Yoga In Action: The Yamas


Man – have you ever had a week in which thing after thing seems to go wrong? Well, I’m having one of those weeks! Today all I could do is laugh and marvel at the consistency of one challenge after another and think, “Thank goodness for yoga!” For me, yoga isn’t what happens while I’m on my mat or sitting in meditation. That’s my “me time,” my preparation for when things “get real.” By taking time to commit to a daily practice, no matter how small, I find I can deal with life’s challenges, both large and small, with a little more grace, a little less anxiety, and a lot more humour. To me, that tells me that my yoga is working!

In the current culture of yoga in North America, it is sometimes easy to forget that yoga is far more than getting to a studio for a class. I am not convinced that doing poses is actually yoga if it is not rooted in traditional yogic wisdom. This is where the foundational Yoga Principles come into practice: The Yamas. Descriptions of the Yamas can be found in The Yoga Sutras, scribed by Patanjali more than 2000 years ago. But, how do these apply to our current era and to our everyday life?

The Yamas are guidelines for how to live a happy and meaningful life, regardless of the challenges we are faced with. When the going gets rough, I find turning to the Yamas is a useful tool for being able to weather the rocky waters. The situation may not have changed, but changing the way I approach it can help relieve related stress and may even affect the outcome. Patanjali described five Yamas: Ahimsa, Satya, Asteya, Brahmacharya, and Aparigraha.

Ahimsa can be translated as non-harming and, for me, is the foundation for all things yoga. When challenges arise, how can we treat the people involved with care so as not to cause them injury by word, thought, or deed? Can we find a win-win solution? At the same time, Ahimsa means standing up for oneself if another is trying to do you harm. We can practice Ahimsa by the tone and manner in which we speak with others, being willing to listen fully to others even when we disagree, and by practicing compassion for oneself and others. It is interesting for me to listen to how parents and educators speak to the children in their care. It is obvious when adults are coming from a place of caring, of Ahimsa, by the words they choose, their intonation, their body language, and the energy with which something is said. Not surprisingly, kids respond accordingly. When we catch ourselves straying from Ahimsa in our interactions, that sense of awareness is our yoga in action. Although no one is perfect, if we can begin to recognize when our actions are not motivated by compassion, we can change our ways. We can also apologize and make amends. I find the people in my life, children included, are very forgiving when I recognize my wrong, ask for forgiveness, and share my plan for doing things differently in the future.

Satya means truthfulness. However, when practiced without Ahimsa, “the truth” may not be Satya. Although tattling and “telling it like it is” may be truthful, they can also cause harm. How can we be true to ourselves while at the same time keeping others’ well-being in mind? Being able to own up to our wrongs is Satya. Being truthful with ourselves when something isn’t working is Satya. If I always say yes to things to please others, but in my heart don’t have the time or the energy, that’s not Satya. How can I be truthful with my boss, my spouse, my kids, in a kind and compassionate way? Being honest with kindness now can avoid stress and challenge later for you and for others.

Asteya is the principle of non-stealing. Sometimes we can be completely unaware of when we might be stealing from others. Am I always running late so that others are waiting for me? Can I arrange my day so that I have extra time so as not to steal others’ time? Even something as simple as starting and ending yoga classes on time can be a tangible way of practicing Asteya. Do I interrupt others when they are talking or finish their sentences for them so that I am stealing their space for expression? I find that adults often do this with children, even though they may have the best intentions. Do I make sure that everyone has time to share or am I stealing someone’s thunder by hogging the spotlight? We might think of taking someone else’s possessions as stealing, but consider this: Do you have too much while other people are in need? Sharing what you have is also a way to practice Asteya.

Brahmacharya can mean many things depending on the context, including fidelity to our loved-ones or celibacy for priests and monks. In ancient texts, Brahmacharya referred to maintaining a lifestyle with a spiritual purpose, being devoted to something larger than ourselves. We might think of it as taking actions to live consciously in accordance to our personal values, whatever they may be. This could be caring for our planet and all beings who inhabit it. This may be avoiding over-consumption and not taking what we do not need. Living simply is an act of Brahmacharya. It may be practicing devotion to your loved ones, or a religious practice grounded in love and Ahimsa – not division and hate. Meditation or prayer can be acts of Brahmacharya when practiced with compassion and selflessness.

Aparigraha can be translated as non-possessiveness or non-grasping. Recognizing that our loved-ones do not belong to us, but are individuals with their own rights and freedoms is an example Aparigraha. We can practice this as educators, parents, and spouses by relinquishing our own expectations over others, and allowing people to formulate their own values and expectations for themselves. When we ask rather than demand and are willing to accept the outcomes, we are practicing Aparigraha. From a more material perspective, not needing to have the latest thing, like the newest smart phone or the latest fashions, is an act of Aparigraha. Aparigraha is about reining in our Want Monsters, as my teacher Maalaa calls them, and being grateful and content with what we have. Gratitude is an act of Aparigraha. When things seems bleak, shifting your attention to simple things in life that you are grateful for, such as a breath of fresh air, the beauty of a tree, or the release found in tears, can be just what’s needed to get through.