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how to practice the five yamas, yoga's ethical & moral principles

How to Practice the Five Yamas

The five yamas serve as moral and ethical guidelines. In this episode, join me as I focus on these foundational principles, derived from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, and together we’ll explore how you can practice and integrate them into modern life. 🧘‍♂️

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How to Practice the Five Yamas Transcript

In this episode, I’m going to dive a little deeper into the first limb of the eight limbs of yoga. If you listened to the previous podcast episode where I outlined the eight limbs, you may remember that there are five yamas.

A quick sidebar, I do my best with Sanskrit, but it comes with a Texas accent. I may not pronounce it all correctly, but I try because it’s important to honor the language in which it [Yoga Sutras] was originally written.

Sanskrit is a beautiful language, complex, and with lots of layers. It has a lot of different interpretations and meanings depending on the context in which it’s used. So, I’m going to do my best to balance between the English translations as I understand them and the Sanskrit.

Resources for the Five Yamas

My three favorite resources for when I’m studying the Yoga Sutras are:

In the podcast where I outlined the eight limbs, I talked about yamas being loosely translated to meaning restraints, and that this would be how our actions related to our external world.

The website, Swamij.com, says that the yamas have to do with “training your actions, speech, and thoughts in relation to the external world, particularly with regard to other people, and the five yamas are a means of building that relationship.”

Swami J’s reference reminds me of the quote, “Watch your thoughts for they become your words. Watch your words, for they become your actions. Watch your actions, for they become your habits or your beliefs.”

What are the Five Yamas?

The five yamas in English are:

  • non-violence
  • truthfulness
  • non stealing
  • moderation
  • non-greediness

In my Texas accented Sanskrit that is:

  • ahmisa
  • satya
  • asteya
  • brahmacharya
  • aparigraha

You may have noticed when I was going through the five yamas in Sanskrit that several of them began with an ‘A’ or an ‘ah’ sound. In Sanskrit, many times when you see an A in front of the word, it negates it.

For example, ‘himsa’ means violence or harming. Place the A before it and you get ahimsa, which means the opposite of harming or injury. The same applies to steya being stealing, asteya being non-stealing, parigraha being greediness, and aparigraha being non-greediness.

Yama #1 Non-violence, Ahimsa

Beginning with ahimsa, roughly translated to non-harming, non-violence, or non-injury. An obvious example of non-harming would be that we don’t physically hurt or harm another individual.

For many people, non-harming, or ahimsa, relates to the more blunt or coarse description of violence. War, committing murder, physically assaulting someone. Those are all examples of nth degree violence.

If we think about this in terms of how Swami J outlined yamas as thoughts, speech, and actions, then ahimsa, or non-violence, actually starts with ourselves. It starts with the thoughts that we have about ourselves, how we talk about ourselves, and the actions that we take toward ourselves.

It’s only once we are soft, gentle, and non-harming to ourselves, can we have empathy that grows and expands enough that we can extend that to other people, to all that external world around us.

It’s no accident ahimsa is the number one yama. It precludes everything that we do. It precedes all of the moral and ethical principles outlined in the yamas, the niyamas, and the rest of the eight limbs.

Yama #2 Truthfulness, Satya

With truthfulness, again, we look at this in all of our thoughts, and our words, and our actions. We try to be truthful in every manner that we’re able to be.

There’s only one time that we don’t put truthfulness ahead of everything else, and that is when it goes in direct conflict of ahimsa. So, if you being truthful is going to cause harm to another, it’s better to not say anything at all. It’s better to not provide the truth.

As we go through these five yamas, and in the next episode, I’m going to talk about the five niyamas, you might see how some of these we learned about when we were kids. Our parents gave them to us as adages.

I think about the book that was written many years ago, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. You may see the correlation as well.

Yama #3 Non-Stealing, Asteya

We’ve talked about non-violence and about truthfulness, so that brings us to our third yama, which is non-stealing. Non-stealing encompasses the obvious. We don’t go into a bank and rob it. We don’t go into a retail store and shoplift. We don’t physically steal from another person.

But it can also expand to mean that we don’t rob another of their energy, that we don’t take more from them than what they are offering. We don’t steal ideas. We don’t take credit when it’s not ours to take credit for.

I’ll be honest, the stealing of time is a yama that I struggle with. I am perpetually late; I have to work extra hard to be at places on time.

For other individuals, on time is being early. My brain doesn’t not operate that way. On time is on time. I have calculated exactly how much time it will take me to arrive someplace, sometimes not factoring in for things like traffic and wrecks. So I can run late.

If I’m meeting with another individual, if I have an appointment that I’m needing to keep, that attitude is stealing from the individual or the appointment that I’m trying to keep.

It’s not fair that I do that to the individual who is showing up on time. I am placing more importance on my time than I am on the other individual’s.

Yama #4 Moderation, Brahmacharya

The next yama is moderation. Moderation is a very modern interpretation of the word brahmacharya.

We can translate this from Sanskrit as meaning chastity. Unfortunately, when we use the term chastity, a lot of us get the wrong connotation about this particular yama. Chastity means that we were chaste. Chaste in our thoughts, chaste in our words, and chaste in our actions.

If we look at the more modern interpretation as moderation, we want to walk the middle path. We don’t want to be in an extreme on either side. We don’t want to be overindulgent, but we don’t want to be underindulgent either. It’s about each of us individually finding the balance that works for us.

One way you can look at moderation is in today’s diet mentality. Some simple scrolling through your favorite social media platform and you can see so many influencers have an all or nothing mentality towards dieting. If you want to do A, then you have to completely give up B.

Brahmacharya teaches us that extremes never work. We have to walk the middle road.

In terms of the diet culture, an extreme diet isn’t going to work. We have to learn how to have a healthy relationship with food. We have to learn what foods work better for us, because it’s not always the same. One of us can eat nuts and another person can’t eat nuts because they have an allergic reaction.

Yama #5 Non-Greediness, Aparigraha

The fifth yama is aparigraha, or non-greediness. This is the yama that, in my opinion, I feel like most people—first world people—struggle with.

In a world with big-box stores and online shopping, it becomes super-easy, super convenient to just go out and mindlessly buy. To purchase something because it’s on sale, or it’s on clearance, or it’s readily available without taking the time to think about whether you actually need it or not.

Is it a want or is it a need?

I use this example with my own closet. When I go into my closet, I have one full drawer of nothing but yoga pants. And I justify every yoga pant purchase under the clause that I am a yoga teacher. Therefore, I wear yoga pants, and therefore, I need lots of yoga pants.

But the truth of the matter is, there are seven days in a week. At most, I can wear seven pair of yoga pants without doing laundry. So do I really need the 12, 15, or the 20 pairs of yoga pants? The honest answer is no.

Five Yamas in Action

Now let’s take that one step [beyond]. Do I need all of those yoga pants to be super expensive name brand yoga pants?

Looking at our yamas, between moderation and non-greediness, how many pair of yoga pants does a yoga teacher need? And how expensive do those yoga pants need to be to teach yoga or to practice yoga?

Understand this is not about yoga pants shaming. It’s about bringing awareness. Where are we easily following the five yamas? Where do we struggle to follow? Where can we be better? Where can we improve?

No matter how long you’ve been practicing, no matter how long you’ve been adapting the sutras into your life, there’s always room for improvement.

I taught sutras the first time twenty years ago in my first yoga teacher training program, and some of the things that I struggled with in that first class are things that I still struggle with today. There are things that I’ve gotten completely better about. Others I seesaw back and forth with.

However, I always have these guides to return to, these principles that I can renew my awareness with.

Five Yamas in Review

Let’s review those five yamas again.

The first one is ahimsa, or non-violence. We’re going to practice this yama by not physically hurting individuals. No punching someone in the nose or kicking them in the shin. From a personal perspective, we’re going to practice non-violence in our thoughts, speech, and actions.

The second yama is truthfulness. We strive to be truthful in all matters. We strive to be truthful to people, that what we are sharing with them, we know to be true. The only time that we’re not sharing this truthfulness with an individual is when it conflicts with non-harming. So, if the words we say will be harmful, we just don’t say them.

The third yama is asteya, or non-stealing. A way to obviously practice non-stealing is we’re not going to take anything that doesn’t belong to us, but we can also practice that in terms of time and energy and ideas.

The fourth yama is moderation or brahmacharya. We’re practicing the middle way, avoiding the extremes. We want to find that balance.

The last yama is aparigraha, non-greediness. You must decide for yourself how much is enough. And that is in anything that you do, say, or possess.

How many pairs of yoga pants do I truly need to own? I live in Texas, how many pairs of flip flops does an individual need? If you live in colder states, it may be, how many pairs of gloves does a person need? I don’t live in a cold state, so forgive me if that was a poor example of how much you can have too much of.

Wrapping up the Five Yamas

Now that we’ve had a chance to talk about the five yamas, I would love to hear from you. Share with me how you plan to adapt one, or more, or all of the five yamas into your life.

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