What Are the Yamas Classical Yoga's First Limb
The Yamas of Yoga have a revealing nature; as we deepen our insight into them, they reveal more of their essence to us. Similar to a maturation process of developing skill and understanding, our willingness to observe our own behaviour allows the wisdom of the Yamas to infinitely guide us. As the First Limb (or step) of Classical Yoga, the Yamas are considered “restraints”; ultimately, restraints toward mastery of the self through defining those things that we’re meant to refrain from…towards ourselves and others. Observing the Yamas as a way of life will eventually bring us to an inner space of ease; an inner space, that without their guidance, can otherwise feel amiss, if even subtly. In some way, when we live against the Yamas, we know we’re off target. It’s because of this that the Yamas are considered restraints leading to self-mastery.
The Yamas give us a place to return to, a place to start again amidst the many times we err throughout not only our week, but our day. In sequence, the Yamas teach us (or rather remind us of) something we once knew: the ways of living with honour and respect. And this brings clear conscience. The active presence of the Yamas in our lives brings a clarity that defines the life we want to lead, and the quality of character we want to have in that life. Many of us believe we’re living as the person we hope to be, but that inner restlessness will tell us otherwise. What’s so nice about the Yamas is their gentle nudge on our psyche, bringing us back to center where we feel more rightly about ourselves, and it’s nice to feel comfortable in our own skin.
To be practiced in sequence, over time, an intimate relationship with each principle will begin to reveal their intrinsic connection to one another. The Yamas can’t really be separated, even if one pops out more definitively within certain circumstance. The Yamas will tell you what you need to know, not the other way around. Like the rest of Yoga, we learn what the Yamas are through living by them. Personal experience combined their structure, will fill out the meaning they impart to your personal life. These principles endure, and following them regularly throughout life means, that, like a Yoga mat, they become something we return to over and over again, as a loyal and trusted support.
I often like to perceive the Yamas through a quality that we gain due to the “restraint”…these qualities demonstrate the inner freedom that is birthed from restraint, and is the beginning of the “self-mastery” mentioned earlier. Described briefly, the Yamas in order are:
Ahimsa: Very coarsely translated into English as “non-violence”, this Yama of non-harming offers so much more than that. Ahimsa is that space of Compassion that remains, when all the aggression, competition, force, fear and control are absent. Essentially, in the absence of our rigidity and more oppressive sides, we find Compassion is what remains inside of us. It is Compassion that is to be cultivated, rather than seeing this as a process of beating down our “negative” tendencies. When we develop our nature of Compassion, we face our inner struggle most naturally; resulting then, with the insight that the outer world is not something to be dominated, or to be “had”. When all other practices come to the fore, it is Ahimsa that is to be infuse within each one. In Yoga, it is Ahimsa that comes first, we never leave this one behind, and we will always find it deepening and strengthening as we grow in wisdom. Compassion then becomes the biggest pillar of strength.
Satya: This is Truthfulness in thought, word, and action; when these are in alignment, then we are Truthful. We always feel a bit sideways when we’re not in this alignment. For good or for bad, utilized with intelligence or just for gossip, speech has power. So how clearly and respectfully do we want to define it? What is said can’t be unsaid, once we become aware of something we can’t become unaware of it. This is Truthfulness, and, because of its power, must always pair with Ahimsa. No matter our “intention”, the Truth spoken is rarely easy for us to hear and to know. Truthfulness is something that we, as people, need to be ready for, it’s something we need to be receptive to. This is why there is such significance in the observance of Ahimsa. As mentioned in my History section, Patanjali eliminated impurities of speech through Grammar, and when we practice Truthfulness, we see how challenging that is. Truthfulness isn’t always pretty, but at least practicing Ahimsa means we’ve given consideration on the purpose of what we’re saying, how to say it, why to say it, when to say it, and whether to say it at all. Because sometimes, saying nothing, is more Truthful than saying something. Sadly, we live in a culture of blurting things out, which we’ll find in Asteya (the next Yama) but this is detrimental and shows very little skill. Truthfulness commands respectful courage. Compassion is what makes an unpretty Truth respectful. If we consider the challenge and discomfort of being Truthful with ourselves about our own self, we need to keep in mind the same when expressing it with (or to) others.
Asteya: Since we touched on “blurting speech” in Satya, let’s begin with that. Asteya is “non-stealing”, which requires a maturation of patience (again not fostered in most cultures). Cultivating patience goes a long way toward our ability to ride out our urges; urges to interrupt, cross someone’s boundaries (as well as our own), ability to respect another’s space, or to even consider another at all, as well as their needs. Asteya develops our insight into what is appropriate and when it's appropriate. It’s that development of wisdom, and wisdom’s ability to lead to right action (as we’ll see in Brahmacharya next). We assess the moment more accurately when we’re patient, because we have more clarity on reading the moment and situation at hand. We know what’s called for, and, if we don’t, we know enough to wait it out. Similarly, our ability to give means we are patient, because it means we’re able to serve another despite our own needs; we give space and freedom because we understand our own space and freedom. We begin to see clearly how much and how often we have taken simply due to our inability to withstand a compulsion. And this requires Truthfulness. Asteya is like the gift of Pause…that time of riding out the urge to lunge…an inner trial indeed. But, it’s very different to choose to pause than it is to be paused.
Brahmacharya: Right action, what path to take, what decision to make, choosing the higher choice of integrity whether or not we want to or feel like it. This is Brahmacharya. Sadly, often limited to the translation of “celibacy”, Brahmacharya becomes the culprit of why many people drop the practice of the Yamas. But Brahmacharya in our modern world is about carrying that wisdom from Truth and patience, and utilizing those skills to make the choices we need to make in order to serve Life. Is what I am doing or choosing, Life-serving or Life-enhancing? The consideration of consequence as to whether our lifestyle will further our path to clarity and God, or whether it will be wistful and distracting, ultimately serving no higher purpose. Brahmacharya helps us recognize when we’ve made a wrong turn. Brahmacharya encourages us to move away from small minded vision into a larger vision. It encourages us to act rightly and to act skillfully.
Aparigraha: Letting go allows room for God, or for Life to inject itself into our well laid out plans. Letting go is not the careless act that many define “non-attachment” to be. Letting go is a softening of control, becoming aware that Life itself is more intelligent than any momentary wish or want. Holding on to people, things, knowledge, resentments and feelings, attitudes and beliefs with rigidity, allows for no broadening of our life experience and those things we’re meant to learn. To allow people and things to enter and leave our life as is natural, is a much more secure way to live, because we’re not clinging with the fear of losing. But, nor are we so detached that we’re afraid to care about the love that enters and leaves. There is a rise in gratitude as we gain the understanding that it’s not up to us to determine what is “meant to be” in our life and when it’s meant to be there, or for how long. Clinging and dropping are about changing perspectives, Aparigraha lets us develop a new experience that we’re better off leaving these decisions to a far grander intelligence that isn’t whimsical by nature. Not an easy practice but well worth its value in gold.