The five Yamas are ethical behaviour restraints towards others. I have found them to be a great help on my personal yoga journey in understanding and dealing with life challenges and experiences.
Collectively the yamas form the first limb (or petal) from the “Eight Limbs of Yoga” in Patanjalis famous and much studied Yoga Sutras.
They are followed by the
Niyamas (personal yoga ethics)
Asana (yoga postures)
Pranayama ( Breath control to direct prana/lifeforce)
Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses)
Samadhi (oneness bliss state)
In todays popular yoga scene and especially in the West, where we are more focused on the third limb, Asana, the five yoga ethics are rarely mentioned in a regular group yoga class. This can be due to time and the need to give students the physical workout they showed up for.
The first I heard of the Yamas was when I attended a yoga teacher training course.
As our inspiring teacher introduced the five yamas, it all seemed so obvious, clear and logical . My experience as I delved deeper through self study took me all over the place mentally and emotionally. As I connected these ethics to everyday life I started to question how I was living my life, responding to challenges and behaving in relationships. I also came to realise the ethics interconnect with other philosophies and especially the Buddhist teachings through The Eight Fold Path. After much study and contemplation I finally came to comprehend the yamas more clearly, for now anyway!
Reflecting back to my yoga teacher training 7 years ago, I was such a beginner, especially when it came to the philosophy side of the teachings. I realise now, how much it was to take in and that to fully understand will take a few lifetimes of continuous study, for me anyway! One valuable lesson I seem to learn over and over is to trust the process. As the yoga journey develops we must believe that the different philosophies we may not have been able to comprehend at first, will trickle in gradually and become a natural part of the practice in time. I’m finding as I broaden my knowledge there are frequent changes in perception, a deepening of awareness (just when you thought you were more aware than you could ever be) whilst also developing a clearer understanding of yoga and life itself. This is one of yogas many beautiful lessons, to simply, trust. One of my biggest insecurities is not being well educated (I was too interested in becoming a dancer, too shy to ever ask questions if I didn’t understand something and possibly dyslexic) I’m constantly having to convince myself to let go of worrying about what I think I don’t know and celebrate what I do know. The surprise and joy is you always more than you think.
When we start to learn more about the Yamas along with the other seven petals of yoga, not only does our yoga practice improve but our quality of life is enhanced physically, mentally, emotionally, socially and spiritually. The yamas teach us acceptance.. that life is eb and flow, a constant change of happiness and unhappiness…. that acceptance leads us away from Dukkah (suffering)
Whilst the eight limbs of yoga do not have to be initiated in order, for example it is common to start with Asana or Meditation the 3rd and 7th limbs/petals of yoga, I think once one has become a committed student of yoga and aware of all eight petals, it is important to acknowledge and comprehend the order. We must remember Patanjalis “Yamas” are primarily talking about our treatment of others and our environment, not about our treatment to ourselves, these personal ethics are laid out via the second petal, the niyamas.
Patanjalis tells us that putting others before ourselves is the vital first step on the road to yoga, demonstrating that yoga is indeed a selfless practice as we are so often taught. I highlight this because of the importance of Ahimsa (non harming) the first of the Yamas, that I am currently connecting with on a deep emotional level through my vegan studies. Ahimsa can often be interpreted as not harming oneself ie; maybe forcing oneself physically in exercise or starving oneself to lose weight. Whilst I believe this is a part of Ahimsa (because when we are hurting ourselves we are inadvertently harming those around us) I honestly do not believe it is the ultimate practice of Ahimsa as explained below.
Through the different stages of life our interpretation and execution of the Yamas will change due to education, experience and awareness.
So here is my current understanding of the five yamas accompanied by quotes from knowledgable wise teachers and gurus.
Ahimsa- Non Violence/Compassion
11.35 ahimsapratisthayam tat sannidhau vairatyagah
As my yoga journey deepens and develops so does my vegan journey.
I absolutely believe that the two are intimately connected in the pursuit of peace, love and happiness.
Ahimsa and Satya (the first and second of the yamas) form the heart of yoga and veganism.
Non Violence and Truth.
Showing compassion for others is not only a massive contribution to the ripple of happiness out into the world but also brings happiness back to ourselves.
Martin Luther King a prolific leader in Ahimsa said-
“The most persistent and urgent question is, what are you doing for others”
Ahimsa is non violence to all other beings and our environment.
Most human beings are kind people and would never want to physically harm another being and most likely believe that they are not. However if you buy and consume animal products then I believe this is supporting unnecessary violence and suffering to the most innocent beings on the planet.
Ahimsa is Compassion.
Can we really be living a non harmful way of life if we are eating and wearing animals that do not want to die for their flesh, skin or fur. The most amount of suffering and violence that happens in the world right now is that what humans force on animals. Every year, in animal agriculture alone, over 56 billion land animals suffer through their short lives to then be violently murdered, simply for a plate of so called tasty food, which a human being will enjoy for just a few minutes. This mass violence has increased in volume over the years as our society continues to be obsessed with greed and consumerism. As this violence increases so do human health problems and environmental issues including water shortage and world hunger. Sadly society has conditioned us to think that consuming animal products is completely normal, natural and necessary as intelligently articulated by Dr Melanie Joy through;
“The 3 N’s of Justification”
Normal- “everybody eats meat”
Natural- “humans have been eating meat for millennia”
Necessary- we need to eat meat for protein
“Myths that teach us to believe that eating animals is normal, natural and necessary. Not surprisingly these myths have been used to justify other violent practices such as male dominance and heterosexual supremacy”
Slavery was also one of those violent practices. Dr Joy goes on to say-
“Violent Belief systems such as Carnism (eating meat/consuming animal products) require willing participants, and most people would not willingly harm animals. So people must be coerced into supporting Carnism. We must believe we are acting entirely of our own choosing when we consume the bodies of dead animals. We must believe in the Myth of Free Will”
So, it’s no wonder people don’t think twice about the violence and suffering that is happening all over the planet every day when they eat a ‘normal’ ‘natural’ and ‘necessary’ cheese and ham sandwich.
We live in Ignorance.
We can call it ‘Innocent Ignorance’ that is, until we know the truth. Then the innocence is lost.
Our participation in buying and consuming animal products in all forms supports the violence and suffering inflicted on animals, therefore compromises the first and most important yoga practice Patanjali gives us, Ahimsa, non violence, non harming, compassion.
This is why I believe the only way to truly practice Ahimsa is to live a vegan way of life.
All yoga practices stem back to Ahimsa and Satya.
Compassion and Truth.
When we awaken to the truth and the entirety of Ahimsa through Veganism and vice versa, everything begins to make sense. We feel a deep rooted contentment for we know we are not only doing our bit to help end suffering and violence to All beings but we also promote and spread compassion.
Find for yourself the true meaning of Ahimsa, yes, look after yourself for you need to be your best to serve others, but know that the service to others is the ultimate goal and ‘others’ stretches to all beings not just mankind.
“If there is one thing you can say about mankind, there is nothing kind about man”
Great Ahimsa leaders and inspirers include Mahatmha Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Dalai Lama, Bob Marley and Jon Lennon; these men were/are all prolific in their quest to Ahimsa and Satya ; non violence, truth, peace and equality.
Today we have many vegan activists promoting Ahimsa one of them mentioned earlier is Melanie Joy Phd and winner of the Ahimsa Award previously won by Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama.
“To identify with others is to see something of yourself in them and to see something of them in yourself-even if the only thing you identify with is the desire to be free from suffering”
Dr Melanie Joy
“Be the change you wish to see in the world”
“Non violence means not only avoiding the external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man but you refuse to hate him”
Martin Luther King
“Non violence leads to the highest ethics, which is the goal of all evolution. Until we stop harming all other living beings we are still savages”
“The most amount of suffering in the world comes from us wanting to make ourselves happy.
The most amount of happiness in the world comes from wanting to make others happy”
11.36 satyapratisthayam kriyaphalasrayatvam
Satya is to be truthful and honest to others and as it is linked in so deeply with Ahimsa we practice, non violent truth. Meaning, if you think a truth you are about to say to someone may cause them harm or suffering you are probably better to say nothing at all. This can sometimes be a tricky task so we should use our ‘inner guru instinct’ to judge the situation and do what we believe to be best for that person with the intention of Ahimsa (non harming)
We should also be aware of hearing ‘clear’ truth from others so that we then continue to pass on that ‘clear’ truth. If you are un clear of what someone means do not be afraid to ask questions and verify the truth. A lot of unnecessary problems and harm come from not understanding what someone else is trying to communicate. Satya links directly with the throat chakra (vishuddi) our communication and truth centre. This is also a centre of purification. Expressing ourselves clearly and honestly whilst receiving clear communication, compassionately and with empathy is Satya.
When relating Satya to veganism, once we realise the truth of the suffering and violence inflicted on animals, that we have been brainwashed to ignore, then Ahimsa anchors in with Satya. Compassion and Truth.
“If you propose to speak first ask yourself is it necessary, is it true, is it kind?”
“There is no God higher than Truth”
11.37 asteyapratisthayam sarvaratnopasthanam
Asteya or non stealing does not just equate to stealing a material possession from another. Whilst we should not do this, we should also understand the deeper meaning of asteya.
When it comes to non stealing this is also applied to not stealing someone elses time, space, energy or idea without permission. When it comes to our fellow non human beings that we share the planet with, we should not be stealing their babies, their milk (see dairy blog) their wool, their skin, their feathers, their honey, their lives.
Generally people steal whether in material or energy form because they are dissatisfied with their lives. They generate this craving to have what others have, without having to work for it, which inevitably will not bring them real happiness.
Asteya teaches to have awareness and compassion when with others and to not take what is not ours or what we have not earned. The outcome of this practice brings us all that we need when we need it, naturally and without force.
The rewards require hard work, discipline and commitment. In the present, one must strive to be happy and content with what one has because if you spend your life always wanting more you will never have enough and taking from another only contributes to the ripple of suffering.
“Upon the man/woman who does not take what belongs to them, all riches are showered. Being without desire he/she effortlessly attracts what is precious materially and figuratively, including the gem of all dues, virtue.”
Brahmacharya- Absitenence/Self control
11.38 brahmacaryapratisthayam viryalabhah
In many texts and translations Brahmacharya is celibacy.
I have come to understand this does not apply to the modern yogi but to the rishis and such like that live a life of devotion to God.
For us modern yogis and yoginis living with todays distractions and attractions I believe we can relate brahmacharya to addiction and over indulgence.
To refrain from addiction to drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling etc is to practice brahmacharya. To live a life of moderation is the ideal way to happiness but life struggles, challenges and sometimes pier influence can lead us down a long dark tunnel of addiction and this affects those around us as they suffer inadvertently at the hands of the addiction too.
We should try to refrain from heading down this path by learning self control. Bringing in Ahimsa the first step of non harming and compassion could be a powerful tool here, for no normal peaceful being wants to truly harm another and addiction has a huge impact on all around us in such a negative way that it cannot help but incur harm.
Over indulgence and addiction takes away precious energy. When we master brahmacharya we preserve that valuable energy which fuels us to move towards our highest potential, enabling us to be of great service to others.
Aparigraha- Non Attachment
11.39 aparigrahasthairye janmakathamta sambodha
On a superficial level aparigraha connects with attachment to material possessions (cars, clothes, houses etc) a certain lifestyle, a relationship, an important life event. On a deeper level aparigraha relates with attachment to thoughts, feelings, emotions and moods. We have a tendency to become attached to pleasure and pain which in the long term will only cause suffering.
Everything is continuously changing apart from, the pure soul. Look at Mother Nature, she is always reforming and reshaping herself, just as our own personal lives are. Suffering (dukkah) occurs when we cling on to something, a feeling, emotion or event that has passed. A special occasion such as a wedding or holiday etc has to come to an end, we feel down/sad when it is over because we have attached ourselves to the way that experience made us feel, we attached to something impermanent.
Some lovely helpful words from Dr Seuss for these moments
“ Don’t be sad that it’s over, be happy that it happened”
On the other side we also attach to pain in forms such as fear and anxiety. Learning non attachment requires acceptance that pleasure and pain come and go. The eb and flow of life never stops. Nothing is permanent except change but we crave for permanence of pleasure and we struggle to let go of pain, this is when we experience suffering.
A fundamental part of yoga practice is the inward journey, to connect to the Soul/Atman or True Self within. Peeling back the layers that cover the soul through the practices of yoga we realise that what is actually permanent, resides in all of us. With this knowledge we gain a reassurance, sense of security and inner peace, for we know that as long as we connect with our inner guru everything will be just fine.
“Holding on to anything is like holding on to your breath, you will suffocate.
The only way to get anything in the physical universe is by letting go of it. Let it go and it will be yours forever”
The Yamas are an essential part of yoga practice and of life. Imagine if all human beings could live by these five ethics, what a different world we would live in. Our perception and execution of Non Violence/ Compassion, Truthfulness, Non Stealing, Self Control and Non Attachment will, in the fashion of change being the only permanent, continue to evolve if we continue to study and share these teachings. When you have this knowledge and it begins to resonate passing it on is the most rewarding thing you can do.
Always love to hear your feedback so please do feel free to comment below.