II.30 ahimsā-satyāsteya-brahmacaryāparigrahā yamāh
The yamas are nonviolence, truthfulness, non-stealing, celibacy, and renunciation of possessions.
II.31 jāti-deśa-kāla-samayānavacchinnāh sārva-bhaumā mahā-vratam
[These yamas] are considered the great vow. They are not exempted by one’s class, place, time, or circumstance. They are universal.
The yamas (यम), or abstentions, are the first limb of Patañjali’s eight-fold path of Yoga. These are the vows that deal with our interactions with the external world, the restraints. They guide our behaviors and help us attain awareness. They are meant be practiced on all levels (actions words and thoughts.)
Yoga is based on a foundation of ethics. One of the most important parts of yoga is our relationship to others, how we interact with and treat the world. These are suggestions on how to live your life so that you are more mindful of your interactions with the world. You can see the true nature of your intentions and engage with the world appropriately instead of relying on habitual patters of thought and reaction. They also apply with our internal relationship with our self. If you try to observe these restraints in your life, you may feel more at ease, more authentic, more compassionate, more sensitive, and more balanced. They keep us grounded in the community, in the world of relationship.
The yamas go hand in hand with the niyamas ( नियम), the observances, which are the second limb. These are not laws but guidelines that are supposed to promote psychological stillness, leading to more insights about our true nature. They are the the ethical limbs of the eight limb path that support all the other limbs.
The Five Yamas of Yoga are:
Ahimsā (अहिंसा) – Nonviolence/ Non-harming
Satya (सत्य) – Truthfulness
Asteya (अस्तेय) – Non-stealing
Brahmacarya (ब्रह्मचर्य) – Celibacy, Chastity, Sexual restraint
Aparigrahāh (अपरिग्रह) – Refraining from Acquisition or Coveting
Nonviolence means the avoidance of harm to any other being, at any place, at any time. All the other yamas stem out of ahimsā. As mentioned before, at the base of yoga is our relationship with others. Once our ego can dissolve a bit, we begin to notice that we are all part of a larger, unending, whole. Each and every living being is connected, equal, beautiful, scared, and magnificent. Nonviolence is not something that requires effort. It will naturally flow out of a more consistent practice as you experience these truths and become more attentive and aware of your interactions.
Thus all the other vows purify ahimsa. Truthfulness, non-stealing, sexual restraint and refrainment from desiring or acquiring unnecessary possessions all lead to a more peaceful, kind, and non-harmful life. In the version of the Yoga Sūtras, compiled and edited by Edwin F. Bryant, he writes “This underscores Vyāsa’s view of the centrality of ahimsā: truth must never result in violence. Therefore, if there is ever a conflict between the yamas– if observing one yama results in the compromise of another- then ahimsā must always be respected first.”
A consistent practice of āsana and prānāyāma, of the the other meditative limbs of prayāhāra, dhāranā, dhyāna, and samādhi (which will all be discussed), all lead to more awareness of the internal workings of the mind and allow you to realize the obstacles on the path to enlightenment of the true nature of reality and your experience of it. One of these obstacles is your ego, your ignorance that the ego is your true self, and therefore your attachment to or aversion from certain experiences that you think will satisfy the ego. From this attachment/ aversion complex comes desire. One goal of the yamas (and niyamas) that helps free the mind and attain contentment is the elimination of desire. If you release yourself from desire, Non-stealing, sexual restraint, and non-possessiveness become a little more natural. The pleasures of this life are temporary and and ultimately lead to suffering if you grasp at them and try to hold onto them. The goal is to be completely present in the now, to experience what is arising, without clinging. Experiencing it as sacred, but not idolizing it, lusting after it, coveting it.
With all the yamas it is a constant practice of mindfulness and interacting with awareness in the present moment. Lying, stealing, sexual indulgence, and over possession all lead to a perpetuation of gross desires and lack of respect and consideration for other living creatures. Giving into the desire perpetuates the desire, which eventually takes hold and causes you to seek the pleasure without considering the consequences of the harm it may cause you or others (acting out of habit of thought and reaction), therefore perpetuating suffering.
The second sūtra I stated at the top says that these yamas are nonnegotiable. This means that everyone is capable of following these guidelines, regardless of time or place or circumstance, and if your goal is that of realizing the true nature of reality, if your purpose it to contemplate the great mysteries of life and live the path of yoga, then these vows cannot be ignored. For someone living in the modern world, these yamas should be kept in awareness. They will deepen your practice, but everyone is one their own unique journey and that journey is based on your own unique experiences. You must discover your truth, what jives with you, and hold onto that resolve. From that will blossom contentment.
Following the yamas takes a resolve and a commitment to the yogic path. Like all things in life, I believe this type of mindfulness is a long, ongoing practice. If we meditate on the yamas, however, and try to practice them as consistently and continuously as possible in our daily lives, it will lead to a more honest, free, and content existence, not to mention more self-assurance and most likely less stress.