THE YAMAS, THE 1ST LIMB OF YOGA
Following up on our discussion of the causes of suffering, we now begin to look at the eight limbs of yoga, set forth by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras as the path to end suffering and achieve enlightenment. Patanjali tells us that by dedicated practice of the various aspects of Yoga, impurities are destroyed, the causes of afflictions are removed, and wisdom radiates. The Yamas, five social codes, and their complement, Niyamas, five internal observances, represent a series of “right living” or ethical rules for conscious well-being. While these principles stem from Hinduism and Yoga, they are very practical principles to adopt to maximize our everyday peace and well-being. It is important to be compassionate to yourself first as you aim to follow these principles as best you can and shift quickly if you fall short without blaming yourself. I like to think of these principles as guides to help us spiritual beings manage our human tendencies.
The first limb is the five Yamas, or social restraints. These moral observances form the foundation of spiritual discipline. In the Yoga Sutras (Book II, sutra 31), Patanjali tells us that these five codes are the great, mighty universal vows, unconditioned by place, time or class–applicable to all of humanity always. The five yamas are: non-harming (ahimsa), truthfulness (satya), non-stealing (asteya), continence/chastity (brahmacharya), and greedlessness (aparigraha). In Book II, sutras 35-39, Patanjali discusses the benefits of practicing the five yamas.
Ahimsa means “without violence or non-harming.” In essence, it goes far deeper, meaning the reverence for all beings that is our true nature when we are centered. We are all part of the same Divine energy, from the smallest insect to the person we find the most disagreeable. It is our nature to respect all life forms, including those perceived as disagreeable. Ahimsa suggests we honor all beings and perhaps move away gently with respect rather than react negatively. Ahimsa is the umbrella that supersedes all other principles. Under no circumstances are we to cause harm to another being. Most of us are not physically violent, but it is good to keep in mind that criticism, impatience and gossip are forms of violence. It is our job to always be gentle to ourselves and others and simply shift and say good notice when we become aware of the need to practice greater loving kindness. Ahimsa calls us to summon reverence and compassion when we are challenged by others. This may not be easy to do in the face of surging emotions, but there is always an opportunity to shift consciousness to become more compassionate to those whose points of view differ. Patanjali tells us that when non-violence in speech, thought and action is established, one’s aggressive nature is relinquished, and others abandon hostility in one’s presence.
Satya or truthfulness is a much broader concept than not lying. This principle does relate to telling the truth. However, following the umbrella principle of Ahimsa (Compassion and unconditional love), Satya entails telling the truth ONLY if it will not harm another. While truthfulness means “not lying,” this principle goes into much greater depth about being true to ourselves and true to each other. It is good to inquire into ways we are true to ourselves and ways we are not, for example, saying “Yes” we will do something someone else wants us to do just to be agreeable, when we know it does not resonate with us. Sometimes being true to ourselves means saying “No” gently with respect or making a counter offer. The challenge is to access our core essence and learn to follow our inner knowing or truth. In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali says that when the spiritual practitioner is firmly established in the practice of truth, his words become so potent that whatever he says comes to realization.
Asteya, or non-stealing, alludes to not taking what belongs to others–be it possessions, credit, relationship partners, time or even attention. Most of us do not steal, but we do sometimes interrupt, or pull the attention away from the speaker to ourselves, or take time away from work. Then there are those little things we have taken home without permission. Take a look and see if you fully practice non-stealing. Patanjali claims that when we totally abstain from stealing, precious jewels will come to us.
Brahmachrya traditionally refers to a period of celibacy practiced by devout students in India. Translated, it means “directing all of ones energy towards Brahman or the universal goodness.” This principle asks us to be mindful of how we are using our energy and refrain from squandering it. Bramacharya is often interpreted as moderation of appetites or excesses, suggesting that one refrain from dissipating energy in wanton sex or sensuality. One can have sex and still be practicing brahmacharya (channeling their energy to the highest consciousness and spiritual study) if sex is performed as a conscious sacred union. While all of the famous yogis practiced celibacy at times, most are family people with children. Patanjali says that when the spiritual practitioner is firmly established in continence– knowledge, vigor, valor and energy flow to him.
Aparigraha means without greed or hoarding of possessions. Those of us who are “shopaholics” need to look into streamlining. According to this principle, it is okay to have nice things, as long as one is not attached to them. Take a look at what you might be hoarding or clinging to in your life. Patanjali says that when one is free from greed for possessions, knowledge of past and future lives unfolds.
As you see, Patanjali points out that there is great reward in practicing these five codes. They are not abstinences to be imposed like hardships, but rather our true nature. They spring from our innate goodness and oneness. Practicing the yamas means being truly who we are, fully in touch with our highest being and living with integrity. Many blessings come to us when we follow them mindfully. I invite you to pardon the past and start now!
NOTE: For more information about the five yamas and the next limb, the five niyamas, see the YogaLife materials in our store.