By Kelly Smith, 300 hour Bali yoga teacher training student
Nearly 2,000 years ago, Patanjali gave the world the Yoga Sutras. Also known as the eightfold path, the Sutras comprise eight limbs that collectively explain how to create a life of spiritual fulfillment. The first limb constitutes the Yamas, which are essentially a set of ethical standards. The Yamas are less commandments than they are reminders of the fundamental goodness of the human spirit and comprise traits that tend to come naturally to us with a dedicated practice of asana, pranayama, and meditation. The Yamas comprise Ahimsa (nonviolence), Satya (truthfulness), Asteya (nonstealing), Brahmacharya (nonexcess), and Aparigraha (nonpossesiveness). Though ancient, these principles still help us navigate contemporary life, almost like a moral GPS.
Ahimsa, or nonviolence, is the first Yama. It refers to embracing a peaceful manner with all living beings and forms the foundation of the Yamas as well as our entire yoga practice. As yogis, we tend to gravitate toward peaceful behavior. However, nonviolence doesn't apply exclusively to how we treat others. It also applies to how we treat ourselves. Too often we are our own worst critics, engage in negative self-talk and fail to treat ourselves with the same compassion and understanding we show to other living beings. Ahimsa challenges us to extend that same love to ourselves.
Satya is truthfulness. This Yama goes beyond not telling lies to being honest in all aspects of life, including our thoughts and actions and not just our words. Satya is a powerful and sometimes scary act. Truth demands integrity, realness, and courage. Without truth, we will never live a real and fulfilling life. But being truly honest can be challenging. Satya asks us to look at why the truth can be so frightening. What is so scary that we decide to lie instead? Remember to not just to be honest with others, but to be honest with yourself. Do not be afraid or feel guilty about your truth. If we can find the courage to live and speak our truth then we can truly grow. Speak your mind but ground your truth in nonviolence.
Asteya, or nonstealing, asks us to look at where in our lives we might be taking what is not rightfully ours. We can steal in many ways that aren't limited to taking an object that doesn't belong to us. Are we stealing from others by trying to be superior? Are we stealing from the earth by being wasteful? Perhaps we are stealing from ourselves because we aren’t living our lives fully? Asteya challenges us to look at all the ways we detract from our life by failing to lift others up or by selling ourselves short. When we stop these actions, we find fulfillment.
Brahmacharya teaches us how to say enough is enough. This Yama is commonly translated as sexual restraint but also means restraint from any sort of unnecessary consumption in a world of excess. Bramacharya encourages us to gently reject the desire for overindulgence and to be satisfied with what we truly require in the moment. In order to achieve this, we need to become quiet, turn our gaze inward, examine our needs and find a place of just enough. Any unspent energy can then be directed toward spiritual fulfillment. Achieving balance by taking only what we need, nothing more or less, will bring a life of clarity.
Aparigraha, or nonpossessiveness, teaches us how to let go. We live in a world that is rooted in material things. This Yama challenges us to let go of possessions and notions of “yours” and “mine" and travel through this world lightly. Aparigraha extends not only to mental and emotional attachments to objects but to loved ones, habits, and ideas. Feelings of vulnerability can surface when we let go of possessiveness, but this final Yama reminds us to live in the moment and teaches us the art of surrender in all aspects of life.