What are the Five Yamas in Ashtanga Yoga?

The eightfold path of Ashtanga Yoga begins with Yamas or the ethical and moral codes by which every human being should abide. They have been described by Sage Patanjali in his “Yoga Sutras” as the way to ‘Right Living’. Yama and Niyam are the two  preliminary stages for the Yogic journey of a Saadhak leading all the way to Samadhi (enlightenment). While Yama defines societal behavior, Niyams relate to personal behavior. What are these five Yamas? Let us have a look.

1. Ahimsa (Non-Violence)

Ahimsa basically means to not cause harm and pain to another living being, either mentally or physically. In Yoga one goes to the extent of not even thinking ill of another person or living being. By observing Ahimsa, one is freed from the feelings of enmity, which affects not only the individual but also the surroundings. Non violence begins with the control of the tongue, which means to not kill another animal for one’s selfish enjoyment and taste. Thus Vegetarianism is a must for anyone serious on the path of Yoga. Speaking softly and in a pleasing manner without hurting anyone is also required to progress. One must vibrate harmoniously instead of being ‘harm’ – ful. 

2. Satya (Truthfulness)

Satya means being truthful in all circumstances of life. It goes beyond ‘not telling lies’ but in fact being an instrument of conveying the essential and true nature of how things are. ‘Sat’ refers to that which is unchangeable and it also gives rise to ‘Satsang’ meaning the company of the Truth. Following Satya means being honest not only to others but to oneself and being free of the dance and delusions (Vrittis) of the mind. By meditating and practicing Yoga asanas, one’s mind begins to respond rationally instead of emotionally reacting to situations, which is a form of ignorance.

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3. Asteya (Non-Stealing)

Asteya goes beyond non-stealing anything physical, but also to not hide or keep to oneself what is essentially not ours. The need to steal arises from a perception of ‘lack’ while Yoga essentially aims at becoming ‘whole’, or ‘complete’. Asteya also means removing greed and artificial ‘needs’ and not coveting other people’s possessions. In a more subtle sense, it can also mean to not steal anyone’s mental peace or time.

4. Brahmacharya (Continence / Celibacy)

Continence is a basic necessity for a ‘saadhak’. Conserving sexual energy is an important part of being on the path of Yoga. Therefore ‘Brahmacharya’, or celibacy was advised. But this is not possible for everyone, thus the ‘Grihastha’ ashram of marital life was designed for controlled enjoyment, by being chaste to one’s spouse. This way, in a controlled manner, one can gradually progress on the path of Yoga, giving up worldly attachments.

5. Aparigraha (non-hoarding or non possessiveness)

Aparigraha means to not hoard anything more than necessary and to take only what is required. It also refers to not being attached to the fruits of one’s actions (as described by Krishna to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita) and being only concerned with one’s Karma (or action). Modern day society has created so many artificial “needs” which drive us in a competitive race of one-upmanship. This is a big hurdle for one who is on the path of Yoga. Living simply is a virtue which must be adopted by a true ‘saadhak’.

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Besides these Five other Yamas are mentioned in Shandilya Upanishad. These are – Kshama (Patience and Forgiveness), Dhriti (Fortitude and perseverance to achieve one’s goal), Daya (Compassion), Arjav (Non-hypocrisy/ Sincerity) and Mitahara (Measured Diet).