The pancha yamas (moral restraints) outlined by Pantajali in his Yoga Sutras comprise one of the eight limbs of Yoga. On a basic level they serve as a guide of what not to do – they Nayamas serve as a guide of “to do’s”. Both the Yamas and Nayamas were considered by Patanjali to be the ‘code’ that aspiring yogis would live by – they would induce in the yogi a clean body, mind and soul so that it would be easier to attain union with the All. They help us to calm the ever changing conscious mind and bring forth that part of us that is the deepest, purest form of who we are. If we stripped away our ego, our possessions, our friends, family and bodies right down to the part of us that is ethereal in nature – this is what the eight limbs of Yoga seeks to bring forth.
The Yamas, by telling us what not to do, naturally bring us gently along a path where we become more conscious and thoughtful in our thoughts, emotions and actions. This frees up our time and energy to connect with divine enlightenment or at the very least to live a life that is consciously aware of its thoughts and actions.
The five Yamas are;
Ahimsa – non-violence
Satya – non-lying, truthfulness
Asteya – non-stealing
Brahmacharya – Sexual Restraint
Aparigraha – non-possessiveness
The concept of non-violence in the Sutras does not apply just to the physical act of violence. Ahimsa is a state that we can enter into where we refuse to be drawn into any concept of violence – physical, emotional or mental. This means applying the principle of Ahimsa towards our everyday life – what we eat, how we think and how we interact with others. A more accurate description to cover the mental concept of Ahimsa would be to avoid ‘ill-will’ or avoiding causing suffering towards others and ourselves. It is for this reason that we shouldn’t talk ourselves down or beat ourselves up constantly – the ill-will we bear towards our own journey flies in the face of Ahimsa!
This practice of trying to minimise the suffering that we cause others extends not just to people. It applies to the environment and the animals that we share this earth with. To go through life consciously aware of the harm we cause and seeking to minimise it is putting Ahimsa into practice.
Many people think that the principle of Ahimsa means adapting a vegan diet. Ethical veganism (as opposed to a vegan diet one might eat for health reasons) is about reducing the harm that we inflict on the environment and animals and therefore ethical vegans refuse not just to eat animal products but to avoid the use of animal products whenever they can. This could be clothes made from animals or even furniture.
Ethical veganism sits easily with this principle of AHimsa. But what if you are not vegan? Applying the principle of Ahimsa means we have to look at our actions through the lens of non-violence or ill will. If we are eating meat or consuming dairy or wearing fur, we have to question our motives? Are we eating to excess? Are we consuming products that we have no need for? Is there a way we can be kinder to the environment and others (i.e. animals) by changing our actions in terms of what we eat and consume?
For example, can we buy vegetables that are not wrapped in layers of plastic as a small step towards being kinder to the environment? Of eat salad instead of meat for lunch? Or try a vegan alternative to our dinner? This is the Ahimsa principle of the Yamas, that we become conscious of our actions towards others and seek to live in harmony with the earth.
For many of us, we arrive on the path of Yoga after a period of reflection. We are drawn towards the theoretical side as a means of traveling a path that may lead to a greater understanding of our purpose in life. We arrive at a point where we are beginning to question what we have been told all our lives, our social conditioning, what we were told is good for us and how to lead our lives. Yoga, by its very nature, encourages us to place less and less emphasis on the brute material matters in life and more focus on our inner selves as a means of attaining enlightenment. Putting Ahimsa into practice in our everyday lives will focus our attention on our impact on others, ourselves and the environment. Even though the changes we are called to make may be uncomfortable at first, or we may baulk at the concept of changing our diet or our way of living, ahimsa will prove to be a path to greater understanding of ourselves and the choices we can make.
Satya is the second of the Yamas and is the Sanskrit word for ‘truth’ and can be translated as the principle of non-lying or truthfulness. For so many people, we go through life telling those around us lies. We bluff about how successful we are, or how our marriage is perfect. About how much we make or what we do. If social media has shown us anything, it is the desire in people to appear at their happiest, most perfect selves when the world is watching. But Satya says to drop the lies. It is not that we may be harming anyone else when we tell a lie, but we are diluting our own self worth. Lies often derive from a desire to seem more exciting than we are and this desire derives from a wish that our lives were more fulfilling. For example, a minor incident at work is embellished by us by the time we retell the tale at home to make us seem stronger, more authoritative or that we ‘won’ the incident. But when we tell lies like this it is because we are not self-fulfilled. We are living a life that is not true to ourselves.
The lies we tell ourselves can be the most harmful. That we are not addicted, that we’ll start tomorrow with something, that we are happy or this is the way things are for everybody. Satya calls us to be more open and truthful in our dealings. To be honest with ourselves and others. It is a liberating principle because when we drop the lies we see things as they are and can take real action to change what we are not happy with instead of fooling ourselves with our lies that this is the way they must be.
Read More: The History of Yoga
In applying Satya we must be honest with ourselves and in our dealings wither others. Speaking the truth demonstrates to ourselves a power that comes from within. When we speak the our truth, even when our voice shakes, even when we don’t like what we see, we liberate ourselves from the the distortion of reality. This distortion is what modern life pulls us into with its advertising and marketing – the desire to be dressed a certain way, to have the latest phone or car when we really cannot afford them. Being honest and speaking the truth to ourselves brings about honest actions – we turn away from the latest phone and car because honestly, we know that we have no real need of them and borrowing to get them would just draw us deeper into a distortion of reality. This is Satya in practice.
Asteya derives from the Sanskrit ‘a’ for ‘non’ and ‘steya’ meaning the ‘practice of stealing’. It applies to everything in our life on a mental, emotional and physical level. It applies to the physical act of stealing but also to the act of receiving stolen goods. Buying goods that we know should be more expensive but for some reason of unethical practice are cheap, is an act of stealing. What about so many of our gadgets and clothes that we but cheaply because others have been exploited and abused because of their poor position? This is ‘steya’, the practice of stealing from others.
This is a princple of the Yamas that we can practice in so many ways. For example, how many times have we ‘stolen’ time from someone else or wasted our own time? All of us steal to an extent. We steal someone’s emotional energy when we overburden them with things that we ought not to. We steal someones time when we take advantage of their good nature – for example, in taking excessive car rides from them when we could walk or get the bus. Cheating is a another example of stealing – we are stealing from another that which they are entitled to.
Asteya held Ghandi, derived from Ahimsa because stealing was the act of injury or violence to another person’s right. When we think of it like this, it allows us to become more ethical in the choices we make – we become more honest and thoughtful in our interactions, from the simple purchase of clothing to finding money on a street, Asteya calls us to become pure in mind, heart and action.
This is often translated as sexual restraint or the restriction of desire. It can be dependent on the circumstance of a person – for example, someone in a one to one relationship should restrict their desires for others – in effect it means no cheating. Or someone who is single should be selective in their partners. Sexual restraint in the context of Brahmacharya is linked to the concept of energy within us which in turn, is related to our ‘power’ or ability to connect to other realms of energy.
The notion that controlling our desires would lead us to a state of power is not something confined to the sutras of Patanjali. It is a common theme in Chinese, Japanese and Asian belief systems that our sexual behavior affects our inner power. For example, the concept of ejaculation and excessive sexual activity is thought to be wasteful of the body’s stores of qi, ki, prana or kundalini in these belief systems.
What sexual restraint does in the context of Brahmacharya in the Yamas is teach us control over our desires. In an age when instant gratification in every realm of our lives is expected to be instant, we have lost our inner strength to resist desires. And advertisers are keenly aware of this – it is why advertising has shaped our spending patterns and clever marketing makes us pay over the value for clothing. Our resistance to our desires has withered away – and along with it the mastery of ourselves and the discipline it takes to achieve enlightenment, or our goal we set ourselves.
Our desires can give us fantastic delights but too much of them and we begin to need more and more just to keep us at the same threshold of pleasure. Therefore we give up more and more of our energy in the pursuit of ever greater highs which swallows our energy and leaves us with nothing to pursue our goals.
Patanjali’s Yamas then exhort us to practice sexual restraint, not in some puritan, god will condemn us to hell kind of way, but because our ability to focus and direct our energy where we need it is diluted if we cannot even control our base instincts. It can be thought of in terms of using our energy in a manner that is right for us – and not for others. Restraint in way we misspend our energy builds inner strength. It builds purpose, the ability to discipline ourselves, the ability to say no to ourselves – and all these are important if we are to achieve any goal in life. And when we turn towards Yoga, this goal is Union with the All, or enlightenment. Think of it this way – if we allow ourselves to be succumb constantly to every impulse, we would never achieve anything.
Non-possessiveness, non-greed, non-grasping, non-attachment – these are all ways to interpret Aparigraha, the final principle of the Yamas and one that is so relevant today. When we greedily eye up world attachments and spend our time chasing them, we begin to unbalance ourselves in the pursuit of empty objects. This pursuit can unravel all the previous Yamas easily if we are not careful. When we fall into the trap of comparing ourselves to others and what others have, the virtue of Aparigraha goes out the window.
We are failing in Aparigraha when we buy things just for the sake of having things. We might buy a new car because the neighbors upgraded theirs. We might buy a new car because we think it will boost our standing in the community. We might buy a new car because we believe, or want to appear to others, a certain way. These are all examples of failing Aparigraha. On the other hand, if we bought a new car because we have a sick child and need to be certain of getting them to hospital on time, we are operating on a different level.
Our attachment to products in the way we live today is very real. It is a race to have the latest phone. Children don’t want to be seen unless they are in designer clothing. Peer pressure in having the same as the next person is rife. And all these things arise because we have fallen into the trap of associating our self worth with our attachments. When we lose these attachments then it seems like our life has fallen apart.
For example, we may be attached to our husband and wife. This is normal. This is a strand of love. But what if we are so attached that we lose our own identity, our own self worth or sense of being? If they leave us, we literally fall apart, broken. This is when we are failing to practice Aparigraha, or not possessiveness. In a sense, we must be able to love without love stifling ourselves or the other person. Suffocating love, which can be self-inflicted, is possessiveness in a negative way.
The virtue of Aparigraha in the Yamas is designed to allow us to live without our souls being defined by what we have, who we are with, what we own or how we appear to others. Only by practicing living in this way, do we free ourselves from the yoke of possessiveness and attachment. It means our self worth is not tied to objects and cannot be exploited by the barrage of advertising we face everyday. Non attachment means we can let things come and go, not in a manner that is devoid of love, but in a manner that is full of love but does not surrender ourselves to