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How to Live the Yamas (on and off the mat)

By Elana Love

WED AUG 25, 2021

The Yamas make up the 1st limb of yoga, and are essentially the moral, ethical guidelines for how to live harmoniously in society, or in relation to the external world. Along with the Niyamas, these are often what I'm referring to when I talk about yoga philosophy, or the idea of living yoga. They should be practiced on all levels of action, word, and thought. Here are the five Yamas and ideas for how you can apply them practically in daily life, and in your asana practice.

Ahimsa

The first Yama is Ahimsa, which means non-violence or non-harming. Ahimsa often stems from judgment, criticism, irritation, or anger gone unchecked. Not physically hurting or abusing others, doing things that are harmful to those around you are all obvious ones here. But think on a deeper level about how you respond to others, or how you talk to yourself on a moment by moment basis. Do you tend to speak to yourself in a loving way, or harshly with self-hate? How you treat yourself will often extend to how you treat others.

The practice here is to do your best to act with compassion, even when you have to say the hard thing. Connect with your heart and think about how you can approach the situation from a place of love. Here is a good meditation to help you with that. While hurting another person is inevitable in some cases (like a breakup for example), obviously do what you can to avoid intentionally hurting any another living thing physically or emotionally.

On the mat, notice when you push yourself too hard into doing something your body isn't ready for, or that is painful or dangerous for you, just because you see others doing it. Back off a little bit and be more gentle rather than violent toward yourself.

*** A note on Ahimsa: There is a debate in the yoga world about whether or not it is against ahimsa to eat meat. My opinion goes in line with most Ayurveda teachers that believe that it is not always wrong to eat meat, because ultimately if you are depriving your body of something you feel it needs, then you are causing harm to it. Therefore, contrary to popular myth, you do not have to be vegetarian to be a yoga practitioner. But of course it is important to acknowledge here that most meat comes from factory farms where the animals are treated horribly, which does go against ahimsa. So I encourage you to always do your best to eat the most local and humanely raised meat. There's much more that could be discussed and debated on this topic, but that'll have to be a separate blog post.

Satya

The second Yama is Satya, or truthfulness. It's a simple one and just asks that you do everything with honesty and integrity. Not only should you be honest with others, but with yourself. Interestingly though, most yogis would prioritize ahimsa over satya, which means that you don't always need to speak the truth if it is going to harm another.

Practice by speaking your truth to begin, even when your voice shakes. The more honest you can be with yourself, the more comfortable you will become being open, vulnerable, and honest with others. In yoga, we practice getting comfortable in the uncomfortable, because that is inevitable in life. Ask yourself: What does truth and untruth feel like? Where do I feel it in my body and where does this feeling arise from?

On the mat, practice listening to and honoring your inner wisdom. Notice when you prioritize doing what the teacher is telling you to do or what you see other students doing rather than moving in a way that feels truly nourishing to you in that moment.

Here's an additional practice for the first and second yamas: Keep a satya or ahimsa diary. Anytime you notice yourself doing something, saying something, or thinking something dishonest or harmful toward yourself or others, jot it down in a journal or note on your phone (either in the moment or at the end of the day). The goal here is not to make you feel badly about yourself, but rather to begin to observe the quality of your thought patterns and how they are serving you or not. After all, all change begins with awareness, right?

Asteya

The third Yama is Asteya, or non-stealing. Asteya is about not taking what is not freely given. We all grow up essentially being told that theft is bad, but when we look at this yama beyond the material and apply it on a deeper level, it is not so simple. Think about the times you have stolen precious time from someone else by complaining to them about something without asking if they were able to hold space for you first, or how you may have accepted help that you didn't really need, when someone else could have used it more. On a societal level, stealing could be equivalent to exploitation, so you could look at standing up against colonialism, oppression, and social injustice all as practicing asteya.

The act of stealing tends to sprout from a perceived scarcity or lack. So in your daily life, notice how you can get more into an abundance mindset and practice more generosity to overcome greed and not-enoughness. Ask yourself: Am I stingy with my time, energy, and resources, or generous? In which aspects of life am I full and abundant? Where do I have more than enough, and how can I share that? Surely, everyone is abundant in some form or another! You could also create an abundance diary to encourage your asteya!

On your mat, notice how you are cheating yourself - of your full capacity, of the experience you came for, or simply of the present moment. Show up and do your best based on your intention for your practice. Remember to breathe. I think it is also important here to talk about cultural appreciation versus appropriation. How do you make sure you are honoring the roots of yoga and acknowledging the land that you practice on? I like to include a land and teacher acknowledgment in my class as much as possible.

Brahmacharya

The fourth Yama is Brahmacharya, otherwise known as continence, self-restraint, or non-excessiveness. While this yama originally and on the surface level appears as sexual abstinence, it goes deeper than that. Certainly, we can practice moderation in our sex lives, but let's be honest - in our modern society, we have to ask ourselves in what other ways we can realistically practice Brahmacharya. For me, it is about how we can have more control over our physical impulses of excess, and practice moderation and balance in all the things we consume and do (food, entertainment, work, etc). Practicing Brahmacharya reminds us that our energy is both limited and valuable, and helps us conserve it for our spiritual journey.

For your practice, pick one area of your life where you have been giving into excess and think about how you can moderate yourself and find a little more balance. Focus on one thing at a time instead of trying to do everything at once.

On the mat, think about how you over-do it. Do you tend to take on every challenging pose, always seeking a more intense sensation? Or conversely, maybe you skip every challenging pose and indulge yourself instead of working the edge of your comfort zone to help yourself grow. Is it possible to hold yourself back a little bit from the "fullest expression" of a pose to instead get more intimate with the subtle sensations in your body?

Aparigraha

Aparigraha, or non-grasping, is the fifth and last Yama. Yogis see this as being content with having only what we need, and letting go of what is not necessary. Many spiritual frameworks talk about non-attachment, because it truly is (and I know this from my personal experience) our expectations, our possessiveness, and our holding on that often causes a lot of our suffering. I have learned in my life the power of letting go and I have truly felt the freedom that comes with the ability to consistently bring myself to the present moment. Something I learned recently that I found to be so accurate is that all anxiety comes from living in the past or the future. Think about it - in this moment, right here and now, you are okay. Even if you are hanging onto the edge of a cliff where you could fall to your death, in that very moment, you are still alive and breathing. Dwelling on the future possibilities or stressing over how you go into this position is not going to help you - only being as present as possible and taking action from there will.

A very practical way to bring aparigraha into your daily life is to focus less on material things and live a more minimalist lifestyle. You could also practice by detaching from harmful emotions and ideas that do not help you be your best self. I like to put this yama into action by decluttering and organizing my physical environment, as well as letting go of emotional and relational attachments that do not serve my highest good, to make room for new opportunities.

On the mat, practice aparigraha by noticing where you can release a little tension and find a little more ease. Notice where you are grasping or clenching when you don't need to be, and practice surrendering, especially in the cool-down poses. Ask yourself: How am I comparing my practice or posture to those around me, what I see the teacher doing, or the Instagram yogi image I have in my head? Also notice what expectations you came into your practice with (a certain pose, stretch a certain part of your body, be inspired in a certain way, etc), and how it left you feeling if the reality of class didn't meet those hopes or desires?

Conclusion

As you can see, many of the yamas go hand and hand, such as Aparigraha with Brahmacharya, or Ahimsa and Satya. They all work together, and ancient yogis often say that you don't need to be perfect - after all, yoga is a practice, and often if you focus on one of these and do your best to implement it, the rest will begin to fall into place. If you are ready to learn about how you can bring the Niyamas (2nd limb of yoga) into your life in a practical way, or want to learn how this all fits into the broader framework of the 8 limbs of yoga, click the respective links! And please do share and tag me on social media (@elanaloveyoga on FB and @awholelanalove on IG) if you found this article valuable. 🙏🏼