Long before yoga gained popularity as a way of keeping one's body fit and flexible, people turned to yogic philosophy to answer their burning questions about our true nature.
One of the most important subjects of yogic philosophy is the Eight Limbs of Yoga as described in The Yoga Sutras by Patanjali. Each of the eight limbs covers a different aspect of yoga, ultimately leading the practitioner to self-realization.
What are the Yamas?
At the beginning of the eight-fold path are the yamas. They are often explained as yogic morals and ethics, but this is not entirely accurate. First of all, yama is the mindset essential for meditation. The Sanskrit word yama means “to restrain, to rein in, to control”. To be able to focus and direct the mind where we want, we first need to rein it in, and this is done through yama.
Patanjali instructs that the five yamas should be practiced on all levels - speech, thoughts, and actions - and that they are not limited to a certain time or place.
The Sanskrit word ahimsa can be translated as 'non-violence' and describes the renunciation of forceful intentions that cloud self-awareness and in consequence cause damage to our environment and pain to ourselves.
Conditioned by our lower nature, we have the habit of applying force in order to attain something that we want. When we meditate, this habit automatically arises and hinders the process. Why? Because meditation and the revelation of our True Self is not something we can force or push to happen. We must let it happen through releasing all effort. That is why ahimsa is the first principle we practice. Make your meditation effortless, guided by the energy of love alone. Release all the tension you might find within yourself and tune into love - this is ahimsa in action.
A regular inner practice of ahimsa leads to less (physical, mental and emotional) violence as we interact with the world around us. We are able to accept ourselves and others more fully, thus experiencing less judgment and more compassion, kindness, and love.
Satya is derived from 'sat' meaning “what really is” and it refers to a being's unchangeable, true essence. Because we identify with the senses, we often prefer comforting lies over unpleasant truth, especially when truth contradicts our personal egocentric beliefs. Satya helps us open with a readiness to receive insights and realizations about the true nature of our existence.
There are several ways to practice satya, for example by setting intentions to realize the truth of what you are. Reflect on your actions and reactions with the intent to uncover the hidden intentions within. This analysis of your behavior will gradually lead you to understand how your ego works, eventually allowing you to realize your true essence which is beyond the (false) ego.
As you interact with the world around you, be honest with yourself and others, and avoid falsehood in your words, actions, and thoughts. At the same time, honor the first principle of ahimsa by practicing love and acceptance.
Going far beyond the literal meaning of non-stealing, asteya is best described as a state of mind when one accepts only what is freely given, not seeking to have more and not being attracted by the possessions of others.
This way of thinking helps overcome feelings of anger, greed, and envy. The mind is no longer distracted by the possessions or ideas of others, providing a suitable state for meditation.
Brahmacharya (Alignment with the Divine)
In religious and historical contexts, brahmacharya is usually explained as sexual restraint for the sake of spiritual progress. Celibacy is seen as a means of maintaining purity as well as saving life energy that can be used for attaining liberation rather than worldly pleasures.
In a deeper sense, brahmacharya is a method of self-control, which does not necessarily mean restraining from sex or other sensual pleasures but engaging in a completely different way. This lies in the meaning of the two words that brahmacharya is composed of: Brahman – the ultimate universal consciousness, and charya – to follow. Therefore, brahmacharya is an internal intention to align your will with the Divine will and surrender to inner guidance.
Essentially, brahmacharya is about listening to our innermost essence and following it, instead of acting within conditionings of the false ego and the senses.
According to aparigraha, we are the users of everything that we are given, not the owners. This way of thinking promotes non-attachment to worldly goods, relationships, and our (false) identity view. With this mindset, one is able to let in what comes and - in equal harmony - let it go.
Why Integrate the Yamas into Your Life?
By living life in accordance with the Yamas, our mind becomes less caught up in worries and regrets about our actions, allowing us to be fully present and focused. This will make it easier to practice meditation, which may ultimately lead the practitioner to liberation from suffering. Do you want to learn more about the other limbs of yoga? Read more here.
Find out more about the Yamas and other aspects of yogic philosophy in our Yoga Teacher Training Courses!