The yamas – there are five of them – make up the first limb of yoga. These, along with the niyamas, are guidelines for living a better, more fulfilled life. But before you roll your eyes, the yamas are not directives about what to do and not do. They’re open to interpretation – in fact, they invite it – and when you start thinking about what they mean, you’ll find that there are increasingly nuanced and interesting ways to think about them, and to apply them to your own life.
Together, the five yamas address one of the main, if not the central, sources of unhappiness: Craving, which, in its many forms, leads to all kinds of distress, feelings of emptiness, depression, and even addiction. Rolf Sovik, PsyD, who is president and spiritual director of the Himalayan Institute in Buffalo, NY says, “Craving—imbalanced desire—is the great challenge in life. Its symptoms are the willingness to harm, to lie, to steal, to over-indulge, and to mistakenly possess. It is not that the yamas are commandments, but that they are clues to recognizing craving, as well as the antidote to it in its various forms. If I am lying, I must be attached to something. But what? And what will life be without that attachment? The yamas offer an experimental approach to self-transformation.”
Separately, the five yamas are as follows, with a short interpretation for each one. (Please feel free to discuss or critique the interpretations in the comments section below.)
- Nonviolence (ahimsa): Rev. Jaganath, of the Yoga Life Society, says that one interpretation of this virtue is that “We should not knowingly cause harm to human beings, animals, and so-called inanimate objects in thought, word, and deed. Ahimsa, like most moral and ethical precepts, challenges us to have our beliefs, motives, and actions in alignment.” It’s important to point out that this virtue can also apply to the self – for example, overeating or starving yourself, overworking or depriving yourself of sleep, or even thinking the self-directed negative thoughts that we all think can be considered to be out of sync with ahimsa.
- Truthfulness (satya): This guideline, says Rev. Jaganath, is “about being straightforward with ourselves and others…When we live this principle, we become integrated human beings.” This is a big concept, actually, since it’s a lot easier to lie than most of us like to admit – especially to ourselves. And though it’s scary to get honest, even in the smallest ways, there’s a feeling of braveness that comes with being truthful. Sri Swami Satchidananda, who translated the Yoga Sutras, wrote that “With establishment in honesty, the state of fearlessness comes.” When you lie to another person, and even to yourself, fear is often the driving factor, so letting that go may lead to a new sense of openness and freedom.
- Nonstealing (asteya): “This yama,” says Rev. Jaganath, “is a warning not to let the emotion of envy overpower our good sense. Envy can make us jealous, restless, and unhappy. If we don’t moderate these feelings, we may be prompted to take what is not ours.” And taking what’s not ours doesn’t just apply to crooks stealing cars, it applies to all of us, in many different forms. It can also be interpreted as taking too much of someone’s time, resources, or even taking credit for another person’s ideas in a business setting, says Beryl Bender Birch. When you start thinking about what “stealing” means, “You start to really pay attention to what you’re doing in the world, and how you’re interacting with others.”
- Continence (brahmacharya): This yama is sometimes translated as celibacy, but that’s not the way all yogis approach it. More often, it seems to be thought of as moderation in any walk of life: “Yogis should be moderate in all activities,” says Rev. Jaganath. As it relates to sexual activity, “saving up” sexual energy for the right person is another, perhaps more relevant way to think of this yama. Satchidananda puts it nicely: “After all, when can you ask a partner to go into business with you? Only after you’ve saved up enough capital.” For most practitioners, the idea of moderation in any facet of life is probably more relevant, and then it can apply to eating, drinking, and almost any other activity you can think of.
- Nongreed (aparigraha): This is a tough one, because as Rev. Jaganath says, “This yama is an attitude, not an action. It bespeaks of a basic craving, an unsatisfied state of mind.” It’s also easier said than done, because most of us are incredibly attached to things – or, rather, beliefs about what we need to make us happy – and this is what leads to the exact opposite, unhappiness. Satchidananda explains that when we let go of all our old needs and desires, then “We directly see the cause and effect relationship because we are detached from it; we are no longer bound up with it.”
Again, the yamas are very much open to interpretation. And, like other limbs of yoga, they’re very much a practice. It’s almost impossible to execute all of the yamas all of the time. Bender Birch makes the nice point that just taking a step out the door is theoretically doing harm, because “you’ve got to be stepping on something.” So trying to think deeply about what the yamas mean for you, and how you can work them into your life in a reasonable way, is probably the way to go. And figuring out how to interpret them is quite a fun activity, because it leads to more and more intricate ideas, which keep building upon themselves.
As Jaganath points out, the yamas “are not simply rules. That would drain them of their life and ultimate benefits. They are ways of seeing life. The yamas and niyamas are what life looks like through the eyes of the enlightened. Practicing them is not so much about learning what to do or not do, but how to see. The yamas and niyamas help us awaken.”
We’ll look at each of the yamas and niyamas in the coming weeks.
In the mean time, what are your thoughts about the yamas? What other ways of interpreting them are possible, which are not mentioned above?
Alice G. Walton, PhD is a health and science writer, and began practicing (and falling in love with) yoga last year. She is the Associate Editor at TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com and a Contributor at Forbes.com. Alice will be exploring yoga’s different styles, history, and philosophy, and sharing what she learns here on the YogaGlo blog. You can follow Alice on Twitter @AliceWalton and Facebook at Facebook.com/alicegwalton.