Yoga Fundamentals: Putting the Yamas into Practice

As part of the eight-limbed path described in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the Yamas and Niyamas guide our interactions and relationships with ourselves, others and our environment. In particular, the Yamas are known as ‘restraints’ or ‘moral disciplines.’ This set of five qualities is primarily concerned with the world around us and our interaction with it.

Embodying principles such as truthfulness, moderation and generosity, the Yamas shape how we relate to others. By considering these aspects in our practice on and off the mat, all of our decisions and actions arise from a more considered and aware place. This enables us to become more authentic within ourselves and in our relationships. Let’s look at each of the five Yamas and explore ways to integrate them daily.

The Yamas in Action: Ahimsa

The first Yamas is Ahimsa, translated as ‘non-violence’ or ‘non-harming.’ Considered the guiding principle by which all actions are judged, Ahimsa can be interpreted as not physically injuring others, ourselves, or nature. It includes avoiding negative words or thoughts about ourselves or others. When practicing Ahimsa, all that we think, say or do is brings harmony. Ahimsa reminds us that all actions can come from a place of love which is the heart of yoga.

To bring Ahimsa into action on your yoga mat, practice being kind, accepting and forgiving of yourself. Watch your internal self-talk when you struggle with a balance pose or a challenging sequence. Then off your mat, notice any tendencies to be judgmental of others. Catching ourselves in these violent, unkind thoughts is the first step towards practicing Ahimsa.

Satya: Being Truthful

The second of the five yamas, Satya, encourages us to do more than just tell the truth. Satya is about seeing and reporting things as they are rather than the way we would like them to be.

The word ‘sat’ translates as ‘true essence’ or ‘unchangeable.’ However, perceiving the unchangeable, or true nature of others, takes practice. Our thoughts, emotions and moods shift day to day and sometimes even minute to minute. Yet these are the things that frequently shape our perception of the world around us. We can use our yoga practice as a tool for creating space for the awareness that we are more than our thoughts.

One way to bring Satya onto our mat is to observe the breath. The breath is the animating force in the body. It’s carries our prana, or life force. First and foremost, asana practice should be life supporting. If your breathing is compromised, your practice is not life supporting. Also, asana practice should not be painful. If there’s pain, leave the pose or do less. Outwardly, practice Satya by consciously refraining from telling even little ‘white lies.’ Endeavor to speak with kindness, compassion, and clarity. 

Asteya: Generosity Towards All

Asteya, often translated non-stealing, means not taking that which is not offered. This includes not just material objects, but also others’ time, thoughts, energy, emotions and ideas. Taking it one step further, Asteya encourages us to refrain from looking outside ourselves to other people, things, and situations to make us happy and fulfilled.

The urge to steal or take what is not ours, frequently arises from the subconscious belief that we are not good enough or there is not enough to go around. This fear of scarcity or lack of faith in ourselves leads to greed or hoarding. When we practice Asteya, we can move beyond feelings of scarcity and towards an attitude of abundance and generosity.

A simple way to bring Asteya onto our mats is to arrive early to class, rather than just in time. The tendency to do “just one more thing” before we get in the car or turn on the computer can find us arriving to class feeling frazzled. Allowing ample time provides the opportunity to settle in and connect with others before class begins so we can be more fully present in our practice.

Off the mat, resist the urge to hoard your time, money and resources by being generous. Generosity can take the form of volunteering or donating money and resources to local charities. Giving others the benefit of the doubt or brushing off unkind words is another way to exercise this Yama.

Brahmacharya: Right Use of Energy 

The word Brahmacharya is often translated as ‘celibacy.’ However, while the preservation of vital energy (or prana) through moderation in sexual activity is part of Brahmacharya, there is much more to this practice.

Through Brahmacharya we invite our senses inward, balancing them and leading us to moderation. In this way, Brahmacharya can be seen as ‘right use of energy’. It refers to directing our energy away from external desires and instead towards finding peace and contentment within. Considered the ‘middle path,’ practicing Brahmacharya guides us to make good choices and avoid overindulgence.

In practice, paying attention to what your body needs will naturally lead toward Brahmacharya. On your mat, this means not overexerting and taking breaks when needed. Don’t be afraid to stop and rest, modify a pose, or skip a few poses if you feel like your energy is being depleted. Off the mat, we can practice moderation by making wise lifestyle choices. For example, eating only when you’re hungry and not overindulging, or taking a break when tired rather than pushing through. Then, consider applying moderation to your relationships as well as to your consumption of movies, books and other media.

Aparigraha: Resting in Abundance

The final of the five yamas, Aparigraha, can be translated as ‘non-greed’ or ‘non-clinging.’ Aparigraha teaches us to take only what we need, keep only what serves us in the moment and let go when the time is right. Through this yama, we become aware that whenever we anxiously hold onto belongings or thoughts or grasp for more, we are in turn possessed. Conversely, when we make good use of possessions and enjoy them without becoming emotionally dependent on them, then they neither wield power over us nor lead to false identities and expectations.

We embody Aparigraha on our mat when we allow our practice to be just as it is. This means not pushing beyond or limits or comparing ourselves to those around us. Off the mat, not filling our closets with more than we need or accumulating possessions simply for the sake of having them. Taking it one step further, we can practice Aparigraha by not clinging to our opinions, reputation or even the perceived insults of others.

I hope this gives you a starting place in which to begin exploring the Yamas for yourself. Next, we’ll take a closer look at the inner observances that help to build our character– the Niyamas. Be well!


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