Living Your Yoga: The Five Yamas of Patañjali
Essential principles for guiding your actions with students and in everyday life.
Beginning students cling to the teacher; experienced students cling to the teaching; wise students notice their clinging and let it go.
Even in childhood I had a philosophical bent. I distinctly remember sitting at the dinner table with my twin brother and discussing with him why the dog could eat hamburger and it became “dog,” whereas we could eat hamburger and it became “us.” An interesting question for a couple of 9-year-olds to pursue. Sadly, we never figured it out.
By my early 20s I had taken up the study of yoga, and my worrisome wondering about the big questions of meaning and purpose in life was becoming more refined. Now 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 is 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 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.
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. A useful illusion, but an illusion nonetheless.
If we remember this literal and philosophical 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. It could be said that, in a way, mental illness is a profound separation from ourselves.
Few people would argue with the practice of ahimsa; what is more difficult is to live ahimsa. If one did live it, what would that look like?
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 or polite 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. We find it more difficult to be present with students. How different it is when someone lets us into the traffic lane with a wave and a smile. We feel happy and enter work with that attitude. Kindness is contagious.
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. For example, if a friend asks what I think of her new dress, which I actually find ugly, I can be kind and truthful by saying, “The color is so bright.” If pressed, I might say, “I don’t like it as much as the blue one you wore the other day.”
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.
In discussions with my grown children, I find they sometimes have a very different opinion of an event, or of my actions, 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. I can understand and not agree. What a liberation!
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 predicted I would have or judgments I predicted would come my way if I told 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.
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.
As a teacher, I am careful to start and stop my classes on time. I know teachers who go past their class ending time, believing they give more to their students by doing so. But another way to look at it is to remember that when we keep people late, we steal the most important thing from them: their time, their life. They can never get this back.
Start your class on time to show your respect for the practice; end your session on time to show respect for your students and their precious time.
Fourth Yama: Being Mindful With Our Sexuality
The fourth yama, brahmacharya, 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. I have been taught that brahmacharya can indeed 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.
If our sexual actions are engaged in with mutuality and respect, and in a spirit of nonharming, we are practicing brahmacharya. This means sexuality is not used to manipulate or control, and sex is not just a mindless act.
It is especially important to be mindful of practicing brahmacharya when one is in the role of teacher. Your students open themselves to you, and thus, any—even the slightest—sexual behavior, like flirting, muddies the waters of the student-teacher relationship and impacts other students in class.
When a teacher crosses the boundary between student and teacher, the student is almost always the one who pays the emotional price. It is healthiest for everyone if the relationship remains simply about sharing yoga in the classroom and goes no further than that.
Again, it can be seen how ahimsa is the foundation of this yama as well.
Fifth Yama: Refraining From Greed
The fifth yama is aparigraha, or non-greed. 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? How many trendy yoga outfits? 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. I once heard that in a dialect of Chinese, a customary question after a meal is, “Have you eaten to contentment?” This question steers us away from greed and invites us to focus instead on enjoying what we have right now. To cultivate this sort of awareness is to practice aparigraha and to learn to appreciate what we already have.
The practice of yoga is not just about what we are able to do with our bodies or breath. It is rather about learning who we really are. Yoga is about reintroducing us to our Divinity or Consciousness by bringing us back to ourselves.
Through the practice of yoga we are paradoxically finding that which was never lost: our deepest selves. The yamas are tools for remaining aware of our actions and words and of their effect on us and on the world so we can choose what residue we want to leave for generations to come. Practicing these “restraints” ultimately liberates us into the vastness of loving ourselves and others. And that changes the world.