Most of us understand yoga as a relaxation technique and a way to improve health and body flexibility. Yoga is not just about the body. It’s a way of living and its goal is to lead the individual to self-realisation and to ultimately unite the individual with the divine.
Sage Pathanjali, in his text yoga sutras, prescribes an eight-fold path (Ashtanga Yoga. The process of Ashtanga Yoga is revealed by Sage Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras and not to be confused with the physical practice of Ashtanga Yoga.) to achieve this goal.
When we understand the greater purpose of yoga, we realise that the asanas or postures that most yoga practitioners focus on is just a small part of the yoga journey. Yamas are the first limb of Ashtanga Yoga and form its moral foundations.
What are Yamas?
Yama means moral discipline. Five Yamas form the first limb of ashtanga yoga. They are things that we must refrain from doing. They are designed to make our lives better, more satisfying and improve our relationships with other creatures and the world around us.
The Five Yamas
1. Ahimsa (don't be needlessly violent)
We must have compassion for all creatures and should not cause needless pain and suffering for anyone including ourselves. When we talk about pain here, it includes both physical and mental pain.
If we crush a bug under our feet or intentionally hurt ourselves, we are causing physical pain and harm. When we yell at someone or frighten an animal, we are causing mental anguish. When we cloud our minds with negative emotions, we are disturbing our mental peace. All these are forms of violence.
We must learn to feel the pain of all creatures and be compassionate. That said, it’s important to understand that most living things have to be violent to some extent to stay alive. We cannot survive without eating and most of our food comes from violence to plants and animals. A soldier doing his duty may have no option but to cause harm to his opponent. So, the essential test of Ahimsa is whether violence when resorted to is absolutely essential and in proportion.
2. Satya (don't ignore the truth)
Satya in Sanskrit means truth, although it has a much deeper meaning. It comes from the root 'Sath', which means that which is stable and unchanging. According to Hinduism, there are only two things that never change and they are beyond space, time and our senses. One is the Athma (soul) and the other is Paramathma (God, the creator).
We must be honest with ourselves and others. We must also understand the truth about the limits of our body and respect them. Instead of reacting impulsively in a situation, we should try to seek the truth and identify the root cause of any problem. Again, a sense of balance is needed here. When being honest will cause harm to someone and not reacting is a harmless option, it’s better not to react.
3. Astheya (don't steal)
We should not take what does not belong to us whether it’s a material object or a benefit that should go to someone else. Here are some common examples of stealing in everyday life.
a) Taking or using something that does not belong to us without the owner’s consent.
b) Jumping in ahead of others in a queue.
c) Parking in someone’s parking slot without their consent.
d) Paying a bribe to get a benefit that we don't deserve or accepting a bribe to give a benefit to someone at the cost of another.
e) Using unfair means in an examination to get ahead of others.
4. Brahmacharya (celibacy - don't be obsessed with pleasure)
Celibacy literally means abstaining from sexual relationships, but that would bring the world to an end. Here, it means avoiding obsession or addiction to anything (not just sex). Obsession can be with anything in our lives like mobile phones, social media, internet and food. Obsession zaps our resources leaving us with less energy and time to do more productive things. In short, we must lead a balanced life where everything has its time, place and its limits.
5. Aparigraha (don't be greedy and don't be attached)
We should take only what we need from nature and avoid grabbing or hoarding more than what we need. We should not be attached to health, wealth or any other possessions. Nature can take it away from us at any time. We should be result oriented, but should never be attached to results. We must do everything sincerely to the best of our ability without worrying about success or failure.
Yoga is not just a physical technique to improve body flexibility, health or the mind. It’s a way of life that has a far greater purpose. While it’s perfect to start with asanas or postures, to fully benefit from yoga, we must master and practice each one of the limbs in the eight-fold path prescribed in Ashtanga yoga. Yamas are the first limb of this path. They are designed to make us better human beings who understand their place in the creation and their relationship to God.