Yoga off the Mat: An Overview of Patanjali's Yama

Hi yogis and happy Monday (or whichever day you are reading this 😄)!

I am going to be a complete nerd today and offer you an overview of yoga ethics. Yoga is so much more than the movement and breath-work that you do on your mat in the studio. It is an all-encompassing ancient tradition from India. It is a philosophy. It is an ethical framework. It is a way of life and way of interacting and connecting with the world around you. It is a path for spiritual growth. It is a journey of connection to overcome the ego and transcend the Self.

Having said that, how you view yoga is subjective to you and your experience. There is no right or wrong. But it is helpful to delve into the tradition of yoga and associated texts if you would like to expand and transform your perspective on yoga, your own practice, and your very experience.

So today I would like to talk about Yama. Yama means moral discipline and is the first limb of Patanjali’s eight-limbed path of Yoga.

Now, who is Patanjali? He is known as the composer of the famous Yoga-Sutras, a text comprising aphorisms on yoga. The Sûtras were compiled around the second century C.E (i.e a very long time ago). Not much is known about Patanjali himself but we can say he was a great philosopher and yoga adept whose framework came to be regarded as the authoritative system of the Yoga tradition. In other words, he’s a pretty important guy in the long and intricate history of the Yoga tradition.

In the Yoga-Sûtras, Patanjali sets out the eight-limbed path of Yoga. We will explore the remaining limbs in subsequent posts. Today I will focus solely on an overview of the first limb: Yama.

The first limb is the foundation of the path of Yoga: the ethics. It is divided into five moral obligations to practice on the journey to Self-transcendence.

The five Yama are as follows:

1. Ahimsa - non-harming

2. Satya - truthfulness

3. Asteya - non-stealing

4. Brahmacharya - chastity

5. Aparigraha - greedlessness

[Side note: do you recognise any parallels between the Yama and the ethics of other spiritual traditions and world religions? (e.g. Christianity’s “Ten Commandments” and Buddhism’s “Five Precepts”).]

Ahimsa represents compassion in thought and action towards all beings. It is to treat everyone you meet with the same respect that you would your dearest friend or loved one. It is to show loving compassion to all living things in our environment as well as to act in a way that does not do harm to our environment.

Satya means that all deeds should be rooted in truthfulness. It is to live true to your values but also to accept and respect that your truth may not align with another's truth. We all experience life through a different lens, so allowing an open mind when we encounter conflict is crucial.

Asteya is non-stealing. This includes physical things and intellectual property. When you embrace and manifest your own ideas you will create abundance. Asteya is closely related to Ahimsa in the sense that we do not violate others by taking what is theirs.

Brahmacharya is traditionally associated with sexual abstention in order to conserve life force (prana) lost through sexual stimulation. But we can also interpret this Yama more broadly as conservation of energy. Brahmacharya is to cultivate balance and moderation in all things so as not to overstimulate our sensory experience. It is to place your energy into things that are going to serve others and make you a better person.

Aparigraha is greedlessness. Coveting material possession generates attachment and fear of loss. Therefore yogis are encouraged to cultivate a minimalist lifestyle and to avoid excessive and needless collection of possessions.

So there you have it. Thanks so much for taking the time to read this brief overview and interpretation of Patanjali's Yama. I hope you learned something and can cultivate the Yama into your own experience. Stay tuned for my next post in which I will talk about the second limb of Yoga: Niyama.

With love and gratitude,

Maddy x


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