The Yamas

Simple ways the modern day yogi can apply these principles to live a happy life.



The eight limbs of yoga

Almost 2,000 years ago an Indian sage, Patanjali, created the Yoga Sutras, a collection of ancient yogic texts. One of the main teachings is the Eight Limbs of Yoga (Ashtanga) which can be described as the foundation of yoga and is commonly practised today by yogis all around the world. The Eight Limbs comprises of eight steps that lead us to enlightenment. If practised regularly they can help us to live a happy and meaningful life.


Patanjali’s Eight limbs are:

1. The Yamas (restraints)

2. The Niyamas (self-disciplines)

3. Asana (yoga poses)

4. Pranayama (breathing techniques)

5. Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses)

6. Dharana (concentration)

7. Dhyana (meditation)

8. Samadhi (absorption)


The Yamas

For most of us, our first experience with yoga involves asana (physical yoga poses). However, according to ancient texts, the first steps to contentment and meditation involve guidelines about the way we behave towards ourselves and others. The Yamas are considered to be restraints that if practised, can reduce conflict in our lives and unnecessary suffering. Whilst these ancient rules were developed thousands of years ago, they are still relevant today and can be applied to our everyday life.


1. Ahimsa (non-violence)

Ahimsa prohibits violence towards the self and others. On the surface this involves being kind to all living creatures including yourself. Many yogis interpret Ahimsa in different ways and may practise this Yama by becoming vegan or vegetarian, trying to reduce their impact on the environment or generally being kind to others.

A less obvious interpretation of Ahimsa is being mindful of our inner dialogue that can be directed at ourselves or other people. Negative thoughts can cause us to feel stressed or anxious which in turn, guide our behaviour. These thoughts or emotions can overwhelm us which can lead to irrational behaviour and speaking to others or treating them in a hurtful way. Therefore, by practising Ahimsa within ourselves we can maintain good relationships with those around us.


Practice tip: Take notice when you criticise yourself or have negative thought about someone else such as jealously or resentment. Affirmations or matras can help to turn our negative thoughts around. For example, to overcome thoughts of stress or overwhelm we can use the mantra ‘I am doing the best I can and this feeling will pass’.


2. Satya (truthfulness)

It is important to not only be truthful to others but also to yourself. When we are practising Satya towards others we need to ensure that it is done in a kind way. It is important to note that your perception of the truth may, in fact, just be your opinion. It is not always necessary to share this with others, particularly if it is hurtful.


Practice tip: Being true to yourself can save a lot of misery further down the track. Pay attention to the motives behind your behaviour. Are you trying to please other people to the detriment of your own happiness? Can you take actions that support others whilst also meeting your own needs?


3. Asteya (non-stealing)

Asteya involves not taking something that belongs to someone else. However, there is a deeper interpretation of this Yama. Through our actions we can also steal a person’s time, energy and enjoyment, even unconsciously. It is important to be aware of how our actions can impact others. The act of stealing often comes from a place of insecurity or thinking that we are not enough. This is when we can focus on practising Ahimsa with ourselves.


Practice tip: Continually doing the inner work and trying to be best version of yourself will reduce the need to take unnecessarily from others.


4. Bramacharya (celibacy)

Traditional yogis will practise celibacy in order to divert energy into other areas of their life. When applying this concept to modern life, Bramacharya involves choosing where we send our energy. For example, if we focus all of our energy on work, we may feel burnt out and as a result we are not practising Ahimsa or Satya the important people in our lives.


Practice tip: Try to be aware of people or activities that drain your energy. Whilst we may not be able to avoid these entirely, focus your energy on the things that matter most to you. For example, spending time with loved ones.


5. Aparigraha (non-possessiveness)

Aparigraha prohibits greed and is concerned with knowing that you have enough. Greediness can lead to other unethical actions such as stealing or focusing too much energy on material items. Practising this Yama means reducing excessive consumption. Owning lots of expensive clothes may induce feelings of happiness momentarily but in the long term it does not lead to a fulfilling life.


Practice tip: Many people now are moving towards a minimalism lifestyle. Whilst moving into a tiny house and only having the bare essentials many not appeal to everyone, think about reducing the clutter in your home and being mindful with your material purchases.


When intending to put the Yamas into practise be realistic. Focus on one or two areas that you can improve this week. Be kind to yourself (practise ahimsa) and remember that it takes time to change a habit.


Look out for next week’s blog on the second limb of yoga: The Niyamas.



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