The first time I was introduced to the eight limbs of yoga and the five yamas (1st limb of yoga) was during my stay at a Sivananda ashram in Tamil Nadu. Prior to this, yoga for me was mainly about the physical postures or asanas.
I’m now interested in yoga as a whole philosophy and I’m keen to bring the other lesser known limbs of yoga into my teaching for those who are interested.
Yama is the first limb in the eight limbs of yoga, and although different texts vary in their definitions, yama can be interpreted as ethical or moral codes, and there are five of them in total.
I recently decided to reflect on what these five yamas mean to me and how they relate to my life today. Here are some of my thoughts.
The 5 yamas
1. Ahimsa – non violence
I remember when I was first introduced to ahimsa and I took it very literally, interpreting it to mean, just don’t hurt or kill people and animals. I left it at that. However, it can also be applied to how you treat yourself and your approach in your asana practice.
I like to think of ahimsa as also being kind to yourself, which includes not beating yourself up with negative self talk, or over exerting yourself in your asana practice.
2. Satya – truthfulness
Initially Satya for me was about not telling lies, but I think it’s more than this. For me Satya is about finding and listening to your own truth. We might, for example, tell small white lies which could feel like the right thing to do in that moment. I believe this is still Satya.
Everything is open to interpretation, but I personally feel this yama is about looking inside yourself, listening to your own truth, and following your intuition.
3. Asteya – non stealing
Taken literally Asteya could just mean, don’t take things from others that aren’t yours to take, but this could also be applied to taking more than you need in your own life, or stealing another person’s physical space by offloading onto them or taking up their time.
We live in a world today, where we’re constantly being advertised to, and although consuming and consuming doesn’t directly translate to stealing, it made me reflect on this.
When we steal from others or ourselves, there’s a feeling of not being enough, so asteya for me is about being content as you are in this moment. Related to asana practice, I see it as being OK with wherever you are in this moment and accepting yourself fully regardless of what you’re feeling or where you think you should be.
4. Brahmacharya – directing your energy in the right way
Some texts claim brahmacharya means celibacy. Other sources suggest it is more about directing your energy in the right way and does not mean celibacy at all. Unless I become a direct translator of Sanskrit, I guess I will never know what the original intention of this yama was. However, the latter interpretation resonates with me more, as it makes more sense with Yama number two – Satya (truthfulness).
This yama could mean different things to everyone but I see it more about being aware of where you’re directing your energy. Do some areas of your life get more attention than others? Are you directing your energy to the things and people you care about? How aware are you of how you spend the majority of your time?
5. Aparigraha – non possessiveness/ attachment or non greediness
This is another yama not to be taken entirely literally. I interpret it to mean, not attaching your happiness to things outside of you.
Sometimes the more things we own, the more we can get attached to these things and fear losing them. I see this yama as a reminder to seek contentment from inside as opposed to accumulating lots of external possessions or experiences to fill gaps that are missing.
During my second yoga teacher training in India, my philosophy teacher Roshan said something interesting — that the yamas and the niyamas were outcomes of yoga. So, as a result of practising yoga, you will become more true to yourself, aware of where you’re directing your energy, and unattached to your physical possessions etc. My teacher also used to say, put everything I say in your ‘pending confirmation’ file until or if you experience it as a truth firsthand for yourself.
I don’t know if the yamas are outcomes or not, but thinking of them as outcomes certainly shifts my perspective and takes the pressure off from trying too hard to follow them all 24/7.
I’ve given a really brief overview of the five yamas here. I believe they’re non specific for a reason — so each of us can create our own personal interpretation. Yoga, after all is a philosophy that is open to everyone, regardless of your current belief system.
What are your thoughts and what do the five yamas mean to you?