Very little of the yogic life actually happens on the mat. Yoga is an entire system of awakening our consciousness and working toward enlightenment. And it starts with our relationship with the external world. This very first step in Patanjali’s ashtanga yoga, also known as the eight limbs of yoga, is called yama.
There are five yama in total, which we can think of as ethical codes for maintaining right relationships with the outside world. Unless our relationships with the outside world are appropriate and harmonious, we are bound to have internal conflict that impedes on our spiritual growth.
The yama give us a sort of moral compass for navigating everyday life — our interactions with our family, spouse, friends, and every human encounter in between, plus animals and possessions — fostering harmony with the forces around us.
The first yama lays the foundation for all else that follows in the eightfold path. Violence in any form breeds disharmony and negativity in the mind. And this isn’t just violence in deeds, but also in words and thoughts. The most powerful of these three — words, thoughts, and deeds — is what goes on in the mind.
Violence in action is pretty straightforward — we should not harm another being, be they a fellow human or animal. This brings up the big question about eating meat. Traditional yoga follows ahimsa in diet, meaning the yogic diet is vegetarian. In ancient times, cows were treated with much more reverence than they are today. Plus, the cow is considered sacred in yoga’s homeland of India. Milk products were considered a wholesome part of the yogic diet and also sattvic. Today’s dairy industry is a far different situation, and if we choose to consume dairy, we should seek out farms that treat their cows well to ensure we’re still following ahimsa.
Violence in speech comes in the form of speaking harshly to another person. As we all know, words are potent, and their effect lingers. Non-violence in speech means speaking to others kindly. This is the most challenging in intimate relationships with family members and spouses, where words are spoken with a little less care and sometimes aimed to hurt. This one can be hard too when it comes to our children, who test our patience and sometimes harsh or even just loud words feel like the only way to get through.
In all of these situations, it helps to take a deep breath before speaking when we’re feeling tested. This will prevent our mouth from moving faster than our thoughts. A simple pause gives a space to choose words carefully so that they don’t have a violent effect.
Of our words, deeds, and thoughts, thoughts are the most potent of all. Violent thoughts act like poison in the mind. A violent thought can be wishing harm to others — hoping that our boss gets sick or that a cheating ex-boyfriend gets cheated on, too. Violent thoughts are also those that are mean-spirited, like taking pleasure in another’s suffering.
These can be self-directed, too. Violent, mean-spirited, self-directed thoughts are the most common of all: “I’m fat.” “I’m ugly.” “I’m not good enough.” These become toxic mantras, reverberating in our mind and even affecting our body.
The first step to banishing any of these violent actions — be they words, thoughts, or deeds — is awareness. We need self reflection and introspection to even realize if we are causing harm to another being or ourselves. Only once we have awareness can we cultivate good will and peace toward oneself and others.
Truthfulness maintains peace in the mind. When we are truthful to ourselves and others, we have nothing to hide. This truthfulness means telling the truth, and not lying, but also walking the walk and talking the talk. This is so important for us yoga teachers. Our students look up to us, and should be able to believe that what we say is truth and that we practice what we preach.
But while we should be truthful, we also need to speak the truth within the realm of non-violence. Sometimes the real truth is too harsh and we need to soften its delivery. There’s a real art of finding the right timing and way in which we speak the truth.
This definitely comes up in our closest relationships, which demand the most truth-telling of all. Communication is key! We must navigate truthfulness through the lens of non-violence, finding a way to tell our spouse, for example, that we’re concerned about his weight gain for the sake of his health, without making him feel shamed or insulted. It’s all in the delivery.
This yama is the least understood of all five. It is not merely abstinence from sex. Abstinence can be a part of yoga, but for the common “householder” (meaning those of us that live amongst this world, have families, and support our lives through work and money), healthy sex is healthy.
Brahmacharya is really proper use of our sexual energy. Sexual energy is a potent force and powerful energy that has to be rightly used. Without some sort of control, we’re a slave to our sexual desires, and sure to run into great conflict and disharmony in our lives.
For the householder yogi, brahmacharya means sacred sex. Sex isn’t shameful or meant to be violent, but rather creative, loving, and an act of sharing. It should be consensual, and wanted, between both partners, each time. And it should not be in excess, because excess sex is depleting — explained in ayurveda as a cause of many diseases. Enjoyed in this way, sexual energy becomes a positive force.
The fourth yama is non-stealing. At the most basic level, this means not taking possessions which are not ours. At a more subtle level, it also includes not taking the idea of someone else and claiming it as our own.
This one comes up a lot in modern life, thanks to technology. Plagiarism is common because it’s become so easy to copy-paste from the internet, or reshare someone else’s photo on Instagram without giving credit. This is certainly a form of stealing; the unfair taking of another’s work or idea and pretending it is ours. It’s equally easy these days to give due credit — to take a few seconds to quote properly, to ask permission to share someone else’s photo on socials, and to tag them accordingly.
Following this yama of non-stealing keeps our own mind more balanced. There’s nothing to hide, nothing to feel guilty about.
As Dr. David Frawley writes in Ayurveda and the Mind, “non-possessiveness gives us freedom from the world.” This yama is all about not taking more than what we need, and practicing non-attachment to what we have.
This one comes up in modern life so often! We live in a world where we’re urged to buy and consume far more than we need. We own so much stuff, and still we want more. We may even think we need more. If we have five pairs of jeans, we want six. If we have 20 pairs of shoes, we want 21. It never ends.
The problem here is multifold: for one, we become overburdened. Having too much stuff to keep track of or store or organize creates anxiety — those TV shows about hoarding are an extreme, but certainly relevant, example of this! If our own home feels chaotic, the mind will feel chaotic, too, as the home is a sort of outer sheath of the body and mind. We also have too much to worry about, too much that we’re afraid to lose.
Another problem is that our own individual and collective consumption contributes to the destruction of the earth. When we shop mindfully, only buying what we really need, we reduce violence against our planet in so many ways — less production pollution, less shipping, less waste.
Also, when we feel possessive of our possessions, there’s some element of attachment. Yogis are all about non-attachment. We can love our shoes or our jeans, but fostering a relationship in which we know we will be a-ok if we’re without them releases our attachment to objects on the physical plane.
When we’re ready to face our stuff and embrace this yama of aparigraha, a little modern tip from the organizer Marie Kondo is super helpful. Pick up a possession and ask yourself, does this spark joy? If not, donate it. If it does, keep it, love it, cherish it, but know that it does not determine your worth or happiness. Another wonderful tip is to replace: everytime you buy a new pair of jeans, an old pair gets donated. This prevents excess and accumulation.
Even though these yamas were laid out thousands of years ago, they’re so very relevant for today. Following non-violence, truthfulness, proper use of our sexual energy, non-stealing, and non-possessiveness keeps harmony in our relationships with the outer world: from people to animals to stuff. And when those outer relationships are harmonious, we experience more inner harmony, furthering our spiritual development on your yogic path.
Frawley, David (2011). Ayurveda and the Mind. Lotus Press.