Defining the Five Yamas and Putting Them Into Practice

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One of the most beautiful aspects of yoga is that it is non-discriminating; it can be practiced anytime, anywhere, by anyone. And this practice can mean a lot of things. The first thought that comes to mind for most when they hear the term yoga is the asanas (postures), but this is only one aspect of yoga; one limb on a tree full of possibility. Actually, living a yogic lifestyle means you are seeking peace with the world and with self. These two ideas are known as yama and niyama. The way I would describe this to myself during my teacher training was: observe thyself and seek restraint with the world. Easier said than done, but this is supposed to be a journey so take it easy on yourself.

For this article I want to focus on Patanjali’s five yamas, what they represent and how we can begin to incorporate them into everyday life. I will focus on niyama in my next article. It’s important to mention that not everyone who recognizes these restraints and observances fully interprets them equally. If you disagree with something or see it fitting into your life differently at the moment, I encourage you to embrace that and begin where you are.

Ahimsa (non-violence)

This yama is the main reason so many yogis have decided to become vegetarian or vegan, they take it very literally and believe that to kill or hurt another living thing is to do it to yourself and that you take on that negative energy. Many spiritualists use the term energy and while it has become a buzzword and felt to be frivolous, there is a reason that the word is used. Consider Einstein’s E=mc 2, which broken down means energy and mass can be changed into one another, mass is a large amount of matter, and matter is made up of positive protons, negative electrons and neutral neutrons. Since energy cannot be created or destroyed the energy distributed by a violent attack does not die with the victim, it would still exist.

Others take a less literal approach and believe that non-violence really means the absence of cruelty. So killing does not have to be a violent act, and getting meat products and by-products through humane sources will suffice.

Both arguments hold weight, so where do you fall? Like I said earlier, begin where you are and decide what truly feels right. If you think vegetarianism is what this means for you, do that and be ok with the fact that it may not happen overnight. If the latter is the ethical choice for you, begin looking for local farmers and even options in your grocery that will help you start your cruelty-free diet.

Outside of this prevalent argument associated with ahimsa, non-violence touches other areas of life as well. Treating others with respect and kindness, loving yourself and others, and not abusing anyone or yourself physically or emotionally.

Satya (truthfulness)

This yama always makes me think of the Three Wise Monkeys: see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. On more literal terms, satya means to speak truth, act truthfully, and think what is true. Some take this to mean “being honest” at all cost even if it hurts, however if one were practicing both satya and ahimsa, truthfulness would be tactful, not destructive.

Incorporating this may not sound so difficult but I would begin with observing yourself and those around you. Things and actions that are commonly overlooked are: gossip, judgmental words or behavior, unrealistic fantasies, tabloids, entertainment news, and even reality tv. There are a lot of things we see and hear that we need to filter more realistically and truthfully. Seeking truth in these areas is one thing but taking lies as truth without question is a recipe for disaster.

Asteya (non-stealing)

As humans, we can steal both physically and emotionally, but why? We steal because we want something we don’t have, and don’t have enough faith in ourselves to get it ethically, nor do we have the patience to wait for it. Let’s look at what we the world commonly steal:

Money

This is probably the first to come to mind for many. We need money to eat and live, this creates urgency and the poor may steal simply to survive. We also steal money for power or luxuries; in this case we truly don’t believe there is any alternate route for us or a faster way. In reality, opportunity is available to everyone, and while some may have to look harder and work harder, that does not constitute unlawfully taking it from others.

Love/Desire

Some would say love cannot be stolen, it exists or it doesn’t. However, one may steal affection in cases of adultery because of a lack of love or lack of belief that love is possible any other way. Satya would help to crush this denial and uncover the distinction between love and desire.

Ideas

Ideas are most commonly stolen in the workplace and on the Internet, and there is so much ambiguity that it’s hard to know what belongs to whom, who came up with what first, and what’s available for public use. It’s common and pretty likely that many people will have the same or similar ideas, but very few will put them into action. If you steal something unintentionally make it right and apologize, if you’re in doubt about what you’re doing, research it fully and handle it respectfully.

Brahmacharya (continence)

This means practicing self-control and restraint in terms of sexual desire. The idea is to practice celibacy while unmarried, and faithfulness in marriage. Since people are getting married much later in life, if at all, this idea has evolved for many to mean a committed relationship, rather than a literal marriage. In other words, being very cautious and selective of who you allow in your bed, and abstaining from casual sexual encounters. Casual sex is seen as a lack of self-control as we are acting on impulse when sex should be meaningful for the mind, body and spirit.

Aparigraha (non-coveting)

Don’t be greedy is the best way to describe aparigraha. It is the idea that one should live simply and without frills. You have what you need and don’t ask for more or desire excess. This relates to many different areas of life: food consumption, materialistic behavior, desire for fame, power and even an abundance of money, and wanting things that belong to others.

This is another area that can be ambiguous, so observing first and taking stock of your behavior and surroundings is a great way to start incorporating aparigraha. Do you put a lot of money or effort towards things you don’t need, or things you desire only because of its face value? Do you overeat or buy more food than you need or will consume?

Don’t be afraid of your answers, just show yourself compassion and truth and enjoy the journey. There will be little victories and big victories, little set backs and big ones. All of it is inevitable and ok. Most importantly, while you are on your journey flying and flailing, be kind to others who are also on a journey. We all start out differently and some detours take longer than others. So, may your flights be humble and your flails be quick!

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