Working on our spiritual life is an ongoing practice that will take many different twists and turns because life is always changing. The yamas give us a guide to live more consciously. They are not always easy to practice and may require some soul searching on our part, but that’s the point. They help us to approach life with awareness, compassion and personal growth. A nice way to practice the yamas is to take one and work with it over a certain time frame, say a week or a month, longer if necessary, and then be open to, and aware of, the transformations that take place, whether that is speaking kinder words, letting go of a past resentment or watching less TV!
Here are brief descriptions of the five yamas:
- Ahimsa – nonviolence; not causing pain
“When nonviolence in speech, thought and action is established, one’s aggressive nature is relinquished and others abandon hostility in one’s presence.” –Yoga Sutras
Ahimsa is derived from two words: a, “not,” and himsa, “harm,” meaning “nonharming.”
This goes beyond physical harm of a person or thing. Our words, thoughts and actions can cause pain to others and we can act violently to ourselves by our negative thoughts. The Yoga Sutras states, “Causing pain can be even more harmful than killing.
Even by your words, even by your thoughts, you can cause pain.” Practice compassion, love, and peacefulness and creating a positive self-dialogue. Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Martin Luther King, Jr all dedicated their lives to ahimsa.
- Satya – truthfulness
“When the practitioner is firmly established in the practice of the truth, his words become so potent that whatever he says comes to realization.” –Yoga Sutras
Satya is derived from sat, referring to the truth of God or the universe and ya, an activating prefix in Sanskrit; therefore satya means, “actively becoming the truth of the universe or God.” Ahimsa needs to be practiced with satya. Letting love direct our truthfulness, not using harmful words, and letting go of judgment towards others are other ways of practicing satya. Judith Lasater, an internationally known yoga teacher, in her book Living Your Yoga, suggests asking yourself three questions before speaking: Is it necessary? Is it true? Is it nonharming? If you can answer “yes” to all these questions, it may be okay to proceed. If not, you must weigh what is the right action in the situation.
She also goes on to write about another aspect of satya, which is inner truth and integrity.
“Honesty is what we do when others are around…but to have integrity is to act in an honest manner when others are not around and will never know about our actions.”
3. Asteya – non-stealing
“When abstention from stealing is firmly established, precious jewels come.” –Yoga Sutras
Steya means “to steal”; asteya is the opposite. Besides the obvious of taking something that belongs to another, there are other, deeper meanings to this yama. Jealousy can be a form of stealing, such as taking credit for another person’s work or stealing someone’s reputation by spreading gossip about that person. We steal from ourselves all the time by
being too focused on the future and not enjoying the present moment. There are some who interpret this yama to also mean not taking more than what we need; not sharing our talents; or not giving to others less fortunate when we have an abundance of “stuff” to give. In his book Meditations from the Mat, Rolf Gates writes, “Each theft, each time we ‘forget’ to return something we’ve borrowed, each moment we give in to the impulse to covet or to be jealous, we are saying, ‘My God is not.’ To practice asteya, we must abandon ourselves to the care of the universe. We must say in each moment, with each thought, word and deed, ‘My God is’.”
- Brahmacharya – moderation
“When the practitioner is firmly established in continence, knowledge, vigor, valor, and energy flow to him.” –Yoga Sutras
The literal translation of brahmacharya is “walking with God” or “to remain connected to Source.” This is the hardest of the yamas to understand, as the classical meaning is “celibacy.” But if we dig deeper we will find that this yama is about finding moderation in our life, whether that is our sexual energy, food, alcohol, watching television, etc. Brahmacharya is about personal responsibility and creating balance in our life. In one of my teacher training manuals this quote sums up this yama beautifully, “This day I am moderate, centered and complete. I use my energy in ways that lead me closer to my Source. I treat others and myself with respect, recognizing the inherent Divinity of all people. I’m connected to my true self.”
- Aparigraha – nonpossessiveness
“If we are completely free from stealing and greed, contented with what we have, and if we keep serene minds, all wealth comes to us.” –Yoga Sutras
The root word of aparigraha is parigraha, which means to reach for something and claim it for yourself. By adding the “a” in front of the word, it takes on the opposite definition. Aparigraha, therefore, is the act of letting go. Practicing this yama may mean consuming less and living more or practicing nonattachment to possessions and people. People are ours to be with, not to have or to own. It’s okay to have a lot but not attach who we are to it. Aparigraha also means letting go of past resentments, anger and fear, or the obstacles preventing us from living a productive and happy life. At its deepest level, aparigraha is about forgiveness.
Ultimately the yamas are about practicing love, both toward others and oneself.