Expanding Your World Through Restraint: Practicing Yamas, the First Limb of Yoga

“Without the Yamas, known as the ethical rules, there is no success in Yoga.” ~ Dharma Mittra

Yama, in Sanskrit, translates to restraint; these are practices that an individual can use to restrain bodily desires and mental processes in order to become more fully present, and reduce suffering in oneself and the world.

Many religions throughout the world use a set of rules in order to bring about this kind of restraint, which are often based in good intentions. However, a human being living their life by a set of someone else’s rules will often fall into the trap of imitation. For example, trying to be a ‘good’ person by the standards set forth by this particular church means that the individual is not following their own inner guide in order to move toward happiness and peace.

The Yamas are not rules, but are shifts in how we perceive the world and interact with it. They require awareness and the willingness to fall, because inevitably, we will. The goal is to recognize that a fall only becomes the end when we stay on the ground.

These are the five yamas listed by Patanjali in Yogasutra 2.30:

Ahimsa: Non-Violence

yamas ahimsa
“At the center on non-violence stands the principle of love.” ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

Ahimsa is the practice of non-harm; which includes no harm to others, to oneself, and to the world. However, it’s not just physical harm that one should abstain from inflicting, but mental and emotional harm as well.

When you look closer at the concept, it starts opening up to touch every single aspect of living a human life. Angry, aggressive words are a form of harm, just as much as kicking someone in the shin. Allowing self-denigrating thoughts to populate and run rampant in your mind is just as harmful as tearing someone else down with those same words.

Satya: Non-Lying

“Telling someone the truth is a loving act.” ~ Mal Pancoast

satya yamasThe true expression of satya is founded in ahimsa, as are all the yamas and niyamas that follow. If we practice truthfulness in our words, but our thoughts are still clouded by anger or greed, then it isn’t really truthfulness we are practicing. Instead, it becomes merely a shadow of truthfulness, tainted by negativity.

Holding on to the truth when it should be shared, creating an illusion by propagating a lie, and convincing yourself that things are one way when in reality they are another, makes the world a scary and hostile place to exist in. Even if the results of those lies may bring some temporary pleasure, or relief from the pain of the truth.

Asteya: Non-Stealing

“When we feel connected to the vastness of life and are confident of life’s abundance, we are naturally generous and able to practice the third Yama, asteya.” ~ Donna Farhi

We are taught from a very young age that stealing is bad. However, as we grow up, more and more often it becomes clear that everyone steals, or so it seems. However, every act of theft — large or small — serves to dull the mind just a little bit.

We know we are doing something that is unethical, and our minds will quickly whip up all sorts of rationalizations for the act. This is a way of denying reality, turning away from the truth, and harming others.

The Yoga Sutra 2.37 states, “When non-stealing (asteya) is established, all jewels, or treasures present themselves, or are available to the Yogi.” By not taking what is not ours, the flow of energy in the Universe remains clear, bringing forth abundance.

Brahmacharya: Self Control

Brahmacharya: Self Control yamas
“Brahmacharya means control of the senses in thought, word, and deed.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi
The practice of brahmacharya is often conflated with the practice of celibacy. Again, we are looking at the difference between a shift in perspective, and a rule. Celibacy is a rule, whereas brahamacharya is asking the practitioner to maintain a focus and awareness of God, of the Higher Taste.

To indulge in pleasure for the sake of pleasure — whether sexual or otherwise — we spend our energy on the temporal and lose sight of the eternal.

That’s not to say that someone who practices brahmacharya should never have sex, as that would be a repression and a denial of a beautiful element of ourselves that was imbued in us by Divinity. Instead, it’s a matter of using that sexual energy in an ethical, aware, and focused way, which, in many cases, means the sexual energy won’t be used on sex.

Celibacy that arises as a natural progression from a focus on God is one thing; celibacy that is enforced as a prescription for spirituality often ends in that very energy manifesting as violence, subterfuge, and lies.

Aparigraha: Non-Grasping

“It is not impermanence that makes us suffer. It is wanting things to be permanent when they are not.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

The final Yama is non-grasping. In other terms, this is the art of letting go, or never holding on in the first place. The ego naturally wants to avoid pain and hold on to pleasure. Since everything in this world works as a cycle, however, neither of those practices can work for any sustained period of time. Pain will inevitably come, and pleasure will inevitably go.

When we avoid, or when we grasp, we are actively working against the flow of nature. This, in turn, breeds resentment, anger, and even violence. Residing in the truth of change, and the knowledge that pleasure and pain are both crucial aspects of this human experience, we can begin to open our fists and release the need to control that experience.

Utilizing the Yamas as tools of change

The first step to incorporating the Yamas into your life is through meditation. Sit with the Yamas and let them settle into your mind, then into your heart. Every day, choose one Yama to practice with as much fullness as you can, bringing your thoughts back to your chosen Yama as often as possible.

You’ll begin to see them arising naturally in your life, with time and focus. Always be kind to yourself, and forgiving. After all the first Yama, upon which all of Yoga is built, is Ahimsa.
Ahimsa starts with you.

Image source
Yamas illustrations

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  • Sarah Hirsch

    Sarah Hirsch is a traveling writer, yoga teacher, and spiritual seeker currently taking up residence in the plains of Colorado. After having a firsthand experience with God in the verdant woods of the Pacific Northwest while practicing yoga, she has devoted her time and energy to strengthening her relationship with Spirit and inspiring those around her to open themselves up to the crazy, beautiful miracle of being human.

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