Yama – The Ethical Restraints in Yoga

Yama in the Yoga Sutras is the first step in “Ashtanga Yoga” or the eight limbs of Yoga. Yama deals mostly with our external ethical behavior. Yoga tradition has given much importance to developing a balanced personality before taking up higher practices of yoga. An individual has to live in harmony with his surroundings, with the right social conduct. Ancient scriptures have enumerated numerous ethical restraints (or don’ts) that a spiritual practitioner must follow. However, in the Yoga Sutras (Chapter II, sutras 30), Maharshi Patanjali has listed only five of them, which are more or less all inclusive. These are called the Yamas in Yoga.

        The five Yamas are as follows – Ahimsa (non-violence), Satya (or truthfulness), Asteya (non-stealing), Brahmacharya (or celibacy) and Aparigraha (non-greediness).

  1. Ahimsa – Ahimsa means non-violence in thought, speech and deed. Ahimsa is considered the foremost aspect of “Dharma” or righteous living. In the epic Mahabharata it is said: “Ahimsa Paramo Dharmaha”, which means “Non-Violence is the highest dharma”. Not hurting any living being physically, mentally or emotionally is Ahimsa.  This aspect is important for a spiritual seeker as “Himsa” or violence can create negative karma that can block or slow down our spiritual evolution.
  2. Satya – Satya means the truth. Speaking the truth is only second in importance to Ahimsa for following dharma. Precepts like “Satyam Vada (Speak the truth) “and “Dharmam Chara (follow dharma)” appears even in the early Vedic texts (in Taittiriya Upanishad). It is one of the principles on which the “Sanathana Dharma” or the “Eternal Righteous Living” is based. A seeker should always speak the truth, except when it violates the principle of Ahimsa or non-violence.  There are times when telling the truth can be avoided. For example, if you look at a person and say,  “You look ugly”, it can hurt the person emotionally, even though it might be true. This can be categorized as violence through speech. It violates the first principle of dharma (Ahimsa or non-violence) and hence such speech should be avoided. Discrimination is required even while telling the truth.If there is any confusion regarding when to utter the truth, then we can follow another general guideline used for righteous speech. Scriptures say that our speech should be – “Satyam (truthful), Priyam (pleasing) and Hitam (beneficial)”. Only utter those words that are factual, pleasing and beneficial to others.
  3. Asteya – Asteya means non-stealing. Asteya means not taking anything that rightfully belongs to others. Stealing can hurt others monetarily and emotionally. It can be considered as a kind of violence and hence violates the first principle of dharma, i.e., Ahimsa. Life is about give and take. If one unduly or deliberately takes more than what one gives, then also, it can be termed as Asteya. Cheating, fraud, piracy, etc. are all various types of stealing. In the practice of Asteya, one should take only what one earns for himself. Even if a resource is free (like nature) one should take only what one needs and should never covet what is rightfully claimed by another. One can also notice that the Yamas are extensively covered by our legal systems.  Our legal systems, no matter which country we belong to, are aimed at protection of the citizens from the violation of these ethical principles.
  4. Brahmacharya – Brahmacharya means sense control or continence or sexual abstinence.  The word brahmacharya can be interpreted in many ways. In a broader sense it can mean: “Abiding in one’s own inner Reality”. The word can be split into two Sanskrit words: “Brahman (or Supreme Reality)” and “Chara (to move or follow or adhere)”. It can be roughly translated as abiding in Brahman (the Supreme Reality or Consciousness). It means following the path of Supreme Consciousness or always sticking to the goal of human birth, that is, Self-Realization.There is another commonly accepted meaning to the word Brahmacharya, which is: “control of the senses”. Now, the word control can be interpreted differently for different people. For a monk, it means abstaining from sexual activities. For a householder, it means avoiding excessive indulgence in sexual activities, which may drain one’s energy and vitality. The concept of sense control should also be extended to the five senses –smell, taste, sight, touch and hearing.  Any excessive indulgence in any of the senses can take one away from balanced living. For example, someone who is excessively interested in tasty food can overeat and cause health problems, which are a hindrance for progress in yoga.
  5. Aparigraha – Aparigraha means non-accumulation or non-greediness. It means not hoarding or collecting anything beyond one’s needs.  In Nature, we find that all creatures take from nature only what they really need for their survival. But as humans, our requirements are greater. We have our ambitions, desires for enjoyment, desire for power and position, name and fame, etc.  In this process, we sometimes tend to demand more than what we need and may try to grab a bigger share of whatever comes our way.  This leads to a kind of unhealthy competition for power, position, wealth, status, etc. The resulting stress and anxiety leads to loss of peace of mind. The scriptures are not against enjoyment and desires. In fact, the Vedas consist of both the ‘Karma Kanda’ and the ‘Jnana Kanda’. One deals with worldly attainments, while the other with spiritual evolution. Both are necessary as part of human existence. But excessive greed can spoil the balance of society.  Aparigraha means a balanced pursuit of desires, without disturbing the harmony of the society.

Thus we see that the five Yamas are focused on our interaction with the external world.  Yoga believes that to find the inner balance one should first find balance in the outer world. The lessons we learn in the outer world can help us to fine tune our own minds and personalities. Yoga prescribes methods for disciplining the inner world too, through the five Niyamas (ethical Disciplines). Both Yamas and Niyamas are complementary to each other. Both are required to develop a balanced human being.

    Yama and Niyama form the prerequisite for taking up subsequent practices of yoga like Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi.