The Yamas

The first of the 8 limbs of yoga.

The Yamas are often discussed along side it’s complimentary counterpart – Niyamas. As the Yama’s are recognized as restraints of action, Niyamas are recognized as observances the practitioner should follow.

The Yamas and Niyamas are the moral and ethical codes of conduct meant to direct practitioners to a healthy balanced way of living in order to achieve peace and happiness in our lives. These are not commands for the student to fear punishment for not obeying, these are philosophical ideas for the student to reflect upon in order to discover the benefits of adhering to them and also reflect on the effects of what happens in our lives when we don’t.

This week’s blog entry will focus just on the Yamas, next week we will cover Niyamas.

According to Pantanjali’s Yoga Sutra there are 5 Yamas.

1. Ahimsa – Non-violence
2. Satya – Truthfulness
3. Asteya – Non-stealing
4. Bramacharya – Abstinance
5. Aparigraha – Non-Attachement

To describe the depth of meaning in a single word translation is helpful as an introduction to the topic, however many of the subtleties and details are lost with such simple definition.

Ahimsa – Non-violence

What does non-violence mean? Of course it means to not strike out physically at others, but it also encompasses the non-physical as well. Restraint from harsh words and thoughts (such as hatred) are what we are practicing by adhering to this Yama. Non-violence should also be practiced with the self, not acting or thinking in such a way that would be harmful to yourself. However, practicing non-violence by not harming others or yourself is still not the entire picture. The restraint is from doing harm, but put into action it is kindness and compassion for yourself and others. To practice ahimsa is to have respect and compassion for all life.

Ahimsa is the first of the Yamas because it is the primary philosophy that the remaining 4 Yamas build upon.

Satya – Truthfulness

To restrain from lying and to practice honesty with consciousness is a key building block in all codes of morality across all societies. Here in the western world, when we hear a word like truthfulness we may first see this mainly as our interaction with others. However, as practitioners we should first start with being honest with ourselves. In our society we have created our perception of self based on how we feel others perceive us. We strive to create our selves in such a way that we are accepted by others and not necessarily in a way that is true to who we are. Once we can be honest with ourselves, we can begin to break through the fog of the illusory world that we have created with our self perceptions and assumptions and begin to see the world as it truly is. Once we are able to be honest with ourselves, the ability to be honest with others should naturally follow, as we are no longer acting for the purpose of acceptance.

However, one of the challenges of practicing Satya is balancing it with the practice of Ahimsa. We want to avoid being “brutally honest,” as that is harmful to those on the receiving end of our honesty. We we must be impeccable with our words in order to convey the truth without causing harm to the individual it is directed to.

Asteya – Non-stealing

At its surface the practice of non-stealing is the practice of not taking that which is not yours. To practice non-stealing we want to make a conscious effort that any energy we take is reciprocated with equal energy. Money is merely a tangible form of energy, we earned that money through the energy we put out and are trading our energy for an item that someone has put their energy into. We can find many examples if we look into less tangible ideas, meaning situations where money and physical objects aren’t the energies that are being exchanged.

One example is taking someones self confidence or self worth in order to increase our own. Taking away someones personal power in order to feel that we are powerful over them. In a more subtle example, when you are late to an appointment or engagement, you are stealing the time of the individual who is waiting for you. That person is spending there energy waiting and not receiving anything in return for it.

The translation of this line in the sutras (2:37) is: To one established in non-stealing, all wealth comes. To practice non-stealing we have to be constantly aware of how we are sending and receiving energy and, according to the sutras, once we find that balance there will be no need to ever want to steal as we will have all that we want.

Bramacharya – Abstinence

Abstinence is always a scary word, it has been so closely attached to celibacy that many see this as being an unreasonable practice for a lay person. However abstinence in this context is not celibacy, it is the practice of self restraint in all things. Excesses, in any activity, lead to a dissipation of energy that could be better applied to other endeavors, specifically the attainment of deeper states of consciousness.

Celibacy can often become an effect of practicing Bramacharya. When the practitioner becomes aware of the bliss that self awareness brings, there is no longer a repression of sensual urges, but a desire to move that energy towards greater self awareness.

Aparigraha – Non-Attachment

Attachment to material possessions will only bring about personal suffering. This is not to say that you should sell all of your possessions and move to a cave in the Himalayan mountains. Nor does it mean that wanting for the next iProduct makes you a bad Yogi. Non-attachment is the realization that our happiness and/or well being does not come from the attainment of these possessions and that the loss of these possessions does not mean a loss of our own identity.

Practicing Non-attachment requires us to realizing that material items come and go through lives and holding onto them only holds us behind on our path. We do not have to deny ourselves the exciting new technologies and gadgets of our time in order to practice non-attachment as long as we recognize that we are not dependent upon them

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