa by practicing kindness. Be kind to yourself first, and then to everyone else. Be kind to the waiter who is not as helpful as you would like; be kind to the grumpy neighbor who never acknowledges your smile; be kind to the people you work with, even if you don’t like them; above all, be kind to your family and your students. Not only will you like how you feel when you do this, but you will affect those around you in positive ways you will probably never know.

Choosing to harm may be tempting sometimes, but in the end it creates more suffering. When we are rude to someone, for example, we not only “harm” them but we influence them as well. We all know the reverberations of someone in traffic acting toward us in a way we label as “rude.” We arrive at work disgruntled and agitated. How different it is when someone lets you into the traffic lane with a wave and a smile. We feel happy and enter work with that attitude.

Second Yama: Telling the Truth

The second yama is satya, or telling the truth. Lying is one of the most destructive things to our relationships. Lying is direct harming. One of my favorite “mantras of daily living” is, “When in doubt, tell the truth.”

But I try to remember to tell the truth in a kind way. If you are working with a student in yoga class, instead of saying, “You are doing the pose wrong,” try instead, “I am concerned with how your knee is positioned in that pose, and I don’t want you to hurt yourself. Let’s try it another way if you are willing.” This allows you to be kind and truthful at the same time, and it is a more effective teaching technique as well because the student receives helpful information and an opportunity to learn.

Not practicing satya is a form of harming. Sometimes we practice ahimsa the most when we tell the truth and do not lie to “protect” someone. I find that when I hear myself saying, “I wanted to protect someone; that’s why I lied,” the real reason is different. The real reason I have lied is to protect myself from feelings I predict I will have or judgments I predict will come my way when I tell the truth.

If you want a real-world practice of satya, do not gossip for one month. Telling a friend what has happened to a mutual friend is not gossiping. Gossiping is full of judgment, not just information. Restraining from gossiping will make you aware of the power of truthful speech.

To learn about the other three yamas, please see “Living Your Yoga: The Five Yamas Of Patañjali” in the online IDEA Library or in the March 2014 print issue of IDEA Fitness Journal. If you cannot access the full article and would like to, please contact the IDEA Inspired Service Team at (800) 999-4332, ext. 7.

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About the Author

Judith Lasater IDEA Author/Presenter