Patanjali’s Teachings: The Yamas

One of the books I’m reading right now is “The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.” It’s a powerful read. This particular version has a long introduction explaining Patanjali’s Teachings and the Yamas.

Patanjali taught about the eight limbs of yoga (yoga, meaning union) in his sutras (small passages or threads). These limbs all connect so that individuals can strive to lead an enlightened life. This is a life in which we purify ourselves and make it possible to be a positive force in the world.

This post is part of a series on Patanjali and the eight limbs of yoga.

Patanjali's teachings: the yamas the eight limbs of yoga

The eight limbs:

  • yamas – the laws of life and social awareness
  • niyamas – moral behavior
  • asanas – what we think of in the western world as “yoga” – postures and positions
  • pranayamas – breathing exercises
  • pratyaharas – letting go of the senses to turn inward
  • dharanas – focused attention
  • dhyanas – meditations
  • samadhi – expanded awareness and the settled mind

The idea is to get to samadhi: the settled mind.

patanjali's teachings: the yamas

The Yamas

The Yamas – the guidelines for social behavior – are one of the eight limbs that I wanted to reflect on here. As I’ve been reading, I was struck by how much my life has aligned with them since becoming a committed meditator.

patanjali's teachings: the yamas ahimsa

Ahimsa – Nonviolence

This includes physical non-violence, but also things like non-violent communication, non-violence in thoughts, and emotions. In my own life, this is part of why I became vegetarian: practicing non-violence towards animals means – for me – that I cannot kill them. I release spiders I find in my house, send love to the bees who fly in my path, take in homeless animals when they come to my home (or at least get them to a vet/shelter that will know how to care for them) and more.

Non-violence in my thoughts is a little more difficult. I am not perfect at this by any means and there’s always room for improvement. It’s not always easy to keep my thoughts neutral when someone is mean or rude to me. However, this yama speaks to the idea that we live in the moment, accept things as they happen, and try not to resist with anger or fear, but instead with love.

Lastly, this yama also includes compassion for oneself. Often times when we can withhold judgement of others, we still judge ourselves most harshly. Instead of getting mad at ourselves when we falter, we can change our thoughts to compassion and love for the fact that we tried, gratitude for the hard work we’ve done, and the courage to keep going.

This yama encourages us to leave free from fear and embrace love.

patanjali's teachings: the yamas satya

Satya – Truthfulness

This yama encourages us to live, speak, and be our truth. In perfecting ahimsa, we get better with satya. It encourages us to say what we mean to say: to think about our words before they ever leave our mouths – to speak intentionally.

This echoes Don Miguel Ruiz in “The Four Agreements”: Be Impeccable With Your Word.

Be, live, and speak your truth with the highest intentions of love. Click To Tweet

But this also imbibes honesty: with ourselves, including when “no one’s looking.” When you act honestly when “no one’s looking,” you develop character and integrity. Studies have shown that people act more honorably when they know they’re on camera. They are more honest. But do they have integrity? When people know they are not being recorded, they sometimes don’t always act with integrity.

In my personal experience, sometimes my speech becomes excessive because I’m nervous about being around someone. Or, I’ll mindlessly throw out a comment in which I “didn’t mean what I said.” As I practice meditation, these two things happen less and less. I also find myself becoming involved in causes that are greater than me, with the intention of helping society to embrace social justice – both at home and abroad.

patanjali's teachings: the yamas asteya

Asteya – Non-stealing

While it’s not that hard to “not steal things,” this yama incorporates a broader sense of non-stealing, as well. This means that we do not take more than we need, and do not take what is not offered – both for ourselves or in not permitting others to do so. “Stealing the spotlight,” so to speak, or not acknowledging the contributions of others goes against asteya. Wasting other people’s time, or not using our talents are also forms of not practicing asteya. These examples are more on a personal level.

Take it up to the societal level and this includes standing up for social justice and working to eradicate oppression. When other people’s rights and liberties have been stolen, it is prudent to restore the balance. Note that I did not say “fight against” – this implies resistance. Instead, this is to use non-violence to stand for justice for all.

An example of asteya is with the monks in Myanmar (Burma) who were expelled from Tibet at the hands of the Chinese government in 1950. To this day, they practice non-violence in their efforts to reclaim the sacred lands where they once lived.

When I participated in the Women’s March in Washington, DC, it wasn’t to protest a new president. I was standing for women’s rights, for the rights of all people, and for love. I stood by the Venerable Pannavati as she led our group in mindfulness and reminded us all that we are non-violent, and that we are standing up for justice.

In practicing asteya, we can then learn to overcome greed, practice generosity and empathy.

patanjali's teachings: the yamas brahmacharya

Brahmacharya – Continence

People have sometimes confused this particular yama with “celibacy” because one of the translations of “brahmacharya” means just that. Monks and other holy people who are celibate as part of their devotion practice brahmacharya in this way.

For the rest of us, however, it means being mindful and channeling our sexual energies in mindful ways. It includes expressing our sexuality in a committed relationship and that when we do engage in this activity, that we do it with the highest intentions of love. This yama teaches us that we must not use sex as a way to release pent up energy (especially frustration or anger) but as a way to connect with a loved one respectfully, in moderation, and never as a way to hurt anyone.

I have been married 16 years to my Juanito. I won’t go into detail here – y’all have no idea how easily I can blush! – but let’s just say that this yama encourages me to keep doing what we’ve been doing: honoring each other and having the best intentions for one another.

patanjali's teachings: the yamas aparigraha

Aparigraha – Non-coveting

This yama teaches that we need to relinquish our need to have things. In US society, this can be a most difficult yama to follow. Constant messages of “if you make more money, you can buy more things, and if you have more things, you are successful and success is a virtue” come at us.

However, according to the introduction of “The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali,” “aparigraha refers to the state that comes spontaneously as the mind begins to experience the effortless Being of the Self” (p 62).

This yama embodies non-attachment: to things, to self, to ideas such as, “I must get to enlightenment!” If we can live with only what we need and work to desire less, then we can begin to really live out this yama.

Just recently, I was sitting at my desk in my office working from my laptop. I still had my desktop computer and used it only occasionally, perhaps to get a document or two off of it that I hadn’t saved onto a thumb drive. After studying this yama, I thought, “well, I don’t need this anymore, it’s gathering dust, and I need to recycle it.” I dropped it off at a nearby Stapes (not an endorsement here; just a place where you can recycle electronic items responsibly). I feel so much better about my office space just doing that!


Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra: How to live by the yamas
The Five Yamas of Yoga
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Translated/introduced by Alistair Shearer. 1982. New York.

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