Book 2, Sūtra 30
The restraints are non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, continence and non-possessiveness.
The first limb of the eight is the yamas, methods of self-restraint to purify the mind through thoughts, words and actions. There are five yamas, that together encourage purification in our contact and dealings with ourself and others.
Ahiṁsā - non-violence means to not harm any living being through out thoughts, words or actions. To become aware of our own selfish motives and work over time to refrain from actions that will create pain in others. This also extends to monitoring and beginning to transform our internal world. To notice the negative tendencies of the mind and work to transform their essence to one of compassion. Ahiṁsā is considered to be the root of the yamas.
Satyā - Truthfulness in words and thoughts. This includes not exaggerating, misrepresenting, manipulating, pretending or falsifying. Without truthfulness we suffer a lot of mental disturbance. The highest expression of truth would support non-violence.
Asteya - Non-stealing. Not taking things that don’t belong to you which includes both the gross and subtle. To examine ones actions and motives and work to reduce tendencies that interrupt peace of mind and limit spiritual development.
Brahmacharya - Sexual continence. Learning to control the sense organs and impressions in the mind that would evoke restlessness, agitation and misuse of our vital energy. Those who are celibate such as monks and nuns would work with this in a different manner to those who are engaged ‘householders’ living in society. As ‘householders’, potentially we have partners but we can still choose to exercise restraint, having one stable partner for example and limiting reckless sexual activity so we can direct our energy more effectively to spiritual pursuits.
Aparigraha - Non -possessiveness, to not be greedy or hoard more than is necessary to meet our essential needs. Desire and attachment create disturbance rather than freedom. In modern society this is a particular pertinent consideration.
All five yamas are working to establish some control over the ego and it’s natural tendency to want. To work with the yamas effectively the student will need to tame the desire and grasping tendency of the mind gradually. If the restriction applied is too strong, too soon, the resistance will be too much and the mind will rebel. We need to begin with making slow gross adjustments and through practice and repetition refining them to become more and more subtle.
I feel strongly that without knowledge of the philosophy and teachings that underpin the practice of yoga our efforts on the mat can be mis-directed and in fact lead us the wrong way completely. Without knowledge of the yamas, our physical practice can in fact aggravate behaviours rather than diminish them, hence it is vital to practice in accordance with enquiry and self-study just as Patanjali recommended at the beginning of this chapter on practice. Being willing to look with sincerity at what our practices may excite and motivate rather than temper and transform. Causing ourselves harm on the mat, not being honest or grasping for more are just a few examples of how we could lose our way….
What is wonderful about the yamas is that we can explore and bring about the blossoming of our yoga practice in our days, social interactions and lives. Our mat can be a microcosm of what is required in our world and beyond. As we approach our physical practice developing clarity, observing honestly and fostering awareness of our blindspots, we can in turn take this knowledge into our communities. We are learning to be a yoga practitioner engaged in society not someone simply confined to asana (postural practice).
If you are willing to look deeply, which yama triggers you most? Is there one you resist? Can you make a practice of working with it consciously over the next month… Look beneath the surface… Is there depth and value to what we are practicing?