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What are the Yamas?

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Ashtanga Yoga is a form of mystic yoga, or yoga that aims at direct communion with the Supreme. It is called Ashtanga because its disciplines are eight in number. Indeed, it is often poetically known as the Eight Limbed Path, because ashta means eight, and anga may be translated as limb. In this context anga is better translated as division, or part.  We can loosely translate Ashtanga Yoga as “Union with the Supreme in Eight Steps.”  That makes it sound like click bait, but I am not saying “in Eight Easy Steps!”

In a previous article, I spoke a little about asana and pratyahara which are two of the more preliminary practices. There are 6 other main categories of practice.  Sometimes these eight parts are described as steps in a ladder, but there is a distinction, in that one does not necessarily give up the previous step as one moves higher, or deeper into the practice. However, there is a natural development as one makes each successive step a part of their practice.

These eight parts, or steps are:  Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana, Samadhi.  This means little without translation and explanation, and I will go into some details on each one, but as a brief introduction:

Yama: social behaviours
Niyama: personal behaviours
Asana: physical poses
Pranayama: breath control
Pratyahara: withdrawal of the mind and attention from the senses and objects of the senses
Dharana: concentration of the mind
Dhyana: meditation
Samadhi: trance

The yamas and niyamas are dos and don’ts (the don’ts and the do’s) which help one to come the position of being able to engage in the other processes of yoga.  Broadly speaking the yamas deal with social behavior, and are the don’ts; and the niyamas deal with personal behaviour, and are the do’s, or observances.

I’m going to discuss the yama’s today, and will move on to the niyamas in the next blog.

Meaning of Yamas 

The yamas are social behaviours necessary for steady progress in Ashtanga yoga.  They generally consist in avoiding behaviours which harm others. This helps one become more aware of others, as beings apart from oneself, which is closer to being aware of the Supreme Being, on whom the Ashtanga Yogi ultimately meditates. It also avoids the worst effects of bad action, or vikarma, which hold back development in yoga.

The sage Patanjali itemised the yamas and niyamas in his famous Yoga Sutras. Sutra means a short pithy verse, designed to be taken on board along with teachings from a personal teacher who could elaborate on the profundities outlined in those few words. I will be discussing an earlier source of the same instructions in a later blog, as well as looking at the question of the authenticity of current translations and the subsequent lack of appreciation for Patanjali’s core message.  For now, here is the sutra related to yamas.

Yoga Sutra 2:30

“ahimsä‑satyästeya‑brahmacaryäparigrahä yamäh

“Nonviolence, truthfulness, refraining from theft, celibacy and freedom from greed – these five are yama. “

The Five Yamas Explained

Nonviolence/ahimsa:  This relates to causing unnecessary pain or anxiety to any other living entity. A vegetarian lifestyle is part of that practice, as less pain is caused killing plants than killing those in higher forms.  But the principle is wider than that. Even harsh speech will cause pain and anxiety.

Truthfulness/Satya: (non- lying) Facts should be presented as they are for the benefit of others.  The truth may sometimes be unpalatable, but if it is for the benefit of the listener, one should not refrain from speaking it.  And this should be ideally done in a way so as not to offend, otherwise there may be no benefit. This requires a level of awareness of the other person, and of one’s own motives in speaking.

Refraining from theft/asteya: We need to be aware of others and their right to possessions under their temporary control. Taking something that does not belong to us sits heavily upon the heart.


Celibacy/brahmacharya:  Some yoga practitioners will water down and change the meanings of the yamas and niyamas if they conflict with their own desires and world view.  This particular yama is a notable example of this. Brahmacharya, which means celibacy or control of sexual energy is sometimes sidestepped by translating it as “balanced life”.

what are the yamas

Success in Ashtanga yoga requires control of sexual activity.  This is a controversial point.  What no sex?  In today’s world that seems practically impossible.  And yet this was the practice of Ashtanga yoga.  The loss of sexual fluid entails a loss of subtle energy from within the body, energy that is required in the subtle practices of Ashtanga Yoga, as well as in Kundalini, Tantra and other mystic yoga processes.

Those who do not wish to exert some control over their senses will find the journey of yoga exceedingly difficult. In a core yogic text Sri Krishna says, “There is no possibility of one’s becoming a yogi, O Arjuna, if one eats too much, or eats too little, sleeps too much or does not sleep enough.” (Bhagavad-Gita As It Is, 6:16) He didn’t find it necessary to mention sex life in the same breath, as in the current culture it was clear to all that a mystic yogi totally refrains from all sexual activity, physical or mental.

As a side issue, Tantra Yoga has been greatly misrepresented.  Today’s popular idea of Tantra Yoga as a way to increase sex enjoyment is a media inflated fantasy, at 180to reality.

Tantra Yoga does, as one part of a larger system, include some methods of awakening sexual energy, to lift up those in a lower state, where they are heavily covered by tamas, the mode of ignorance, and/or to increase subtle energy for use in yogic practices.  I am not recommending this practice!

On any path of yoga control of sex desire is required in order to lessen the agitation of the mind and senses.  All yogic paths require this. On the path of Bhakti yoga there is allowance for regulated sex life within marriage, which can also be considered a type of celibacy, however on the paths of mystic yoga, loss of focus and energy through sexual activity will be seriously impede progress.

One reason for this is that the Ashtanga yogi is concerned with controlling the movement of a subtle energy, the life air, also known as prana or chi.  They wish to raise this life air up the body, to either the heart chakra, between the eye brows or the crown of the head.  When the life air is raised it becomes easier to remain undisturbed by the body and mind, and thus be better able to meditate. Energy is required for these practices and loss of sexual energy depletes the storehouse of energy that the yogi requires.

Freedom from greed or covetousness/aparigraha:  If the aspiring yogi is serious about this yama of aparigraha, asteya, the yama relating to refraining from theft, is also taken care of. Collecting more than one needs is also defined as greed and greed keeps us in a grasping consciousness, with an unquiet mind, hindering advancement.

Without adherence to these yamas intending yogis will almost certainly experience a fall down from their attempts to follow this discipline, or in fact any yoga discipline.

And with that I will leave you until next time when we will discuss the 5 personal practices or niyamas, which are given in Patanjali’s sutra 2.32

 “Sauca-santosa-tapah-svadhyayesvara-pranidhanani niyamah.

Cleanliness, satisfaction, austerity, Vedic study; and isvara‑pranidhana, surrender to the Supreme Lord – these five are niyama.”

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