Long ago, the sage Patanjali gave yogis the eight limbs of yoga—a natural progression of ethics to develop the body, mind, and senses for higher yogic practices. The yamas are the first step on this yogic path, coming before asana. Valuable for yogis and non-yogis alike, the five yamas mainly concern our relationships in society and how we learn to live harmoniously with others.
Patanjali calls the yamas mighty, universal vows that are irrelevant of time, social class, or where one lives. Although these moral observances were set forth ages ago, they are still important to the spiritual endeavor of yoga. They form the strong, moral foundation needed to advance on the spiritual path.
This code of ethics is the first step on the yogic journey.
Ahimsa is the ethic of non-violence. To practice ahimsa means to not harm oneself or another physically, verbally, or mentally. In a more positive sense, adhering to ahimsa means loving and respecting all creation.
On the yoga mat, ahimsa is the practice of yielding to the body’s limitations. Pushing too far or having an overly vigorous, obsessive practice does more harm than good. Any yoga practice that depletes the body or causes injury goes against the ethic of ahimsa. Mentally chastising yourself for tight hips, lack of balance, or some bodily imperfection also goes against ahimsa. Instead, embrace non-violence by lovingly accepting your body.
As a teacher, ahimsa means being aware of your students’ physical limitations. Be gentle and mindful when giving hands-on assists. Help students push themselves, but not to the point of injury.
In daily life, adhering to the principle of ahimsa means following a vegetarian diet. Yogis believe that all creatures have the right to life and happiness. Eating meat directly conflicts with ahimsa. However, going vegetarian can become an act of self-violence if it isn’t done in a healthful manner. If you transition to a vegetarian diet, learn how to do it properly, so you don’t deprive your body of important nutrients.
Satya is the practice of truth in words, thoughts, and deeds. It not only means not lying but also aligning what you say with what you do.
As a yoga teacher, you can practice satya by staying true to yourself. Don’t take on a yoga teacher persona that isn’t authentically you. Don’t change yourself to fit into the hippy, new-age yoga stereotype, or however you think a yoga teacher should be. Give your students an honest representation of yourself, and those whp you are truly meant to serve will gravitate toward you.
Teach your students to practice satya by honoring their bodies. Encourage them to recognize when an asana or class is beyond their level. When you offer students an advanced option, remind them to only try the posture if they are truly ready.
Asteya is the principal of non-stealing. It means not taking anything that you haven’t earned or that isn’t yours. This is the most straightforward of the yamas.
In regard to teaching, asteya means that a yoga teacher would never take payment for work they haven’t done. They also wouldn’t abuse the trust of their students, which can be considered a form of stealing.
Brahmacharya is the proper use of one’s sexual energy. This yama is hotly debated. Some interpret it to mean complete celibacy; others understand it as moderation in sex. Either way, the reason behind this yama is to constructively conserve sexual energy for yogic practices. Brahmacharya builds inner strength, vitality, and vigor—everything a yogi needs.
You don’t have to sign off sex to be a yogi. You can put brahmacharya into practice by limiting sex to one partner and in moderation, rather than at the will of lust.
Aparigraha means non-collection or non-greed. It encourages us to practice living simply and to let go of what we do not need. Worldly possessions will never bring true peace or happiness. Aparigraha teaches us to detach from the excess stuff that gets in the way of spiritual growth.
Aparigraha can also mean not being greedy for love and attention. As a yoga teacher, putting aparigraha into practice is the act of detaching yourself from the love and attention of your students. Their affection should never be your motivation for teaching.
Putting these five yamas into practice as a student, teacher, or even as a non-yogi can make your spiritual path smoother. In fact, it is nearly impossible without them.