The first limb of yoga is Yamas. Yamas are universal moral commandments or ethical disciplines. B.K.S. Iyengar believed that if these yamas are not obeyed, chaos will ensue. They are also meant to transcend creed, country, age, and time. Translation: they’re for everyone.
The five yamas are:
1. Ahimsa (non-violence)
2. Satya (truth)
3. Asteya (non-stealing)
4. Brahmacharya (continence)
5. Aparigraha (non-coveting)
Let’s break these down, shall we?
1. Ahimsa (my personal favorite yama) translates to non-violence. Non-violence in actions, words, and thoughts. In other words, LOVE. A love that embraces all creation. Big or small.
Violence stems from fear, so in order to conquer violence and achieve ahimsa, one must conquer fear. To conquer fear, which of course is easier said than done, you must change your mindset. If you alter your outlook on life and realize that fear is solely a figment of your imagination, then you are on your way.
Ahimsa refers to all types of non-violence. One of which is non-violence towards living creatures. We must look upon all of creation with love, believing that every single creature on Earth has as much a right to be here as we do, while also believing that all living beings on Earth are connected in one way or another. Ahimsa is a major reason for many people to change their diet to a cruelty-free vegetarian or vegan diet. Personally, as a vegetarian, my reasoning for no longer eating meat stems from the idea that I do not want to play part in any violence towards other living creatures. I can live more at harmony with myself and who I am knowing that I am no longer contributing to something that I don’t believe in.
Ahimsa, of course, includes non-violence toward other people as well. This can be tricky for some, because when someone makes you angry, your first reaction may not be to engage in violent acts, but violent words and especially violent thoughts can be way more difficult to control. However, Iyengar lays it out in a way that makes it a little easier to imagine. Basically, opposition without love leads to violence. A yogi should oppose the evil in the wrong-doer; they should not oppose the wrong-doer himself. This way, the yogi can have love (aka non-violence) toward the wrong-doer while simultaneously opposing the evil that has been done.
The third type of non-violence may be both the most important and the most difficult. This is non-violence toward yourself. Trust me, I know how easy it is to speak badly of yourself. I know that it’s even easier to think negatively about yourself or your body. And unfortunately, I know that it’s sometimes even easy to be violent toward yourself in a more active way. This is where the practice comes in. For me, being non-violent toward other living creatures and other people comes pretty naturally. But being non-violent toward myself? That’s a different story. It will forever be a work in progress for me. A practice. The first step toward ahimsa in this case, is awareness. If you choose to practice non-violence toward yourself, if you are aware that this is something you are working on, you can begin to catch yourself. The next time you say something negative about your body, you will notice it. Don’t dwell on it; don’t get angry with yourself for saying these things. Just notice it. Notice how it makes you feel. Remember that this is not how you deserve to be treated. And let it go. Do better next time. The next time you have a negative thought about yourself, stop. Notice it. Apologize to yourself, and forgive yourself. Finally, if you catch yourself being negative in a more active manner by intentionally or unintentionally treating your body in a harmful way (this can come from overeating, harmful drugs, alcohol in large amounts, excessive exercise, other types of self-harm), take notice. And work harder to minimize these actions in your life. But most importantly, FORGIVE YOURSELF. (And please, if your self-harm becomes serious and hazardous to your health and well-being, seek help. You aren’t alone. And there is no shame in reaching out to someone who can guide you in the right direction toward recovery and peace.) Opposition without love leads to violence. You may not agree with what you are doing to yourself, but you MUST always love yourself. Oppose the evil in the wrong-doer, not the wrong-doer himself. In short, be kind to yourself. And when you’re not (because you’re human, and it happens), forgive yourself.
2. Satya translates to truth and is considered the highest rule of conduct. The meaning is pretty simple: be truthful. Be truthful in thought, word, and deed. Untruthful thought leads to untruthful speech, so basically practice thinking about what you say before you say it. Iyengar states that there are many sins of speech, including: abuse and obscenity, dealing in falsehoods, telling tales, and ridiculing what others find sacred. Your life should be based upon truth. Iyengar presents the equation: REALITY = LOVE + TRUTH. This is super powerful if you really think about it. Live your life in a truthful way and with lots of love. This is reality in its purest form. Isn’t that the kind of reality you would like to live in?
3. Asteya translates to non-stealing. This yama is broken down into misappropriation, breach of trust, mismanagement, and misuse. Non-stealing does not only mean not taking something that doesn’t belong to you without the owner’s permission; it also means not using something for a different purpose than intended or for a longer period of time than intended. Iyengar explains in Light on Yoga (link at the bottom of this post): “The desire to possess and enjoy what another has, drives a person to do evil deeds. From this desire spring the urge to steal and the urge to covet.” Iyengar believes that a yogi should reduce his physical needs to the bare minimum, because if he has too many things that he doesn’t actually need, in a way he is a thief. A yogi should also not crave material things, because this makes him weak and can leave him unfocused.
4. Brahmacharya translates to continence. However, Iyengar clarifies that, in modern times, this does not mean a yogi must be celibate. Instead, this means a yogi must practice control of physical sensations, mental fluctuations, and intellectual contemplation. Translation: use your energy wisely. Use your energy to move you further along your path as a yogi. Don’t waste your energy on negative thoughts or materialistic desires; instead, focus your energy on kindness and on practicing to obtain that inner happiness and peace that yoga is helping us achieve.
5. Aparigraha translates to non-coveting. Yogis should live a simple life. Basically, do not hoard. Train your mind to not feel like you are lacking anything. Minimalism is a great practice for yogis, because Iyengar states that everything you really need will come by itself at the right time. So, yogis should be satisfied with whatever they have and whatever comes their way, because that’s the way it’s meant to be. Being satisfied with what you have, rather than chasing down more and more of what you think you need, will lead to peace.
The yamas are considered to be the roots of the tree of yoga, because all other limbs stem from these principles. In order to obey these commandments, it might just take some simple changes to your thinking. But these changes can really affect the peace you feel in your own life. So, why not? Give it a try. Practice these yamas in your life in these next coming weeks. Work on minimizing your violent thoughts toward others and yourself, tell the truth, don’t steal anything including other’s (and your own) time, focus your energy in a positive direction, and practice being satisfied with what you have. Simple, right? See, you’re already on your way to becoming a beautiful, little yogi.