In the Yoga Sutras, the great Indian sage Patanjali writes about the eight limbs of Ashtanga yoga. In these limbs he creates guidelines for walking the yogic path, which are contained within these eight essential elements called limbs. They are the steps you climb when you embark upon the amazing journey that is yoga. Through studying and immersing yourself in the eight limbs, your yoga and meditation practice will be greatly enhanced and your life deeply enlivened. (Learn more in a Journey Through the Eight Limbs of Yoga.)
The first two limbs of Ashtanga yoga are known as the yamas and niyamas. The yamas and niyamas are behavioral observances, or disciplines, that we want to follow in order to lead a spiritual life.
The 5 Yamas According to Patanjali
Patanjali laid out the following five yamas to abide by: ahimsa, satya, asteya, brahmacharya and aparigraha.
As you might be able to see here, the yamas have to do with our attitudes and behaviors within the realm of relationship with others. The niyamas, which we’ll study later, have to do with our attitudes and behaviors in relationship to ourselves. The yamas not only enhance our yoga practice, they also enliven and enrich our entire lives.
Pursuing and living according to the precepts of the yamas takes a certain amount of austerity and discipline – but not austerity in the puritanical sense of the word. The Sanskrit word that Patanjali uses for discipline is called tapas, and this refers to a cultivation of energy or heat. With tapas, we conserve our energy and direct it to whatever it is we’re trying to practice. Part of that means controlling of our passions and desires. Tapas requires moderation and also joy – for the benefits reaped from the yogic path are by far more fulfilling than those that come of our physical appetites and fleeting pleasures. (Read more in Tapas and the Discipline of Yoga.)
Let’s explore each of the five yamas so we can understand them further, and in turn make them a part of our daily life and spiritual practice.
Ahimsa - Non-Violence
Ahimsa is one of the most widely known of all the yamas and it can be translated as non-violence or non-harming. Not only does ahimsa refer to non-violence in the context of our relationship toward other human beings, but also in terms of our relationship to animals, plants, ourselves, our yoga practice, the planet, etc. When we live with the attitude of ahimsa, we live from a state of non-harming. We abide in an intention and attitude of total care and compassion for life itself, we get rid of the desire to cause harm or malice of any manner toward ourselves and others and we cultivate self-love, which leads us to the love of all beings. (Learn more in Ahimsa: A Self-Practice.)
Satya - Purity of Speech and Truthfulness
The observance of satya, or truthfulness, means we speak the truth and also live from a place of authenticity. We don’t deceive others and we also don’t deceive ourselves. It has to do with knowing ourselves at the deepest level and then living from that place of truthfulness within.
Asteya - Non-Stealing
Asteya means non-stealing. Not only does it refer to not stealing material things, but it also refers to not taking anything that isn't freely given to us. This can be an idea, a physical object, a flower on the side of the road - anything at all. When there’s no exchange involved, we rob ourselves the opportunity to learn, work, and progress. We need to be very truthful and real with where we are on the path.
Brahmacharya - Celibacy
Brahmacharya is often translated as celibacy and abstinence because it refers to the young yogis of the past who eschewed sexual interaction during the early part of their lives in order to dedicate themselves to evolving as yogis – before taking on the role of householder, husband and father. It can also be translated as containment of sexual energy or any kind of energy for that matter. There’s quite a lot of energy that’s released during sex, and in maintaining that energy and holding it in, it can be directed toward other practices and means. This yama refers to mindfulness around sex, but also to a mindful awareness in the context of any kind of energy expenditure.
The more we practice brahmacharya, the more we know when to hold onto our energy and when to let it out. We learn how to carry our creative energy in a way that empowers us so that we can play with it skillfully and with mindful attention.
Aparigraha - Non-Attachment
Aparigraha has to do with being mindful of what we have. We don’t hold onto things - which causes mental and emotional static. All the stuff we own requires mental energy to maintain, and lightening our load lightens our minds, which in turn lessens the distractions that might take us away from our spiritual practice. In this way, the yama of aparigraha simplifies our lives and cultivates mindfulness around our stuff. (Learn more in Practicing Aparigraha (Non-Attachment).
The yamas are laid out as the first of the eight limbs because Patanjali intended for us to start with them first. Once we’ve mastered the yamas, we move onto the second limb - that of the niyamas.