Do you live by a certain code of conduct? How do you make decisions? When yoga expert Judith Hanson Lasater, PhD, PT, was in her early 20s, she found herself asking questions like these and wondering what principles to use to direct her actions.
Lasater’s search led her to the five yamas of Patañjali, explained in his Yoga Sutra. The yamas may also help you. Here Lasater, founder of Yoga Journal magazine and a yoga teacher since 1971, defines the yamas and explains each of them.
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. 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 non-harming. 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.
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 polite as you would like; be kind to the people you work with, even if you don’t like them; and, above all, be kind to your family. 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.
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.”
In discussions with my grown children, I find they sometimes have a different opinion of an event than I do. I may not agree with what they say, but I can practice satya and say, “I see how you might feel that way.” This creates a space for connection between us and yet allows me to speak my truth.
If you want a real-world practice of satya, do not gossip for 1 month. Gossiping is full of judgment, not just information. Restraining from gossiping will make you aware of the power of truthful speech.
Third Yama: Not Taking From Others
The third yama is asteya, or nonstealing. It means more than refraining from outright theft. It also means not taking more than we need. If we take more than we need, we are taking from others.
If we are mindful of how much food we take, how much water we use, how much of the world’s resources we use, that is practicing asteya.
Fourth Yama: Being Mindful With Our Sexuality
The fourth yama, brahmacharya, or continence, is sometimes perplexing for Westerners who are not living in celibacy as monks or nuns. The word itself can be translated as “brahma,” the Creator; “char,” to walk or go; and “ya,” actively doing it—thus, “walking with God.”
So brahmacharya really means using our sexuality in a nonharming way that brings us to wholeness or Spirit. Brahmacharya can be celibacy, but it can also be monogamy. It is also being sexual in a way that evinces deep respect for oneself and one’s partner.
Fifth Yama: Refraining From Greed
The fifth yama is aparigraha, or nongreed. The term comes from words meaning “not taking into one’s house.”
Greed is the belief that whatever we have, it is not enough. We see what others have and want more to feel worthy and “enough.” A critical question that can shape our life in meaningful ways is to ask, “What is enough?”
How many T-shirts do you own? 50? Is that enough? What is enough money? What is enough living space in your house? What is enough yoga? Enough exercise? Enough food? Enough love? Asking yourself this question is the practice of aparigraha.