Yama, which is Sanskrit for moral discipline or self-restraint, focuses on how one should interact with the world by incorporating and practicing five character building restraints in everyday life. The Yamas, in a more obscure sense, can also help understand some of the best ways to relate with oneself. They delve into an individual’s moral nature, imploring them to analyze and explore their own thought processes, actions and reactions.
Note: This article refers to the Yamas of the 8-fold path – not the God of Death ‘Yama’ in Hindu mythology.
Earliest Mention of Yamas
The earliest mention of Yamas is in the Rigveda in 1200 BC (verse 5.61.2) and is mentioned again in the Jain Agamas (600 BC), which are canonical Jainism scriptures that were verbally transmitted over the generations (similar to Hindu and Buddhist teachings of the time). In fact, Ahimsa and Aparigraha, both of which are types of yamas, are an essential part of the religious premises of Jainism.
The Yamas were explained in detail by Sage Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (500 BC) as the first step of the 8-fold path of yogic philosophy and practice.
5 Yamas of Yoga
There are 5 Yamas of Yoga, which are intended for building integrity and character as part of the 8-fold path. These five principles are outlined in the beginning of the Yoga Sutra’s 196 short sentences:
1. Ahimsa or non-violence
2. Satya or truthfulness
3. Asteya or non-stealing
4. Brahmacharya or moderation of energy
5. Aparigraha or non-accumulation
The 5 yamas are written in a succinct manner, leaving them open to interpretation and contemplation. This enables everyone to create their own understanding of the practices.
1. Ahimsa (Non-Violence)
Ahimsa translates to non-violence towards people we know, the world as a whole, and most importantly, ourselves. The word ahimsa may strike a chord if you’re familiar with Mahatma Gandhi and his philosophy of non-violent resistance during the struggle for India’s independence. Ahimsa not only refers to the physical aspects of nonviolence, rather the complete integration of non-violence and non-harm to all aspects of life – including our thoughts towards others and ourselves, too.
Importance of Practicing Ahimsa
You may know people who carry bouts of anger, judgement and envy wherever they go. You may also know people who push everyone down and foster negativity. Their negative attitude and character traits might even resonate with you to a certain extent. This is the essence of mental and emotional himsa (violence), and can slowly take control of your life. Not practicing ahimsa can hurt your equation with friends, ruin intimate relationships, and taint your own relationship with yourself.
Studies have shown that mental violence, from a neurobiological standpoint, can severely impact a person’s overall health over a period of time. Some negative health issues that might arise are long-term depression, low self-esteem, potential phobias, panic attacks and the relative inability to develop and maintain healthy relationships. The same studies have also discussed the physical effects of the consequences of being in himsa on the human body, which include inflammation, rapid heartbeat, and elevated blood pressure, amongst others. Moreover, the body produces increased amounts of cortisol, causing stress levels to shoot up.
How to Practice Ahimsa
When our negative tendencies are converted into acts of kindness and expression of compassion, we inherently begin the practice of ahimsa. When we start with nonviolence towards ourselves, it begins to grow into our behavior towards others. How to start practicing Ahimsa today, you ask? Start with yourself. Here are 3 ways you can start following the yama principle of ahimsa:
Take Care of Your Body
Try eating a healthy and balanced diet. To step it up a notch, go plant based or gradually shift towards a meat-free diet (nonviolence towards animals). Quit hurting your body with smoke, alcohol and drugs as you won’t just be dealing with the somatic effects, the longer term mental effects will play out to your detriment.
Think Happy Thoughts
As cliché as that may sound, if you aren’t thinking positively, odds are you aren’t exuding much positivity either. If negativity lives inside you, over time it grows and multiplies unless you weed it out. Celebrate yourself. You’ll soon begin celebrating the existence of those around you.
Practice Mindfulness Meditation
Try our reminders feature on the United We Care app, it will help you make mindfulness a part of everyday life. Observe your thoughts, actions and reactions. Pause and reflect over them. Choose a more compassionate and loving way of dealing with your problems. Practice mindfulness until it becomes a natural part of your life.
Satya translates to truthfulness. This is about being completely honest across the board – in words, thoughts, plans and beliefs alike. Mahatma Gandhi made his mark in the practice of Satya when he postulated the “Satyagraha” movement in order to drive certain reforms in the pursuit of Indian independence.
Importance of Satya
Satya is about being mindful, working on your self-awareness and most importantly, being transparent with yourself and others. This practice of transparency should never be with the intention of hurting others or yourself, as violence does not abide by the principles of ahimsa. Satya is important because communicating truthfully with integrity is the cornerstone of any relationship, including our relationship with ourselves.
In India, Satya is still a very prominent concept. The country’s national motto is Satyameva Jayate, which translates to ‘truth alone triumphs’. It is also written on the Indian currency, thus reinforcing the idea of truth eventually winning despite giving the appearance that it is not.
How to Practice Satya
To practice satya, focus on careful reflection, relationships and sheer authenticity. Here’s are the steps to practice satya in the 8-fold path of yoga:
Reflection is the Name of the Game
Very often, we create a self-identity around the fleeting and momentary thoughts we have, allowing our emotional instincts to take over. To combat this, we should spend some time observing our mind – one thought at a time. Each time you stop and observe a thought, it helps you gain a clearer picture of the truth in your mind. This allows you to deploy the use of your cerebral cortex (information processing center of the brain) as opposed to your emotional brain. This will stop you from going down a rabbit hole of irrational thoughts and fears, which can lead to depression, anxiety, or lower self-esteem.
Let Go of Your Ego
Most of us have different relationships, each with their own dynamics – friends, family, colleagues and romantic partners. A strong two-way relationship is built on the basis of this transparency while eliminating ego from the picture. The strength of these relationships is developed by our transparency within them. As you practice communicating without letting your ego eclipse your true personality, you’ll begin to see your relationships become more meaningful and notice that people are confiding in you more than before.
Authenticity in the Vicinity
Have you ever opened up about something amongst a group of friends or shared a dark secret with your loved ones, and felt a slightly deeper connection? We often pull the plug on our true selves in pursuit of gaining acceptance, and this tramples our true nature. Practice being your natural self, and you will soon inspire authenticity in others.
Asteya literally translates to non-stealing. However, we aren’t just talking about stealing someone’s belongings (goes without saying). Asteya is about being content with what you have, and not dwelling over what you don’t. We must forego the desire or need for possessions. These could be material possessions (such as wanting a bigger house) or non-material possessions (such as being envious of someone else’s looks or talent). Have you ever think that you’re simply not good enough? The toxicity that comes from comparing yourself with others is at the very root of the problem. Not practicing asteya can nurture anxiety and lead to depression.
Imagine a narrative where not only were you happy with what you have, but were also happy for others as well. Now, imagine (that in this narrative) the energy you were spending in jealousy is converted to contentment instead. You can be sure that you’ll save more energy when you’re content rather than jealous. An example of such a situation is someone being envious of the number of ‘likes’ on a Facebook or Instagram post of their peer.
How to Practice Asteya
How to practice Asteya, you ask? Start by honoring yourself, and giving importance to living in the present moment and stepping out of your comfort zone.
Back your capabilities and celebrate your individuality. Many people often forget about their own uniqueness amidst all the chaos of comparing themselves to peers and the rest of the world. Express heartfelt gratitude towards what you have today (both material and non-material possessions), and the people you surround yourself with.
Live in the Present
Has a song ever triggered the release of certain emotions? Did this result in you pondering over your past for a certain period of time? You might have spent 10 minutes of your time thinking about something that doesn’t even matter anymore. Alternatively, you could have felt happy by living in the present moment, and potentially, might even result in you having a profound experience – paving the path for a new, more positive memory. Don’t steal those 10 minutes from yourself. The minutes add up over time. Every time you catch yourself regretting your past or panicking about your future, you’re stealing from the most precious commodity you can possibly have in life – time.
Speak Your Heart Out
When you stay in your bubble, you’re stripping yourself of the opportunity to fully explore your true potential. Today, apps like Clubhouse create a level playing field for the average person to quite literally use their voice to interact with renowned people and discuss various topics. Many of you might have great ideas or perspectives, but unfortunately, it is likely that very few of these abstract ideas would find their way into the real world due to fear of judgement, stage anxiety, or the comfort of not worrying about the negativity as a result of presenting such ideas. Try taking one step towards speaking your heart out. Next time you’re in front of your boss, talk for a minute and respectfully challenge their perspective. It will feel as if you’re lifting weight off your chest, and you’ll surely feel the adrenaline of stepping out of your comfort zone.
Brahmacharya is a state in which one learns to control sexual urges – not supress them. It is often interpreted as sexual abstinence, which can make many people overlook this principle as a whole. The purpose of Brahmacharya is to convert sexual energy into spiritual energy. Don’t let the idea of not engaging in sexual activities push you away just yet.
Moderating and directing energy in general is a more prevalent practice of Brahmacharya when considering the nature of modern society. What do we mean by this? Worrying about the past is an example of directing energy towards something that isn’t benefitting you in the long run. Dr. B.K.S. Iyengar defines Brahmacharya as the “continence (self-restraint) of body, speech and mind.” Redirecting your energies towards living in the present moment, and enjoying the dynamics of the present is a better approach.
How to Practice Brahmacharya
How do I practice brahmacharya, you ask? Let’s talk about bad habits, career impact and elevating energy.
Pick a Vice and Start Moderating
Start with building awareness about some of your habits that are pulling you down. Pick any habit. It could be daily alcohol consumption, for example. Take baby steps towards reducing the intake of alcohol and help the process along by adding a good habit to your lifestyle which makes you feel energized. This could be adding a quick workout (of any kind) to your day.
Revaluate Your Career
Question whether you are spending time and energy in a manner that facilitates your growth. The idea of being occupied with lots of things everyday might be tempting at first, however, when it begins to take a toll on your mental health, your energy is being misdirected. This is the point when you need to rethink whether you’re in the right place and following a path that leads to a positive outcome.
Allocate Time to Do Something That Elevates Energy Levels
Are there certain people who seem to fill you with energy? Spend more time with them and nurture the relationship. Seek out hobbies and experiences that lift your mood and add them to your calendar.
Aparigraha translates to non-accumulation or non-possessiveness. The word ‘graha’ means to take, to seize, or to grab, ‘pari’ means ‘on all sides’, and the prefix ‘a’ negates the word itself. The message here is that we already have what we need. “Let your concern be with action alone, and never with the fruits of action. Do not let the results of action be your motive, and do not be attached to inaction.” This is a snippet from the Bhagavad Gita where the essence of aparigraha is explored. The snippet says that the outcome is irrelevant – the effort is what matters. The effort should never be in anticipation of the reward.
Importance of Aparigraha
Applying aparigraha to our lives causes us to worry less about the reward and take action without the fear of consequence. Enjoy what you have and consciously refrain from hoarding. It also means not worrying about material possessions. In the context of relationships, jealousy and control must be avoided to ensure no toxicity.
Conclusion: The First of the 8 Limbs of Yoga - Yama
The ideas from the Yamas are a great way to kickstart a journey towards gaining control over your mind and body. Before you think that the 5 yama practices are impractical in the modern age and would probably take years to master, it is important to understand that mastering them shouldn’t be the goal to begin with. Believing in their benefits is what you should be striving for.