Living ethically, according to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, is the first step on the true path of yoga. Learn what the yamas are and how to live them fully.
When our children were young, their father and I would occasionally summon up the courage to take them out for dinner. Before entering the restaurant, one of us would remind them to “be good” or we would leave. This warning was only mildly successful, but then one day their father reasoned out a more effective approach. On our next outing we stopped outside the restaurant and reminded them specifically to “stay in your chair, don’t throw food, and don’t yell. If you do any of these things, one of us will take you out of the restaurant at once.” We had stumbled upon a very effective technique, and it worked like a charm.
Interestingly, Patanjali, the author of the Yoga Sutra written some two centuries after the life of Jesus, demonstrates a similar approach to the study of yoga. In the second chapter of his book he presents five specific ethical precepts called yamas, which give us basic guidelines for living a life of personal fulfillment that will also benefit society. He then makes clear the consequence of not following these teachings: It is simply that we will continue to suffer.
Arranged in four chapters, or padas, the Yoga Sutra elucidates the basic teachings of yoga in short verses called sutras. In the second chapter Patanjali presents the ashtanga, or eight-limbed system, for which he is so famous. While Westerners may be most familiar with the asana (posture), the third limb, the yamas are really the first step in a practice that addresses the whole fabric of our lives, not just physical health or solitary spiritual existence. The rest of the limbs are the niyamas, more personal precepts; Pranayama, breathing exercises; pratyahara, conscious withdrawal of energy away from the senses; dharana, concentration; dhyana, meditation; and samadhi, self-actualization.
The Yoga Sutra is not presented in an attempt to control behavior based on moral imperatives. The sutras don’t imply that we are “bad” or “good” based upon our behavior, but rather that if we choose certain behavior we get certain results. If you steal, for example, not only will you harm others, but you will suffer as well.
The First Yama: Ahimsa
The first yama is perhaps the most famous one: ahimsa, usually translated as “nonviolence.” This refers not only to physical violence, but also to the violence of words or thoughts. What we think about ourselves or others can be as powerful as any physical attempt to harm. To practice ahimsa is to be constantly vigilant, to observe ourselves in interaction with others and to notice our thoughts and intentions. Try practicing ahimsa by observing your thoughts when a smoker sits next to you. Your thoughts may be just as damaging to you as his cigarette is to him.
It is often said that if one can perfect the practice of ahimsa, one need learn no other practice of yoga, for all the other practices are subsumed in it. Whatever practices we do after the yamas must include ahimsa as well. Practicing breathing or postures without ahimsa, for example, negates the benefits these practices offer.
There is a famous story about ahimsa told in the Vedas, the vast collection of ancient philosophical teachings from India. A certain sadhu, or wandering monk, would make a yearly circuit of villages in order to teach. One day as he entered a village he saw a large and menacing snake who was terrorizing the people. The sadhu spoke to the snake and taught him about ahimsa. The following year when the sadhu made his visit to the village, he again saw the snake. How changed he was. This once magnificent creature was skinny and bruised. The sadhu asked the snake what had happened. He replied that he had taken the teaching of ahimsa to heart and had stopped terrorizing the village. But because he was no longer menacing, the children now threw rocks and taunted him, and he was afraid to leave his hiding place to hunt. The sadhu shook his head. “I did advise against violence,” he said to the snake, “but I never told you not to hiss.”
Protecting ourselves and others does not violate ahimsa. Practicing ahimsa means we take responsibility for our own harmful behavior and attempt to stop the harm caused by others. Being neutral is not the point. Practicing true ahimsa springs from the clear intention to act with clarity and love.
The Second Yama: Satya
Patanjali lists satya, or truth, as the next yama. But telling the truth may not be as easy as it sounds. Researchers have found that eyewitnesses to an event are notoriously unreliable. The more adamant the witnesses are, the more inaccurate they tend to be. Even trained scientists, whose job it is to be completely objective, disagree on what they see and on the interpretation of their results.
So what does telling the truth mean? To me it means that I speak with the intention of being truthful, given that what I call the “truth” is filtered through my own experience and beliefs about the world. But when I speak with that intention, I have a better chance of not harming others.
Another aspect of satya has to do with inner truth or integrity, a deeper and more internal practice. Honesty is what we do when others are around and might judge our actions or words, but to have integrity is to act in an honest manner when others are not around and will never know about our actions.
In Sanskrit, sat means the eternal, unchanging truth beyond all knowing; ya is the activating suffix which means “do it.” So satya means “actively expressing and being in harmony with the ultimate truth.” In this state we cannot lie or act untruthful, because we are unified with pure truth itself.
The Third Yama: Asteya
The third yama is asteya, nonstealing. While commonly understood as not taking what is not ours, it can also mean not taking more than we need. We fail to practice asteya when we take credit that is not ours or take more food than we can eat. We fail also when we steal from ourselves—by neglecting a talent, or by letting a lack of commitment keep us from practicing yoga. In order to steal, one has to be mired in avidya, or ignorance about the nature of reality, a term introduced by Patanjali in his second chapter. Avidya is the opposite of yoga, which connects us with all that is.
The next yama is brahmacharya, one of the most difficult for Westerners to understand. The classical translation is “celibacy,” but Brahma is the name of a deity, char means “to walk,” and ya means “actively,” so brahmacharya means “walking with God.”
For some people, sexual love holds no great attraction. Others sacrifice this part of life to live as a monk or nun and thus consecrate their sexuality to God. Brahmacharya does not just mean giving up sex; it also means to transmute the energy of sex into something else, principally, devotion to God.
But for the average person who has taken up the study of yoga, brahmacharya might mean simply to remain faithful within a monogamous relationship. Dr. Usharbudh Arya, author of an extensive translation of the Yoga Sutra, once gave this simple explanation of brahmacharya: When you are having sex, have sex; when you’re not, don’t. Remain in the present and focus on what is happening right now without obsession.
Another approach is to use sexual energy, like all life energies, in accord with the practice of ahimsa. This means that we respect ourselves and our partner when we are in a sexual relationship and do not use others or have sex mindlessly. Remembering the divinity of self and other, we can allow sexuality to be part of the wider practice of yoga.
The Fourth Yama: Aparigrapha
The final yama in Patanjali’s list is aparigraha, or nongreed. This is a very difficult one to practice, surrounded as we are with advertisements that attempt to whip up our desire for more. In some ways our society’s economic system is based on greed.
Greed is not just confined to material goods. We may hunger after enlightenment, difficult asanas, spiritual powers, or perfect bliss. One way to sidestep the trap of greed is to follow the advice of the sages: Be happy with what you have. This spirit of true renunciation will diminish the power of aparigraha.
In verse 30 of Chapter 2 of the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali calls the yamas “the great vow,” to be practiced at all times. This is a difficult assignment, but if we follow this vow, the power released in our lives and the lives of others will be stunning. One way to do this is to choose one yama to focus on for a length of time. Then reflect upon how this practice has affected your life. Don’t worry if you forget to practice your yama, or even if you can’t follow through in each situation. Your effort and awareness will be the victory.