The Five Yamas of Yoga

At the beginning of Patanjali’s eight-fold path of yoga lays the Yamas: the moral, ethical and societal guidelines for the practicing yogi. These guidelines are all expressed in the positive, and thus become emphatic descriptions of how a yogi behaves and relates to her world when truly immersed in the unitive sate of yoga. While we may not strive to reach such a pure state ourselves, the Yamas are still highly relevant and valued guides to lead a conscious, honest and ethical life.

Patanjali considered the Yamas the great, mighty and universal vows. He instructs us that they should be practiced on all levels (actions, words, and thoughts) and that are not confined to class, place, time or concept of duty (YS 2.31).

Ahimsa is the practice of non-violence, which includes physical, mental, and emotional violence towards others and the self. We create violence most often in our reactions to events and others, habitually creating judgment, criticism, anger or irritation. I have found the Buddhist practice of compassion to be an excellent tool to foster non-violence in my life. Compassion is the ability to accept events as they are with an open and loving heart. It is a letting go of reacting to a situation in a conditional and negative way, and replaces those thoughts or feelings with kindness, acceptance and love. At first practicing compassion is hard, frustrating and not fun. But the key is to have compassion for oneself for not having compassion, and to smile at this contradiction.

Satya (truthfulness) urges us to live and speak our truth at all times. Walking the path of truth is a hard one, especially while respecting Patanjali’s first Yama, Ahimsa. Since Ahimsa must be practiced first, we must be careful to not speak a truth if we know it will cause harm to another. Living in your truth not only creates respect, honor and integrity but also provides the vision to clearly see the higher truths of the yogic path.

Asteya (non-stealing) is best defined as not taking what is not freely given. While this may on the surface seem easy to accomplish, when we look further this Yama can be quite challenging to practice. On a personal level the practice of Asteya entails not committing theft physically and/or not causing or approving of anyone else doing so–in mind, word, or action. On the level of society, Asteya would be in opposition to exploitation, social injustice and oppression. While not easy, practicing Asteya encourages generosity and overcomes Lobha (greed). And as Patanjali tells us, “when Asteya is firmly established in a yogi, all jewels will become present to him/her.” (YS 2.37).

Brahmacharya (continence) states that when we have control over our physical impulses of excess, we attain knowledge, vigor, and increased energy. To break the bonds that attach us to our excesses and addictions, we need both courage and will. And each time we overcome these impulses of excess we become stronger, healthier and wiser. One of the main goals in yoga is to create and maintain balance. And the simplest method for achieving balance is by practicing Brahmacharya, creating moderation in all of our activities. Practicing moderation is a way of conserving our energy, which can then be applied for higher spiritual purposes.

Aparigraha (non-coveting) urges us to let go of everything that we do not need, possessing only as much as necessary. The yogis tell us that worldly objects cannot be possessed at all, as they are all subject to change and will be ultimately destroyed. When we become greedy and covetous we lose the ability to see our one eternal possession, the Atman, our true Self. And when we cling to what we have we lose the ability to be open to receive what we need.

In a practical sense, the practicing the Yamas eliminates or reduces the accumulation of bad karma as well as prevents the draining of our energy when we lead a false and/or unconscious life. When we practice the Yamas we are striving towards living a healthier, holier and more peaceful life and at the same time we strengthen our powers of awareness, will and discernment. Engaging in these practices is not an easy task, yet by doing so we fortify our character, improve our relationships with others, and further our progress along the path of yoga.

Comments 15

  1. When i very first really starting to get interested in yoga and all of its fundamentals, i found that it really calmed me and made it easier to let things go. And i quit for a long time. now that i look back i can see the real difference in the violent me and the peaceful me. And i am determined to get that back. Thank you so much for providing these guidelines.

    1. I can relate to this, as well. Like you, I used to practice yoga and felt much more balanced, but then quit years ago and have felt unhappy and unfulfilled. I am ready to begin yoga, because it was such a more satisfying path than this aggravating and miserable path I am currently on.

  2. I dont feel like I’m conected to my spitit at all…but I really want to learn how to be. I have no idea who I am anymore.

  3. skylar- Yes, it is possible to become enlightened, but it is rare and really hard to do.

    Sit and breathe and go inside. Set the thoughts aside and look deeply within and see what you find.

    1. Hi Everybody,
      I read obove article on “yamas”. First of all its not yamas its Yama. This is a Sanskrit word and in Sanskrit we don’t add “s” to convert singular to plural. There are 8 limbs or parts in yog. The first limb is Yam which are well explained above except brahmacharya, which in layman’s language means to conserve you semen I.e… Not to indulge in sex until and unless you desire to have children’s. That’s right its tough but when we practices it for like a month we feel as if we are more powerful, honest , workaholic and much more. Its all about experiencing.Its irrespective of your religious belief . For literature review read Shatyarth Prakash by Rishi Dayanand Saraswati , Yogsutra, Many Smiriti, etc.

  4. now at the art(yoga) now. now at the(yoga) being art now. being art at being at the(yoga) at the(oneness)now. now is(practice) at form (now) where yourat is atman at enlightend yogic art atman.

  5. I will have to disagree with Timothy.
    It isn’t hard and it isn’t rare to become enlightened. It’s something that we all already have inside of us, something we’ve all already learned and understood but have hidden and pushed away with our ego. I’ll agree with him by saying that the answers are all within. Never look for anything outside of yourself. Peace, love and enlightenment are already within you.

    I believe we are already enlightened beings to start off with. We’re not trying to become enlightenned because that’s what we already are. We are trying to identify our ego when it is present and take away its power. Only then can your true, enlightened self, shine through.

    People might disagree with me. Some people like to think of enlightenment as this very distant thing that they can’t reach when really, I believe you already have it. You just need to quiet your ego which is blurring it. That’s where the “hard” part comes in, because we all cling to our ego so much. We feel satisfaction in being a victim, blaming, criticizing, idealizing scenarios in our head, etc…

    Just my two cents :)

  6. Kassandra – I think our disagreement is due to how one defines enlightenment. And you seem to contradict yourself by saying it isn’t hard and then saying it is.

    I do agree that you need to work with the ego, but I think it is more than just quieting it. You need to refine and master the ego to know how to put it aside when necessary, but you also need to refine and master the heart, the body, and the energy to become enlightened.

  7. Skylar, many people have lost the feeling of being connected to their true self or spirit – you are not alone, and the fact that you can articulate this sadness and desire actually indicates that you’re farther along than you might think (many people just smother those feelings) – my suggestion: instead of thinking about it as ‘enlightenment’, think about it as ‘coming home’, or remembering who you were as a baby, or being as whole and real as someone you deeply respect – literally, the work is to re-connect and re-ground into your existing nervous system – it is a physical practice, not a mental one – to put it another way, your real brain is not the one in your head, but in your entire body, including your head, heart, guts, backbone, etc – this is the brain that will re-connect you to your true self and to the world around you — the work is fairly simple, as Kassandra indicates – but it can also be quite difficult, as Timothy suggests – start by breathing – deep, full, whole-body breaths – focus particularly on the expansion and emptying of your belly – see what happens – it is a simple instruction, but you may find yourself resisting it strongly – try it for a month, every day, as much as possible – this is the very first toe in the water of real yoga – feel free to check back – always good to hear someone wanting themselves back – peace, Rolf

  8. Skylar, many people have lost the feeling of being connected to their true self or spirit – you are not alone, and the fact that you can articulate this sadness and desire actually indicates that you’re farther along than you might think (many people just smother those feelings) – my suggestion: instead of thinking about it as ‘enlightenment’, think about it as ‘coming home’, or remembering who you were as a baby, or being as whole and real as someone you deeply respect – literally, the work is to re-connect and re-ground into your existing nervous system – it is a physical practice, not a mental one – to put it another way, your real brain is not the one in your head, but in your entire body, including your head, heart, guts, backbone, etc – this is the brain that will re-connect you to your true self and to the world around you — the work is fairly simple, as Kassandra indicates – but it can also be quite difficult, as Timothy suggests – start by breathing – deep, full, whole-body breaths – focus particularly on the expansion and emptying of your belly – see what happens – it is a simple instruction, but you may find yourself resisting it strongly – try it for a month, every day, as much as possible – this is the very first toe in the water of real yoga – feel free to check back – always good to hear someone wanting themselves back – peace, Rolf
    8

    March 11, 2013

  9. Timothy,
    Thank you for this beautiful and informative article on the 5 Yamas of Yoga.
    Peace

  10. Fantastic descriptions! Thank you for your conscious clarity and your eloquent use of lay mans terms – will help so many!!

  11. Thanks Timothy for this information. Ricardo RYT–200 Kripalu, 2007

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