Last updated: December 21, 2023

What Does Yama Mean?

A yama is a duty or observance recommended by yogic philosophy and teaching as part of the eight-limbed path of yoga. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, he outlines five yamas as his first "limb" of yoga.

The word, yama, originally meant "bridle" or "rein" and refers to the restraining nature of the yamas. These yamas are practices that are considered to be outer observances. They are a way of applying the behavioral codes of yoga to the way the yogi relates to the world. They are considered to be a valuable and highly relevant guide to help yogis live an ethical life.

Practicing the yamas is said to give the yogi the opportunity to live in a way that is healthier and more peaceful. They can improve relationships with others, strengthen character and help the yogi progress on his/her spiritual path. It is also believed to reduce or even prevent the accumulation of bad karma, which can be gathered when one lives without awareness or honesty.


Yogapedia Explains Yama

Preceding the niyamas, which compose the second limb of yoga, the yamas describe the restraints needed to live an ethical life, while the niyamas describe the necessary observances. This can also be thought of as the yamas being the “dont's” and the niyamas being the “dos.”

In The Eight Limbs of Yoga as outlined by Patanjali, the five yamas are:

  1. Ahimsa: non-violence or non-harming of all creatures, including ourselves. Physical, mental and emotional violence are all to be avoided and, as such, ahimsa is often considered to guide yogis to practice compassion and non-judgment as a tool for cultivating nonviolence.
  2. Satya: truthfulness or honesty in words and actions. It is important that this is practiced alongside the first yama of nonviolence as the need to speak the truth must be balanced with the need to not harm another.
  3. Asteya: non-stealing of other's property or time. This means not taking anything which has not been freely and willingly given, and includes not committing or being complicit in theft, exploitation or oppression.
  4. Brahmacharya: chastity, which can also be interpreted as sexual restraint or marital fidelity. This can also be considered as continence or moderation in all of the yogi's impulses, not just sexual ones. Brahmacharya is believed to help the yogi become healthier, wiser and stronger, as it is said that it will conserve energy, which can then be better employed to achieve higher spiritual aims.
  5. Aparigraha: non-coveting. This is a practice of letting go of all that is not needed and only possessing what is completely necessary. It is said that this helps the yogi to see the one thing he/she truly has, Atman (true Self), without the distraction of clinging to possessions.

the five yamas satya aparigraha brahmacharya ahimsa asteya

There are believed to be at least 60 ancient sacred texts that describe the yamas, many of which are written in Sanskrit. These include variations on Patanjali’s list of five yamas, with some texts listing up to 10 yamas. The other variations order the yamas differently and emphasize different aspects.

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