As we move through the second section of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, we encounter the eight limbs of yoga. The first of these limbs—the yamas—is a set of disciplines that describe how yogis should behave. If you look closely at the yamas, you may notice they are a lot like some of the Ten Commandments.
The yamas are often referred to as “restraints.” While we may not like that word, they are in fact, tenets that restrict behavior. Fortunately, the behavior the yamas aim to restrict is generally not good for us or for our relationships with others.
The Yamas: A Yogi’s Restraints
The five yamas, which Patanjali offers in Sutra 2.30, are:
- Non-harming (ahimsa)
- Truthfulness (satya)
- Non-stealing (asteya)
- Remembering the higher reality (bramacharya)
- Non-possessiveness (aparigraha)
There are several translations of the original Sanksrit. In another translation, sutra 2.30 reads:
Self-restraint in actions includes abstention from violence, from falsehoods, from stealing, from sexual engagements, and from acceptance of gifts.
The yamas work in concert with each other. As yogis, we try to be kind and honest. As honest beings, we obviously don’t take things that don’t belong to us. Beyond that, we don’t take more than we need (we are not greedy). We keep in mind that there is something more important than ourselves, and that motivates us to share what we have as well.
The Yamas and Day-to-Day Living
The descriptions above are simplistic, of course. Sometimes it’s difficult to make the “right” choice, but we have the yamas for guidance. For example, when it comes to ahimsa, we quickly realize it’s a rare person who never harms another being. Many yogis are vegans, for example, to avoid harming animals. Some will not kill an insect. But how far can we go to ensure we never do harm?
Can a yogi tell a white lie without violating one of the yamas (satya)? It may depend on your view of truth. And does stealing only refer to physical objects, or does stealing credit for something you didn’t do violate ahimsa as well? What about stealing the spotlight because you crave attention?
The fourth yama, brahmacharya, refers to the idea that we need to conserve our energy for spiritual pursuits. While often equated with celibacy, brahmacharya really refers to extremes of any kind that interfere with the spiritual path. Too much eating, drinking, talking, sleeping, working, or even shopping, can distract us from personal or spiritual growth.
And finally, the yamas require yogis to temper the desire for possessions—not just material possessions, but also attention, fame, intelligence, or anything we mistake for our true selves. Non-possesiveness doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do anything, want anything, or have any goals. It means we shouldn’t be attached to the outcome of our pursuits.
Mastering the yamas takes practice. As long as we’re human beings living on this planet, we’ll never be perfect. But we can get better. When we recognize the goal of the yamas—to free us from worldly distractions so we can pursue enlightenment—the restraints become less of a challenge.