Yama—Five Yogic Guidelines
for Interacting with the Outer World
Yama means “control” or “restraint” and is the first stage of Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga (the eightfold path). The yama are five guidelines for interaction with the “external” world. Their practice is considered essential for success on the yogic path.
The Five Yama Are:
- Ahimsa (non-harming)
- Satya (truthfulness)
- Asteya (non-theft)
- Brahmacharya (control of the sexual energy)
- Aparigraha (greedlessness)
In order to practice ahimsa, we should not only refrain from physical violence, but also bring awareness to the habitual ways in which we judge and cause harm to others verbally or mentally. Patanjali recommends that we seek to purify these patterns through the cultivation of positive tendencies such as compassion, courage (the cure for aggressive fear), and understanding.
Satya, the second yama affirms that we should practice truth in our actions, speech, and thoughts. We do so by always aspiring to act from a place of love and an intention to benefit others—always maintaining harmony with the truthfulness of the Heart.
Speaking the truth is an important aspect of satya—not lying to or deceiving others, not exaggerating, not giving misleading information, not speaking half-truths, not claiming to know something when we do not. Attention should also be brought to the truthfulness of our intentions, from which all actions and communication emerges.
Asteya asks us to reflect on what it means to take something that does not belong to us or which was not freely given. The desire to steal another’s belongings, property, or attributes is rooted in jealousy, insecurity, competition, the desire to possess, or the feeling of being poor or not having enough. By overcoming any tendencies we have to take that which is not ours we begin to harmonize our energies and go deeper in our practice.
Brahmacharya means “worshiping the Supreme,” “living in Brahman,” “living under the tutelage of Brahman,” or “following Brahman.” It is sometimes translated as “to live a life of holiness and worship.” There are essentially two ways to understand brahmacharya:
- In conventional Indian Hinduism, brahmacharya was the attitude of renouncing all sexual activity.
- In Tantra Yoga, brahmacharya means sexual continence, the control of sexual energy. In Brahmacharya also represents a very important element of Tantric philosophy and practice.
Brahmacharya is also understood as self-restraint, celibacy, and “chastity in thought, word, and deed.” It is a general directive to cultivate an excellent level of restraint and control in life. It encourages us not to indulge in overeating, over-sleeping, or over-stimulation. Most importantly, it instructs us to learn how to control our sexual energy.
By learning to control sexual energy through the preservation of sexual fluids, we gain physical vitality, strength, mental focus, a balanced state of mind, and an increased resistance to sickness and aging.
The great yogi Swami Sivananda used to say that if we adopt even one of the following three yamas—ahimsa, satya, and brahmacharya—the other virtues will naturally follow.
Brahmacharya can also be translated as “Brahmic conduct” and represents the way of life of a Brahmacharin (Vedic student). In India, the Laws of Manu, an age-based social system, speaks about four stages in human life. Brahmacharin is the first stage, lasting until the age of twenty-four.
Aparigraha, literally “to not grab around,” is the directive for aspirants on the yogic path to live a life of simplicity, taking only what is needed in each moment. Aparigraha does not mean to completely renounce all belongings and take up a begging bowl. It means to take a look at what we possess, what we actually need and use, and what could be redistributed to those who are more in need.
Aparigraha cultivates an attitude of modesty and honesty, and simplifies life immensely. Those who own little and need little have few worries. The practice of aparigraha also brings a new level of faith. It develops trust in God (the Spiritual Heart) and the Universe, a faith that all our needs will be met as soon as they arise. Thus, yogis do not covet objects out of greediness or the fear of not having enough.