“The yamas are non-harming, truth, non-stealing, connection to spirit, non-acquisitiveness.”
The yamas are ethical principles: they address our relation to the world, to other people, to our own selves. Jaganath Carrera and other commentators emphasize that the yamas are not rules per se–they express an attitude toward living that informs and assists us. They grow out of yoga practice but also shape, deepen practice. We may, says Carrera, come to know them as friends. Patañjali will elaborate more on the yamas in the following sūtras, but let us make an initial acquaintance with them here.
The first, ahiṁsā, literally means non-harming. It can be translated as non-violence, non-hurting; B.K.S. Iyengar says in Light on Yoga that ahiṁsā is more than a negative–its positive meaning is love.
The second, satya, is truth. The word comes from the participle sat, “being, existing.” Satya is what actually exists. It means more than being honest, telling the truth (though it does mean that). Satya is a commitment to reality.
Asteya is non-stealing. Georg Feuerstein (in The Deeper Dimension of Yoga) writes movingly about the political, global implications of non-stealing. What do we make of the wealth inequality in our country today? What does the affluence of this society, our style of life, cost other peoples? What does it cost the planet?
Brahmacarya, traditionally understood to mean celibacy, is now often translated as continence. The term comes from the description of the period of a young man’s life devoted to study of the Vedas, before he is of the age to marry and take on the responsibility of earning a living or caring for a family. It literally means “walking with Brahman,” a beautiful phrase, and an important one. I have defined it here as “connection to spirit,” which I believe leads to an attitude of respect for the body, the person, including oneself.
The literal meaning of aparigraha is evocative as well–“not-everywhere-grasping.” It conjures an image of the demon Rāvaṇa, with his ten heads and ten arms (see discussion of sūtra II.6), never satisfied–ravenous. Classsical commentators understood this yama to mean owning nothing, that is, renunciation of possessions; I have translated it as non-acquisitiveness.
The traditional interpretations of the yamas are not to be disregarded, and it is a good thing for me, a modern yoga practitioner, to grapple with them. At the same time, I am aware that I do not fit the traditional idea of practitioner. I am a woman and a householder. To return to Rohit Mehta’s image of the river (from sūtra II.29): the life lived cuts the banks.
The poet Mary Oliver recently died. Revisiting a collection of her poems, Devotions, I was struck by her yogic attitude: how she grappled with spiritual ideas, ethical quandaries, with her own sense of the good (“I am so distant from the hope of myself, in which I have goodness, and discernment …”) and how she came–again and again–to value the power of paying attention and knowing awe.
Paying attention. Knowing awe. How much might these two intentions fill us and heal us, heal our world, if we could do just these two.
Have you ever seen
in your life
than the way the sun,
relaxed and easy,
floats toward the horizon
and into the clouds or the hills,
or the rumpled sea,
and is gone–
and how it slides again
out of the blackness,
on the other side of the world,
like a red flower
streaming upward on its heavenly oils,
say, on a morning in early summer,
at its perfect imperial distance–
and have you ever felt for anything
such wild love–
do you think there is anywhere, in any language,
a word billowing enough
for the pleasure
that fills you,
as the sun
as it warms you
as you stand there,
or have you too
turned from this world–
or have you too
“The yamas do not give you a code of conduct–they give you a perspective on life, an evaluation of life, they give you an attitude toward life. I hope you see the difference. They give you guidelines for life, because, after all, [yoga] is a transformation of the perspective on life–from a fragmentary, compartmental perspective to a holistic perspective. It is a transformation in the content of consciousness. Instead of being always filled with thought and knowledge, it is now in the excellence of emptiness.” –Vimala Thakar, Glimpses of Raja Yoga, pp.20-21
“The principles of yama might not satisfy someone fond of a dos and don’ts list. They are more properly understood as preparations for actions–attitudes that bring clarity, focus, and objectivity to bear on all situations. If we allow these principles to guide, cajole, and correct us, we will gradually know them well enough to call them friends. We will be privy to their nature, intent, power, and significance–their spirit. The yamas can be truly understood only when we perceive the spirit behind the ‘letter of the law.'” –The Reverend Jaganath Carrera, Inside the Yoga Sūtras, commentary on II.30
“True ethics are not absorbed from outside conditioning. The innate goodness of a
horse, for example, or a dog, derives from its nature, although some training and
guidance are necessary especially during youth. Morality and ethics come from inside
ourselves and are a reflection of consciousness. … Spirituality is not playacting at being
holy.”—B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Life, p. 250-51
• How does yoga practice affect your behavior toward others? Do some types of practice have different effects?
• Has yoga practice led you to a sense of greater responsibility? Justice?
• Does yoga separate you from others? Bring you into more connectivity? Describe what your experience is (not what you guess is “right”).
• Do you experience ethics as innate in you?
feminine noun in compound
non-harming, non-violence (from a-, prefix that negates, + han, “to hurt”)
neuter noun in compound
truth (from sat, “existing, being”)
noun in compound
non-stealing (from a-, prefix that negates, + stā, “to steal”)
neuter noun in compound
connection to Spirit (from Brahman, the name of the ultimate Source of all, + car, “to move, to walk”)
masculine noun, 1st case plural
non-acquisitiveness (from a-, prefix that negates, + pari-, “around,” + grah, “to grasp”)
|masculine noun, 1st case plural
ethical observance, interpersonal discipline (from yam, “to check, restrain, regulate”)