The next yoga sutra after the explanation of the 8 Limbs of Yoga breaks down the yamas, which was the first limb. These are moral restraints that the yogi is encouraged to observe. Remembering that the point of yoga is actually unity with self, creation, and God, the yamas begin the process by reminding us to live peacefully with each other. The yamas are reminiscent of some of the Ten Commandments and what it means to love our neighbors as ourselves. They are fairly universal and reinforce the restraint of actions that tear people and communities apart.
The first yama is Ahimsa. This literally translates to “do no harm” but can also be considered “nonviolence”. Personally, I prefer “do no harm”. Simply asking that we not be violent let’s us off the hook on ways that we damage our relationships and contribute to the harm of others with what we buy or endorse. Even Swami Satchninanda, the guru who provides commentary on the translation I have of the Yoga Sutras, calls it more “to not cause pain” than simply “not killing”. There are more ways than I could articulate here that we do harm to each other from judging others to imposing our beliefs on them to not believing in their abilities at all. Ahimsa is a great beginning to the yogi experience even if you only consider it on the mat.
It’s why yoga classes in the US are structured the way they are. We believe in your ability to do the pose and respect where you are in it. It’s one of the first things I learned “on the way down”: Don’t be so ambitious in a pose that you hurt yourself or disrespectful of anyone else’s place you put them in a position to be hurt either.
The second yama is Satya or truthfulness. The beautiful thing about truthfulness in yoga is that it also stays away from being brutal. I never understood why brutal truth was soon as such a great thing. Yes, there are truths we need to hear that will cause pain but not more than living in a lie. There’s still a better way to deliver truth to people.
There are two sides to truth too. There’s telling the truth and there’s living your truth. I know a lot of people roll their eyes at that term, but it’s something that needs to be done in order to tell the truth. If I can’t tell you who I am, how can I really be honest about anything that comes after that?
The third yama is Ayetsa. Do not steal. Though this may seem quite basic, we need to remember that we steal more than objects. There are interactions we have that leave us feeling like something was taken from us. It’s in those times we are excited about something and someone dashes our hopes or when we talk over each other or when we don’t allow someone’s truth to come out because of our judgement of who they should be. It’s in the times we think that it’s okay to sabotage our future in favor of today.
So, yes, it can be as basic as not stealing objects but also as small as not stealing someone’s attention. This breeds contentment with what we have in all aspects of our lives and the few glimmers of truly having this that I’ve seen makes people feel like they live in abundance instead of the scarcity ads are always trying to convince us of.
The fourth yama is Bramhcharya. This one can be a little complicated because of disagreement in translation. Swami Satchninanda calls it continence or celibacy. He goes on to explain that it’s not absolute celibacy but moderation and abstaining before marriage. He talks about the vital energy that we preserve when abstaining from sex before marriage as the reason to do so, which I found to be an interesting counter to a lot of the other reasons I hear in the US for abstinence.
In contrast, the Yamas and Niyamas book I mentioned before says that it is translated sometimes as “nonexcess” but that the literal translation means “walk with God”. It’s about being a good steward of creation and not taking more than what we need and not depriving others of what they need. It reminds us that all things are sacred in some way to someone and to remember the divinity of everyone. Figuring out how to better share and preserve our resources allows us to have more than we need, to share more, and to maybe get to a place where we don’t have to worry about basic needs for anyone. It brings us back around to some of the ideas of ayetsa.
A dangerous mindset we tend to fall into, especially in the US, is what we “deserve” or have “earned” something. While those things may be true, if we can’t use it, we aren’t being good stewards of the gifts of our world by holding onto it. There is always a better way to handle a little excess than hoarding.
The fifth yama is Aparigraha. It can be considered nonpossessive or simply letting go of things. The whole idea is as alluring as it seems allusive. It’s about letting go of not just possessions, but expectations and baggage. I don’t know if I’ll ever get good at this one but it’s worth trying. I know I’ve come along on the mat. I’m reminded every time I get into forward fold and any of the splits. I have to let go of where I think I should be in this pose. Today’s flexibility is not the same as yesterday’s and tomorrow will be different too.
Aparigraha reminds us to not hold on to what no longer serves us. That’s a sentence I’ve heard a lot in yoga circles, probably because the fear of not being enough or doing enough or having enough plagues so many of us. But this fear doesn’t serve us. It works to hold us back from experiencing surrender, vulnerability, connection, and the weightlessness of knowing we already are everything we need to be.
The five yamas work together to prepare a yogi for life on the mat and off it. There are so many more beautiful things to experience and connections to have when we strive to do no harm, to live our truth, to not take what isn’t ours, to walk with God, and leave behind whatever no longer serves us.