There are five yamas. They are framework of ethical guidelines that can be adopted by aspiring yoga practitioners. Following the yamas enables us to live a more connected life, in harmony with ourselves and others.
(Non-violence) Ahimsa is the first of the yamas, it’s listed first because it’s the most important. Ahimsa is practicing non-violence in our thoughts, intentions and behaviors. For many yogi’s this includes the adoption of a vegetarian diet.
Ahimsa is where social justice intersects with our yoga practice. Adopting the practice of ahimsa means we’re committed to, and actively working towards the goal of equality for all.
Ahimsa is also about treating ourselves with kindness, and not engaging in negative internal dialogue or self sabotaging behaviour. This includes not berating ourselves if we miss our yoga practice, or even if we do something that contradicts ahimsa. In our yoga practice, it’s not ignoring pain and forcing ourselves into postures, as well as not judging ourselves negatively if we can’t or don’t do something; both on and off the mat.
Ahimsa is remembering everyone wants to be happy and working towards that shared goal for all.
(Truthfulness) Practicing truthfulness in both word’s and thoughts, and not engaging in deceitful or misleading behaviour. Satya also means not using the truth unkindly or in a way that harms others. Ahimsa is above satya, therefore truth should never result in violence.
(Not stealing) This includes literally not stealing, or thinking about stealing, as well as not taking more than our fair share. Not wasting food or consuming to excess.
(Sexual responsibility) For asetics and monks this means conserving sexual energy for spiritual purposes. Understandably, a life of celibacy is not fitting for everyone. Pattabhi Jois interpreted it as having just one partner in life. While this may not be the case for most of us, it can be understood as taking care with our sexual relationships, acting responsibly and not engaging in a sexual act which may harm ourselves or others.
(Non greed) Sometimes we can become too focused on what we can accumulate. We might feel a sense of lacking or feel we are not good enough; this can create feelings of attachment to belongings, relationships or status. Then the fear of loosing these things can make us unhappy. This prevents us from enjoying our life, and creates an ongoing cycle of fear and attachment that can cause as to act in a way that harms others as well as ourselves.
The yamas focus on how we treat the world around us, the niyamas are positive habits/observances that relate to our treatment of ourselves and internal environment.
(Cleanliness) This refers to cleanliness of the body, mind and environment. It includes hygiene, diet and abstaining from negative thoughts such as anger, greed and jealousy. Shower before practice and wear clean clothes. Keep your home and work environment tidy and eat a nutritious diet.
(Contentment) Contentment brings evenness of mind, which according to Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita is yoga (“Samatvam Yoga Uchyate” BG 2.48). It’s different to happiness because it is based on an internal knowing rather than our external circumstances. The key to true contentment is living in the present and being satisfied with where we are today, rather than placing our happiness at some point in the future.
(Austerity/transformation) Tapas comes from the root Tap which literally means “to heat”. The heat generated from the practice of ashtanga yoga heats the body from the inside out. When we begin to sweat, we start to burn away impurities. As a result the body becomes lighter and more flexible.
Through practice the mental impurities (samskaras) are burnt away so the mind becomes calmer and perceives more clearly.
Tapas is to overcome adversity and not give up when practice (or life) gets tough.
(Self-study) This is looking inwards, it’s the study of ourselves, our thought patterns and reactions, the things that prevent us achieving stillness of mind. It is also the study and understanding of yogic texts such as the Bhagavad Gita or the Upanishads. It’s a commitment to continuous learning and self development both on and off the mat.
(Surrender/devotion to a Supreme Being) Depending on the person this may mean surrender to God, Allah, Krishna, Mother Nature or a formless infinite consciousness. This is not important, all forms or the formless are valid. Many people in the Western world aren’t comfortable with the concept of God, but feel we’re all connected in some way through the wonder of nature. This too is ishvarapranidhana. The idea is we put our faith in something bigger than ourselves, our egos and desires and do our best, offering up the outcome for the greater good of all.