Updated: Mar 3, 2022
The Yamas – Social Ethics
As a former adjunct professor at Butler University where I used to teach Yoga and Philosophy, the syllabus always included covering one of my favorite topics: The Eight Limbs of Yoga. Most people in the Western world come to the mat due to their interest in yoga’s physical benefits. However, with time, they begin to experience the unexpected feeling of letting go (both mentally and emotionally) and developing a sense of calm when they embrace the union of the mind, body and breath. There is so much more to yoga, and with these eight steps, you can eventually find a blissful/joyous state that does not take a seasoned yogi to achieve.
When teaching this first step or “limb” called the Yamas, which are social ethics or observances, I ask students to sit to the right of the mat on the floor. This illustrates that before you ever get on the mat for the physical practice you have to accept five values to live a yogic life. Since the second limb of yoga also encompassing five values, I often call these the “ten commandments” of yoga. Commit to these ten actions and your world of inner peace begins. (And you thought it was just about learning triangle pose☺)
Let’s start by reviewing each of the Yamas, or social observances, that you can try to embrace in your life, whether you are a new or a seasoned yogi.
1. Ahimsa or Non-Violence
Gandhi was a greater lover of ahimsa. You might be thinking “I got this one,” as you wouldn’t physically hurt a fly, but non-violence includes thoughts, words, and deeds. When you beat yourself up internally or self-criticize or put someone down in your thoughts, you are not applying ahimsa. It is easy to gossip or get angry, but that can be as harmful as a physical punch. Getting angry at someone or about something is part of being human. It is how we handle that anger that makes is who we are at our core. I wish it was easy, but it isn’t.
Unfortunately, a recent incident made me see the process of anger in a different light. With good intentions in a particular situation, I went from patience, to impatience, to frustration, to anger, and that anger led to harsh words. Then came the period of regret, embarrassment, and self-judgement. It takes time to personally heal and forgive from the external as well as the internal drama before moving on. Life happens, but when you are committed to the inner and outer journey of yoga, you take time to explore the feelings, analyze what happened and get grounded again. The Serenity Prayer should also be kept in mind: God grant me the things I can change, accept the things I cannot change, and always to know the difference. Any violence falls away in the presence of such unconditional love generated through the practice of ahimsa. Ahimsa…what a beautiful word. May it be your new mantra.
2. Satya or Truth
This Yama is about living by the motto of “say what you mean, mean what you say.” It is so easy to bend the truth if you think you could gain from the outcome or if it is not going to hurt someone. If you commit to Truth, you will surprise yourself when you stop to evaluate whether you should say a little white lie or be honest. One of the things I love about Kundalini yoga is that you always end the class with Satnam. This means “truth is my identity.” Let truth be your identity. Then your integrity will never be doubt. Learn to THINK things through or in other words, ask if an action is True, Helpful, Improves,
Necessary, and Kind. In his book, The Heart and Science of Yoga, Leonard Permutter wrote, “True heart-centered yoga means swimming against the tide of our culture and the habits of a lifetime to rely on the power of love and eternal wisdom that already resides within you.”
3. Asteya or Non-Stealing
This Yama asks that we take only what is offered and use only what we need. This can be practiced in the realms of material resources, intellectual material, and respect for others’ time and energy. This concept is not just about stealing something concrete from someone. It could be stealing time from someone without respecting their boundaries. Or stealing intellectual property by using others’ words without giving appropriate recognition.
Yoga teaches the practitioner that once they surrender their desires, a true wealth will come on its own in many different ways. Nothing truly belongs to us in the first place.
4. Brahmacharya or Moderation
Yoga is all about maintaining a healthy balance in life. Anything that gives us pleasure can go from being a moderate indulgence to an addiction. Addiction does not just mean drugs or alcohol. This means people should practice moderation in all of their activities—watching TV, shopping, surfing the internet, drinking caffeine, eating... When people work to satisfy their senses, they have less time and energy to direct a healthy, balanced lifestyle. Moderation is a commitment to using energy wisely, neither suppressing nor overindulging.
5. Aparigraha or Non-Greediness/Non-Attachment
This final Yama emphasizes being truly happy with what we have. It is not about searching for that happiness through possessions or another individual. Practicing non-attachment will eventually lead to having no expectations in life that could hinder contentment and happiness with life and ourselves.
Non-attachment should not be misunderstood as indifference. The secret is that desire without personal or selfish motive will never bind us. Selfless desire has absolutely no expectations, so it knows no disappointment no matter the result. By renouncing worldly things, we possess the most important sacred property: peace. For example, hoarding could be considered a violation of this practice. When people hoard, they are keeping things for themselves that they really do not need instead of giving to charity, sharing with others, or eliminating waste.
Sogyal Rinpoche, author of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, once explained, “Freedom does not come from acquisition. It comes from letting go.” Buddha considered attachment to be a root cause of suffering.
I hope you will continue this journey with me as we explore all Eight Limbs of Yoga. Stay tuned for the Ni-Yamas, the personal observances. We will go a little deeper in discovering the real you. Namaste or, should I say, Satnam.