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What is a Yama? How to deepen your yoga practice

The Yamas

You may have started yoga classes to ease an aching back, shoulder or hip, or maybe to destress, but as you improve your physical mobility and the skills to control your response to stressful events, you might also consider the benefits of examining your life more fully, your habits, routines and the consequences of your daily actions and what impact they have on your wellbeing.

The way we behave in society, how we interact with one another and the attitude with which we conduct ourselves all form part of the Yamas. A Yama can mean ‘discipline’ or ‘restraint’. There are five Yamas in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras that guide and instruct us on how we can better interact with each other, our environment, and how to deal with problems in order that we can lead a more peaceful harmonious life. The Yamas are the first of the eight-limb path in Patanjali's text, each limb describes a different aspect of a yoga practice, all leading to spiritual freedom and enlightenment.

Through the practice of yoga, we learn to become more self-aware and observant of our behaviour, and this extends beyond the yoga mat. Like cleaning a dirty window, we start to see with more clarity our own attitudes and become more questioning about our values and what our stand is on fundamental issues.


The first Yama outlined is Ahisma. ‘Himsa’ means injustice or cruelty, but Ahisma (the absence of cruelty) means more than this, it includes kindness, friendliness, and consideration of other people. We all come across people from time to time who are at their wit's end and their behaviour might be rude or inconsiderate but if we can adopt an understanding attitude and be compassionate, we can break down the barriers which separate us to dispel the anger and hurt that lies beneath. In the practice of yoga, we are always seeking to work with our bodies without causing harm and so we should interact with others. Our decisions and actions lay a path of consequences that affect all of us, Ahismsa means considering that your actions should not cause unnecessary harm.


The second Yama is Satya, meaning truthfulness, or honesty. We need to consider what we say and how we speak with one another. To stay true to our beliefs and speak out when we hear a wrong but in doing so with ahisma in mind, avoiding unnecessary pain to others. We also need to be honest with ourselves about what it is we value, what we are capable of, when we need to say no and to feel the value and freedom of being authentic to who we are.


The third Yama, Steya means ‘to steal’. Asteya is to not steal. This applies to possessions but also a wider framework of people’s time, words, friendships, ideas. Are you stealing attention away from someone? Not taking from others. Greed comes from a feeling of 'lack', an insecurity, we look outwards to fill that void when all we need resides within ourselves. Developing a sense of abundance and gratitude for all we have already can avoid a feeling of needing more to be complete.


The next Yama Brahmacarya was originally associated with abstinence, particularly in relation to sexual activity but now it is more widely interpreted to mean not wasting our energy on things that are unhelpful. It is easy to replay harsh words in our heads, to hold onto grudges, or not let go of anger but where our attention rests our energy follows and all that energy could be spent better in more positive ways both for ourselves and for one another.

Desire can arise constantly in our heads and leave us feeling scattered and unsettled, the desire for people or objects. Coming back to ourselves, through the breath and having the understanding that these emotions are temporary, that we have all we need to be whole and complete already.

How do you spend your energy? That old expression of 'choose your battles', fight for what you believe in and for what you believe matters, but some things are better left.


The last of the Yamas is Aparigraha, agraha means ‘to crave for’ Aparigraha means ‘without craving what belongs to another’. It can also mean not being greedy, wanting more than you need, accumulating or hoarding. The way of life for a yogi is one of simplicity. The more we own, the more time and energy we spend looking after things rather than spending time with each other or doing things for our own enjoyment. The problem arises when we think our security comes from our possessions and we accumulate more than we need. Security is the love in your heart, your relationships and ultimately the love that is reflected back in you.

Yoga is not for those who eat too much or who eat too little, nor for those who sleep too much or sleep too little. But to those that are moderate in eating, sleeping, wakefulness, recreation and moderate in all their actions, yoga will bring an end to all sorrow Those souls who have learned to discipline their mind and remain calmly established in the self, free from attachment to all desires, attain the state of union. Bhagavad Gita (6:16-18) Lord Krishna advises us to follow the path of moderation.

Marianne Marshall 2023

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