The five Yamas of Yoga are apart of a beautiful step by step guide created to assist yogis in reaching for the fruits of enlightenment. It does this by guiding Yogi’s to practice a specific code of ethics designed to help their characters blossom into the calmest, most collected and progressive version of themselves. Through practicing this code of ethics, we can expect to become more self-aware, lead a more rewarding life, and feel the profundity of existence more often. However, these gifts will only be attained if practiced with sincere dedication, transparency and resolve.
The 5 Yamas are the first part of an 8 fold path. This path consists of 8 points, each of which has its own guidelines and observations. The path is used to help guide yogis on their life journey, in not only their actions but their words and thoughts too. It aims to help individuals purify their mind, strengthen their character and bring newfound self-awareness on the road to spiritual enlightenment.
What is the origins of the 8 fold path?
The 8 Limbs path is derived from the Yoga Sutras, a collection of seminal texts believed to be created between 200 BCE and 200 CE by the ancient sage and yogi known as Patanjali, who is often referred to as both the father of Yoga and Ayurveda. To this day, many historians remain puzzled over his existence. Some believe this is due to the anonymity that is common among many ancient Indian sages, yogis, and philosophers. This anonymity is likely because many choose to lead a reserved life, to enable a higher pursuit of the spiritual realms. Often choosing to pass their findings on through literature and a few select students. The students would accredit their success to their teachers, and their teachers would do the same to their teachers. As they recognized that their knowledge was attained through a collective of several generations, who had chosen to pass the wisdom down. Which comes to one of the other most popular beliefs – that Patanjali was merely a name for a collective of people.
What is the definition of Yama?
The original Sanskrit definition of Yama is ‘bridle’ or ‘rein’ which refers to the restraining nature of the yamas. As a whole, the 5 Yamas consist of guidelines that help build willpower and restraint over both the body and mind. These guidelines, alongside the 8 fold path, form a series of behavioral codes that help guide yogis through the world.
What are Yamas?
The five yamas are often called “the 5 restraints” as it describes actions one should avoid to advance down the road of enlightenment. While the second step of the eightfold path is the Niyamas. Which consists of 5 guidelines for things a yogi should practice. Together, the five points of yama and the five points of niyama resemble the ten commandments of Christianity or the ten virtues of Buddhism. Almost every belief system possesses moral and ethical guidelines to lead a pure and happy life.
The Ultimate Purpose of the Yamas
Within yoga, practicing the 8 fold path is believed to grant the student the ability to cultivate a calm state of mind and a healthy practice of self-questioning that assists them to lead a more balanced and pure life. The Yamas, which are the first steps in the 8 fold path, ask us to follow a path of non-violence, truth, and self-control.
These practices enable the student to walk through life with a particular mental clarity, which allows the individual to experience the stillness of the mind. If practiced often, the yogi can experience freedom from the common fluctuations and stress of a cluttered mind. In essence, the 8 fold path is designed to help us in purifying our nature and as a result, slowly helps us to form a healthier and happier society too.
They 3 Key Personal Benefits of Practicing the 5 Yama
While there are many societal and worldly benefits found in practicing the yamas, there are also many personal benefits. Here are the three top benefits for the individuals practicing the 5 yamas to the entire 8 fold path.
1. The strength of will power and self control
While we often know what is best for us – like a good morning routine, daily exercise, healthy food, reading lots of books and cultivating healthy friendships. We often find ourselves doing the opposite. This is mostly due to a lack of inspiration, willpower, self-control, and self-awareness. To strengthen these valuable assets, the best practice is practice. Willpower is like a muscle, the more we use it and bring awareness to it, the stronger it gets. With practice, we can develop better control of our behavior and mindset, which will lead to more uplifting choices, which will over time build towards uplifting our overall lifestyle, health and wellbeing.
2. The joy of a healthy, peaceful and conscious life
The Yamas are an excellent guide to lead a balanced, healthy, and peaceful life that is more susceptible to contentment and joy. In general, the more awareness and willpower we cultivate, the more likely we are to lead a life that aligns with our core values and beliefs. Creating a happier individual, with a more progressive lifestyle, that truly resonates with their personal goals and ambitions. This endeavor also grants the individual the ability to be faithful to themselves, instead of allowing poor control, misconceptions, doubts or indifference to define their life path.
3. The cultivation of knowledge, self awareness and enlightenment
While the yamas cannot answer all of our questions, they teach us to ask the right ones. They assist us in the universal dilemmas of how to behave towards others, how to conduct oneself in the world and how to lead lives that are true to our individual needs and perspectives. Through practicing the five yamas, along with the 5 niyamas, we strengthen our powers of self-control, self-awareness, and self-development. Ultimately leading to a life that cultivates a deeper, abiding sense of peace and self-control that assists us in achieving our goals, ambitions, and passions.
How do we Practice the Yamas?
The five Yamas are restraints we should follow most often in the external world when interacting with other people. They serve as guidelines for how to conduct your daily thoughts, words, and actions in order to create healthy relationships with the world. Patanjali instructs that these guidelines should be practiced on all levels, at all times. They should not be confined to a class, practice or specific times. As the real benefits of the 8 fold path blossom when practiced as a lifestyle rather than an individual lesson.
An intrinsic part of this concept is that our relationship to the world around us dramatically influences our ability to reach self-realization. Which is a crucial element to unlocking our true nature, personal gifts and potential. This is only achieved if we practice these guidelines daily with complete authenticity. We know that we are authentic when we have achieved alignment in our thoughts, words, and actions. Otherwise, we create layers of masks, not allowing our complete being to feel the benefits and growth that are born in truthfulness and self-transparency.
The 5 Yamas यम – The External Virtues of Character
Modern Meaning of the 5 Yamas and Niyamas – List of Definitions.
The 5 Yamas and Niyamas are lists, each consisting of 5 virtues and practices. They are the first two guidelines in “Patanjali’s Eightfold Path” from the book “Yoga Sutras”.
The Yoga Sutras is a book, commonly referred to as the yogi’s bible, that is filled with guidelines on virtuous habits, healthy practices and ethical observations. Which aim to guide an individual to achieve holistic contentment and a life free from suffering and illusions.
Patanjali, was the creator of the Yoga Sutras. He was an ancient sage, mythical yogi and historical enigma. Many hindu legends surround his life and accomplishments, but to this day, many historians remain puzzled over his existence. Some believe he was even the father of Ayurvedic practices while others questioned if he even truly existed.
Our next article explores Patanjali’s life, work and philosophy. Looking deeper into the Eightfold Path. You can read it here.
Ahiṃsā अहिंसा — Non-Violence, Non-Harming of Other Living Beings
The principle of non-violence is an act of self-control inspired by consideration, empathy, and compassion. It requires the ability to access a higher emotional intelligence that enables one to remain grounded, surpass animalistic instincts and reach for a more peaceful resolution to stressful situations.
Satya सत्य — Truthfulness, Non-Falsehood
The virtue of truthfulness allows one to be pure and authentic. To say what you mean and to do what you say is the cornerstone of character growth and healthy relationships. It is the foundation for qualities such as dependability, honesty, integrity, and reliability. Which are high-value characteristics that assist one’s ability to build uplifting and rewarding social interactions and relationships.
Asteya अस्तेय — Non-Stealing
The principle of not taking what isn’t yours, whether, through action, speech or thought accommodates the belief in our own abilities. The act of stealing is considered an expression of weak faith in one’s self, and their ability to learn and create. Through surpassing these impulses, we are able to prioritize our focus on building the abilities we need to achieve the things we desire.
Brahmacharya ब्रह्मचर्य — Chastity, Marital Fidelity or Sexual Restraint
The virtue of sexual self-control and restraint changes based on an individual’s context. Within a relationship, it means to uphold martial fidelity, when single, to maintain celibacy. It is the foreground for healthy relationships, healthy bodies, and healthy minds. When one is free from the illusions of lust, temptation, fantasy, and greed, we have more self-control. Self-control grants us the time to build substance in our relationships, to focus on our commitments, to enhance our progression, and cultivate self-love.Without this, people often get caught up trying to fulfill or distract themselves with other people or sexual gratification. However, doing so in this manner often leads to unhealthy relationships full of stress and misconceptions. Because, unless you are self-realized, you will likely be using the other person to fulfill a lacking inside yourself. Which puts them in a confined box of your expectations and needs. If they step outside of that box it will upset your happiness.
These type of relationships end up being highly conditional, often unstable and emotionally limited. The alternative to that is understanding your happiness is dependant on your relationship with yourself. Self-love is the ultimate form of self-care; it is the most reliable, sustainable, controllable and most available long term. Afterall, It is your perceptions that define whether something makes you happy or not. So ultimately the only person who will ever truly be able to fulfill your happiness, is you.
Aparigraha अपरिग्रह — Non-Avarice, Non-Possessiveness, Non-Greediness
The virtue of keeping desires limited to only what is necessary or important. It varies based on an individual’s stage of life and context. For example, an elderly woman vs a younger man. A man looking to provide his family with a new home or car is necessary. While an elderly women looking to buy a bigger home or car for reasons of comfort isn’t a necessity. Following this virtue allows one to be free of greed, over attachment and envy. Which in turn, helps to build the characteristic of temperance, purity of intentions and self-control. Which leads to a life filled with only the things that truly matter and benefit our health and wellbeing.
While these all of these sound like simple guidelines, it can be difficult to practice and maintain them over the course of one’s life journey. As we never know what time has waiting for us. Once you immerse yourself in the unitive state of yoga, you will experience the true benefits and rewards of the lifestyle. While we may not be striving to be completely pure beings, these guidelines form a necessary foundation to produce a conscious, honest and ethical life.
By firmly grasping the flower of a single virtue, a person can lift the entire garland of yama and niyama. Swami Kripalu.
It is easy to get caught up in life and focus on things like personal gain, materialism or gratification. However, if we want to challenge ourselves to reach for the fruits of enlightenment, to grow our values and character, and feel the mysteries of life, we can start with the first limb of the 8 fold path.
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Having been a teacher’s assistant at over 50 yoga teacher trainings worldwide, Rebecca Rebecca has a firm grasp on the fine art of yoga and meditation. In her work, she carefully reflects on a vast expanse of knowledge to help others find peace in both body and mind.