The yamas are duties or observances. They make up the first limb of the eight limbs of yoga outlined by Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. They can be considered guidelines for moral and social conduct. We often think about how these duties can affect others, sometimes forgetting how our social conduct actually begins with caring for ourselves. These qualities are the roots of your spiritual practice, as well as your connection to others, yourself, and Source.
Without focusing on this first limb of yoga before all others, you are unable to deepen your spiritual and yoga practice.
By practicing these qualities in your relationship to yourself first, they can flow more easily into your relationship to everything that is seemingly outside yourself. In this article, I will outline how each yama can be applied to self-care, how they overlap, and I will present some questions you can ask yourself to help you check in with each yama.
Ahimsa comes from the word “himsa,” which means violence. Ahimsa, therefore, means nonviolence or non-harming. With this yama, yogis often focus on not harming animals, and watching their words and actions towards others in order to prevent harm. This is very important, and this skill begins with ourselves.
Judgments can be considered harmful, and so, you must practice compassion when observing this yama. If you find yourself judging others harshly, it is most likely because you are judging yourself in this manner and may not even realize it.
Compassion for others begins with compassion for self.
This can be easier said than done, especially if the ‘samskaras’ or mental grooves of critical judgments have been practiced a long time. Notice your internal voice. Is it supportive? How can you relieve yourself of pressure and self-judgment in order to live a more happy life? How can your behavior towards yourself better reflect a non-harming attitude? This includes what you take into your body and mind, such as food, gossip, television, music and any other stimulation that could affect your sense of well-being. (Learn more in Ahimsa: The Number One Yama of the First Limb of Yoga.)
Satya is truthfulness. Honesty and integrity go hand in hand. Do your actions and words reflect one another?
People usually know when they are lying to others, but lying to ourselves is sometimes harder to catch. You may be in denial about certain thoughts or behaviors. This can be a survival tool for self preservation that many people learn at a young age. At some point, these behaviors no longer serve you.
How can you be more honest with yourself about your boundaries or needs? How can you create the space to be in touch with your inner truth, and how can you change your behavior to reflect your own personal truth? How can you embody integrity?
Asteya outlines respect and non-stealing. Stealing can include tangible things, and also, things like time and space.
It may become apparent to you that you need to work on respecting other people’s time, if you are constantly late to meetings or events. Again, this begins with yourself. Do you respect your own time?
To check in with this, you may want to look at how you spend your time. For example, do you go to bed on time (asteya) so that you can wake up rested and cheerful (ahimsa) or do you convince yourself to stay up later, wake up tired and sluggish, and then blame the traffic in the morning for being late (lacking satya or being in denial).
In what ways might you be cheating or stealing from your present or future self? In what ways can you say yes to yourself and start saying no to others (and also begin saying no to the parts of yourself that no longer serve you or that you are trying to change!).
Brahmacharya is often interpreted differently depending on who you ask. Some believe it is about sexually restraining oneself, and others broaden its interpretation to speak about moderation in general. The idea is that conservation of sexual energy, or moderation of all impulses, can strengthen your health and willpower.
For this exercise we can consider this yama to be about moderation and using your energy in the right ways, as many believe that all energy and sexual energy are one in the same. Are you putting your energy towards the goals you have set for yourself? Do your energy allocations reflect a person you want to be?
Some great examples to check in with include your use of substances, food, relationships (including sex), friendships, television, and, especially, social media. Social media, including simple emailing, is an important domain to check in with because so many people use up their energy bouncing around between apps and answering messages.
Do you spend more time on devices than necessary for your goals? Can you allot time for checking on your electronic world and respect other time periods as device-free or designated to work on other tasks that are important to you (asteya)? Do you lose yourself in friends problems, and forget about your own schedule or to-do lists? Do you get lost in the pleasure of sex and deep feelings of love or intimacy? How can you enjoy the same activities that are important to you, and moderate them in a way that serves you? Practising the skill of moderation can serve you in all domains of life including relationships and professional avenues.
Aparigraha refers to non-coveting and non-possessiveness. By using this yama, you can practice the beautiful art of letting go and non-attachment. This can refer to your attachment to things and people.
Checking in with this yama helps you to see your true self, also referred to as your ‘Atman.’ When you allow your sense of self to become attached to another thing or person, it creates a disconnect from Source and ultimately creates suffering. To care for yourself, you must learn to let go of your ego’s identities. (Learn more in How to See the Ego for What it Is.)
You may become riddled with stress and emotional suffering, if you cannot appreciate and respect the impermanence of the human experience. Possessions and relationships to any person, thing, or job do not define your existence; it's all part of ‘maya’ anyway. By learning to let go outwardly, you can then practice letting go inwardly. You can let go of thoughts or ‘samskaras’ that do not serve you, and even physical pain and emotional trauma.
Somewhat counterintuitively, you may be clinging to your identity as a victim or some other identity that does not serve you. You may think the “grass is greener” and want to be someone else rather than yourself. How can you appreciate your life just as it is, even when you face losses? In what areas of your life can you transmute jealousy into gratitude? What identities can you let go of in order to step into the best version of yourself?
As a therapist, the yamas are what made me fall in love with yoga. The first limb of this holistic practice shows us that we must begin with ourselves. We focus on right action and learn to connect to our true selves.
The yamas underpin the basic moral conduct that we must honor with ourselves first, and then we can apply it to others in order to live peacefully and harmonically with an open and honest heart. If you are experiencing challenging circumstances, moods, or generally feeling like you are lacking in the self-care department, then before all else: practice satya with yourself and check in with these five yamas.