The Yamas: rooting our practice and teaching in the first limb of yoga

Over the past few weeks in class, we have been looking at some of the ethical precepts that underpin yoga,  starting with the first limb of yoga, the Yamas, or restraints on our behaviour. This theme will be continuing over the weeks to come, so I thought it was a good time to  post up an essay I wrote on the subject as part of my training at Yoga Campus, the yoga school I studied with. I would be very interested to hear how learning about the Yamas has informed your yoga practice, and if and how it has filtered out into your life off the mat. Keep me posted. xx Michelle

In the modern western world, yoga is often experienced purely as a physical discipline, though it is in fact one of the six fundamental systems of Indian thought, with its origins in the Vedas, the oldest record of Indian culture. In this essay I will be looking primarily to “The Yoga Sutras” of Patanjali, a revered ancient text delineating yoga in its broader context. There is some uncertainty as to who Patanjali was, if indeed it was just one person, and when and where he lived; estimates of the date of this work vary from 5000 BC to 300 AD. Whoever Patanjali was, he identified teachings from the vastness of the Vedas, and presented them in an accesible form; 196 pithy phrases, or sutras, divided into four books: the Samadhi (contemplation), Sadhana (practice), Vibhuti (accomplishments) and Kaivalya (absoluteness). In the second book , yoga is described as an eight-limbed path consisting of: Yama (restraint), Niyama (observance), Asana (posture), Pranayama (breath control), Pratyahara (sense withdrawal), Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation) and Samadhi (contemplation), and it is the first of these, the Yamas, that provides the focus for this essay. The Yamas are presented as five restraints upon our behaviour that affect how we live and interact with our world, a reminder that yoga is about the fabric of our whole lives, not just about our physical health. Each of the limbs are of equal importance, and a practitioner can begin with any one of them, but the order in which Patanjali’s delineated his ideas was deliberate and so perhaps worthy of some thought. He began with the broader concepts, and then broke these ideas down until they could be understood. So, if the Yamas represent the foundation on which the following limbs rest, then a thorough understanding of them may be fundamental.

Yama originally meant ‘rein’ or ‘bridle’, a device used to give a person control over the energy of a horse. The mind can be seen as a horse, which if left uncontrolled may gallop about wildly, possibly harming itself, its environment, and other creatures in the process. Patanjali says that yoga is the control of thought-waves in the mind; [I:2] the idea of willingly placing a bridle on our own mind to allow us to direct this energy in the way we see fit, puts a positive spin on the word restraint. Unlike religions, yoga does not require an external God to place this control upon us, we do it for ourselves. Patanjali divides the concept of Yama into five ethical precepts that allow us to live a life that is both personally fulfilling and benefits society. He called these five restraints the “Maha Vratam” [II.31] or great vows. They are given in the following order: ahimsa (non-harm), satya (truthfulness), asteya (non-theft), brahmacharya (continence/celibacy) and aparigraha (non-greed). In conjunction with the next limb, the Niyamas, or five observances, they compare with the moral codes of most world religions, with clear similarities to both the ten commandments of Christianity, and the ten virtues of Buddhism. We can extrapolate from Patanjali’s teachings, that without observance of the Yamas, all other attempts to follow a yogic path through life will fail, and if this is the case, it is sad to note that few yoga classes in the West make any reference to these great vows.

Ahimsa, the first Yama, is said to be the heart and essence of yoga. As with all words, it is open both to various translations and interpretations. ‘Himsa’, ‘to cause pain’ with the negating prefix ‘a’, can be translated as ‘not to cause pain’. It is commonly interpreted as non-violence or not killing. Perhaps its essence can be distilled as ‘not causing harm’; to be aware of the motives behind our actions, feelings thoughts and words. Patanjali’s says “in the presence of one firmly established in ahimsa, all hostilities cease…” [II:35] In ancient Hindu mythology there are stories that illustrate this concept, tales of animals living in harmony with the saints and sages of the forest, only killing to satisfy their hunger, but otherwise at peace. Ahimsa encourages us to see ourselves, and all of creation as a whole, so that harm to any part of the whole is the destruction of ourselves. Harm is not limited to killing or hurting another creature. Selfishness, anger and negative words have the same capacity to cause harm. Choosing inaction does not necessarily honour ahimsa, as illustrated in the Bhagavad Gita. Krishna instructs Arjuna to fight his kin on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. [II:18] Swami Rama’s commentary on the Gita explains that this will not violate the concept of ahimsa, because not to fight would have caused more pain and suffering in the long-term, justifying the inevitable deaths on the battlefield.  So ahimsa is not as clear-cut as ‘thou shalt not kill’, it is more subtle. It requires that we act with love and compassion, and that our motives are clear and selfless. It is the root from which all the following Yamas are fed, for if we honour ahimsa, it is impossible to break the other restraints.

Satya, the second Yama means ‘actively expressing and being in harmony with the ultimate truth’ from ‘sat’ meaning ‘the eternal unchanging truth beyond all knowing’, and ‘ya’, the activating suffix meaning ‘do it’. Patanjali says that: “ one established in truthfulness, actions and their results become subservient..” [II:36] If we live an honest life, the result will be that we are able to live an open life without fear, for where there is truth at the centre, there is nothing to fear. Like ahimsa, satya is complex. It asks that we tell the truth as best we can, whilst remembering that our truth is relative, as to speak the truth means to speak from a point of view. It can be expressed as honesty, how we behave when others are around who may judge our actions, or as integrity, an inner form of truth, that regulates us when there is no-one else around. Practicing satya means being truthful in our feelings, thoughts, words and deeds but it also requires that in telling the truth we do no harm, nor create negative consequences. The Mahabharata tells us to “..speak the truth which is pleasant. Do not speak unpleasant truths. Do not lie, even if the lies are pleasing to the ear..”  If in telling the truth we cause harm, then we violate ahimsa. If we honour ahimsa first, then we will know which truths to tell. So not only do each of the Yamas themselves have great depth, but there is interplay between them.

Asteya, the third Yama means ‘non-stealing’ from ‘steya’ meaning ‘to steal’ with the negating prefix ‘a’. Patanjali’s says that: “ one established in non-stealing, all wealth comes..” [II:37] If we believe there is abundance in the universe, we will receive everything we need. This sutra illustrates that steya has its roots in the fear that there is not enough for everyone, so we must take, not only what does not belong to us, but also more than we need. We fail to practice asteya when we take credit unduly, when we are greedy and take more food than we need, when we are late and so steal someone else’s time. We can steal from ourselves by failing to express our full potential by neglecting to use a skill or talent, or by allowing worries and fears to prevent us living fully in the present. We steal from the planet when we are profligate with its resources. The flipside of this Yama is generosity. If we believe that there is enough for everyone, then we can afford to be generous with what we have, however little that may be. In order to steal, we must dehumanise and distance ourselves from the person who will suffer as a result of the theft. To do this, we must be mired in ‘avidya’ or ignorance about the nature of reality. The entire discipline of yoga is about freeing ourselves from avidya, otherwise we will continue to suffer. If we violate asteya, then in causing harm we also violate ahimsa. The lack of integrity required to steal also denigrates satya. So once again we see the interplay between the Yamas, and how in breaking one, the others are also broken.

Brahmacharya the fourth Yama means ‘walking with God’ or ‘moving towards truth’,from the sanskrit words ‘brahma’, the name of a deity, which can mean ‘truth’ ‘char’ meaning ‘to walk’ or ‘to move towards’ and ‘ya’ ‘actively’. It is often interpreted as celibacy, from the Hindu system of dividing life up into four sections, the first of which requires celibacy to be maintained until a person’s education is complete. It is more aptly interpreted as continence, or the careful use of sexual energy. Patanjali says that: “ one established in continence, vigour is maintained…” [II:38] so brahmacharya reminds us that the life force is precious, and can be dissipated easily by the misuse of our sexual energy. The idea is that sexual energy that is absorbed back into the system turns into a subtle energy, that tones the personality, improves brain power and calms the mind, eventually creating an aura or glow around the individual. The analogy of turning common carbon into diamond illustrates how sexual energy can be transmuted into something much more precious. For those not drawn to celibacy, brahmacharya can be manifested as monogamy, or by not using the sexual force mindlessly. The imposition of celibacy on a partner who has not chosen this path willingly may cause harm, so we can see that to honour brahmacharya, we must honour ahimsa first. Instead we consciously choose to use our life force, especially our sexual energy to express our dharma, our duty, rather than waste it on frivolous encounters. When we practice brahmacharya we allow sexuality to be part of the wider practice of yoga, and acknowledge the life-enhancing power inherent in a deep connection with another human being.

Aparigraha the final Yama means ‘not to seize’, from ‘parigraha’ meaning ‘to take’or ‘to seize’ with the negating prefix ‘a’. It has subtle levels of meaning, as well as some similarities to asteya. Whereas steya is based upon a perceived lack of abundance, parigraha has its roots in the greed motivated by jealousy. Patanjali says that: “…when non-greed is confirmed, a thorough illumination of the how and why of one’s birth comes…” [II:39] When the mind is calmed and cleared by being free of desires and obligations, we gain the capacity to see how we came to be the person we are today. So aparigraha can be taken to mean non-greed, non-covetousness, non-possesiveness, but also not accepting unearned rewards, such as gifts, as they can bring with them obligations that compromise neutrality. At its root, aparigraha warns us against the fatal poison of jealousy, and encourages us to learn the art of non-attachment to material things and the outer world at large. Greed is not confined to the material world, it is possible to covet more esoteric gains such as spiritual enlightenment, so following a yogic path does not protect us from parigraha. Of all the Yamas this one is particularly difficult to observe in our culture, as our economy is based on parigraha, and we are incited to want more, and encouraged to covet what others have to further fuel our greed and thus increase our consumption. As with the other Yamas it requires constant vigilance, and self-awareness to avoid its pitfalls, and requires the other yamas to be upheld. There are clear cross-overs between asteya and aparigraha as they are both concerned with not taking more than you need, but also with ahimsa. If we are greedy, we deprive others of enough, thus causing harm. In order to convince ourselves that our greed is based on need, our truth is compromised, so we cannot observe satya. And there are links too with brahmacharya. Control of sexual desire requires non-greed, to commit to celibacy or to monogamy requires restraint helped by non-covetousness and non-jealousy. So having looked at each of the yamas, what they mean, how they can be expressed and the complex interplay between them, I will now examine how an understanding of each of the Yamas can inform our teaching and what effect that may have on our students yoga practice.

Ahimsa underpins all the other Yamas, and can also be used to underpin our practice and our teaching. Students will be watching as well as listening to their teacher, so struggling into a pose whilst talking about ahimsa is counterproductive. If we cannot demonstrate a pose, or the more advanced variations of a pose due to illness, injury, pregnancy, or stiffness in the pertinent joints, then using a student to demonstrate, both honours ahimsa, by preventing harm to the teacher, as well as making the learning environment more symbiotic. As teachers we can cause harm not just by inappropriate adjustments, but also by using negative language or gestures that may demoralise students, or reinforce a poor self-image. Ahimsa requires us to be vigilant, not only about what we do, but what we say and the thoughts behind our actions. If we see a student forcing in a pose, explain that violence towards the self means there is no awareness, as violence and awareness cannot co-exist. With patience and guidance they will learn the difference between the discomfort of a stretch that is new to the body, and the pain caused by forcing. Encourage them to see the wisdom in pulling back, perhaps with a gentle word or adjustment. If we, or our students sustain an injury, we can use it both as a teacher, and a means to return to a place of compassion and patience with our bodies that ahimsa encourages. The breath is a great tool to gauge whether we are struggling or straining instead of feeling and easing into a pose, so encouraging students to maintain their connection with the breath, particularly in challenging poses can help them to work within the restraint of ahimsa. If we incorporate ahimsa into our own life, and so into our yoga practice, students will pick up on these harmonious vibrations, and absorb the precept without lengthy explanation. That said, I will sometimes talk to the class during our practice about the richness ahimsa can bring to asana, often by telling stories that illustrate the concept. If they express a desire to learn more, I will provide articles or direct them to texts that may prove of interest. It may take time and patience before students see the wisdom of ahimsa, especially in a class environment, when they have become attuned to the ethos of many exercise classes, to “go for the burn” or “no pain, no gain”. We can teach them a different approach: practicing breathing or postures without ahimsa negates the benefits these practices offer.

Ahimsa has strong links with satya, truthfulness. As a teacher, we can maintain satya by not making claims for yoga that we cannot verify. We should be frank – if we do not know something, we should say so, but then endeavour to find out! We can be open about our own injuries or areas of stiffness, which honours satya and keeps the ego in check. We should be honest with ourselves if there is a student in the class that we dislike, and try to overcome this irrational feeling to ensure they get as much from the lesson as those students that we may more readily favour. To give our lessons integrity, we should only teach what we know and have studied, and practice the sequence diligently before we take it out and teach it to others, so we can experience any residues or problems, and in doing so protect our students from potential harm. One sure way of knowing if we are operating from a place of truth is that, though the choices we make may not be easy, at the end of the day we feel at peace with ourselves. We teach what we believe is right for our students, rather than continuing to give them what we think they want. You may decide to teach a restorative sequence to a group who are accustomed to working rigorously through a demanding sequence of asanas, or shake up a gentle class with a more demanding vinyasa type session. Working from a place of truth gives us the courage as teachers to do this. We can foster satya in class by encouraging the careful inner listening this Yama requires. Students can honestly assess whether they working to their capacity, neither taking it too easy, nor working too hard. Often, their enhanced ability to discover their own truth will follow them off the mat and into their wider life, so an understanding of satya can do much more than protect them from a pulled muscle. They may learn that a pose, or a relationship, or a career choice, is too expensive if it bought by selling ahimsa and satya.

There are many ways of manifesting asteya in our teaching. We should not steal credit for ideas, adjustments, sequences or philosophies, but attribute them to their original source. We should guard against stealing students confidence in a particular style or path of yoga, or teacher with negative words. The confidences we are often privy to in our role of teacher should be kept and not stolen by being divulged to others in the form of an anecdote or exciting story, as to do so would breach asteya, ahimsa and satya. Often in class we find a student who demands much of the teachers attention, to the detriment of the rest of the class. There are links here with parigraha, but the motivation is different; steya often has a desperation about it that differs from greed. Giving this student less attention generally aggravates the situation, as it feeds their inherent belief that there is not enough for everyone. They need to have their needs met without impacting negatively on the less forthcoming members of the group or exhausting the teacher. Suggesting that lengthy questions are held until the end of the class, and then offering a finite amount of time can be effective, as can offering contact via email, if you are happy to do so, or supplying informative articles. In the past I have suggested private tuition if they feel they need the teacher’s undivided attention. The teacher needs to manifest the positive side of asteya, a belief that there is enough for everyone, and so gladly offer what they have. When teaching children, many of whom find stillness a challenge, I will explain to them that if they are wriggling about and talking during the class, not only are they stopping themselves from concentrating, but also stealing the opportunity from others to turn inwards and focus on their practice. You may see ‘steya’ in action when a student holds back from working to their capacity, either out of laziness, or because they do not believe they will have enough energy to continue. In doing so, they steal from themselves the potential benefits of their asana practice. We can teach our students that each pose gives the energy required to do it, particularly if they put into effect the wisdom of the fourth Yama, brahmacharya.

If students have heard of brahmacharya, it is often understood as celibacy, and therefore discarded as out of reach or out of date. If instead we offer the interpretation of brahmacharya as continence, or the careful use of energy, they may see its relevance to their asana practice. As teachers we can use this concept to prevent us from becoming ‘burnt out’. Swami Satchidananda tells us in his commentary on the Sutras, that teaching yoga is not like teaching geometry. A yoga teacher must impart a little life force into others, and in order to continue to do this we must keep ourselves strong and our batteries charged by the careful use and conservation of our own energy.  We can do this by keeping the pit of the abdomen lifted in our asana practice, thus conserving the life force, which can then be channelled up to the heart centre, the home of the indwelling self. By doing this, our asana practice can invigorate and energise us, instead of fatiguing us. We can transmit the concept of brahmacharya as a means of conserving energy to our students, by teaching them to use the minimum energy to achieve maximum results, not to use small muscles to do the work of larger ones. We can then teach them how to channel this conserved energy through an understanding of the lines of force in each asana, helping students to tap into their internal power, and so increase their vigour and stamina. By honouring brahmacharya in our asana practice in this way, we also keep true to ahimsa, satya, and asteya.

And so to the last of the Yamas, aparigraha. As teachers, aparigraha can prove a vital tool. We can manifest non-attachment by being open-minded and willing to learn about yoga constantly. If we are attached to a certain style of yoga or way of doing a pose, we may not be open to new ideas, and our teaching may stagnate. By not becoming attached to students, we will be happy to see them move on and discover new teachers and ways of approaching yoga, because we will see that they need to progress. Through an awareness of non-covetousness we will celebrate and encourage those students who are stronger and more flexible than ourselves without envy, and in this way encourage them to achieve their full potential. We can help students manifest aparigraha by emphasising that when they practice yoga, they are alone, even in a room full of people, and encourage them to turn their gaze inwards. Often students force themselves in a pose, because they are comparing themselves with others, and coveting what others can do. Greediness to achieve a pose can often result in injury, and if they are attached to achieving a perfect pose, they may not get the benefits of the journey towards it. If they are attached to a certain idea or way of doing things, both in yoga, and in life, perhaps this translates into inflexibility that is reflected in their muscles and tissues? If they are attached to old injuries, they may block the natural flow of prana to those parts of the body that need it the most. By encouraging each student to detach from the outcome of each pose, and work to their own capacity, they will be honouring all of the Yamas simultaneously

Many people come to yoga through the practice of asana and often, this is where they stay, learning more and more postures believing yoga to be purely a form of physical exercise. Desikachar compares this to a person who strengthens only one arm, whilst the other becomes withered and weak. My own practice has been revolutionised by an understanding of the Yamas and I felt a desire to share this with my students by embedding the wisdom of these restraints in my lesson plans for the past year. I believe that the changes I have seen in my students are in part attributable to this source. I have watched individuals, myself included, rehabilitate quickly from injury and surgery through an understanding of ahimsa. By applying satya to their lives, some students have chosen to leave unhealthy relationships or careers, identified as a result of their heightened self-awareness. I have seen needy students transformed into confident ones through the teachings of asteya, and improvements in vitality and strength through the application of brahmacharya. I have seen the wisdom of aparigraha used to get out of debt, and to lose weight, changes that were attributed firmly by the students to their yoga practice. I think that the Maha Vratam, the great vows, have enormous applicability to our yoga practice and teaching in the west, and hope I have shown in this essay how they can be a solid foundation for every individuals yogic journey.

Michelle Chand.


Desikachar, T.K.V “The Heart of Yoga”

Inner Traditions International. Vermont USA. 1999

Lasater, Judith Hanson “To Tell the Truth”


Lasater, Judith Hanson “Beginning the Journey: Living the Yamas of Patanjali’s”


Palkhivala, Aadil “Teaching the Yamas in Asana Class”


Rama, Swami  “The Perennial Psychology of the Bhagavad Gita”

Himalayan Institute Press. USA. 1985

Satchidananda, Sri Swami “The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali”

Integral Yoga Publications. Virginia USA 1978

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