The Yamas: Exploring The First Limb Of Yoga & Deepening Your Practice

Photo of author
Written by

When people say yoga is not just a pose – they usually think about the other limbs of yoga. Today, we are going to explore yamas, the first of the eight limbs – 5 codes of conduct to live a more harmonious life. 

Yamas are concerned with our relationships, mainly with others, but also with ourselves. They are moral guides that help us navigate life and become successful. 

Knowing the moral codes leads us to live a more peaceful life and can help us make decisions when we are uncertain. 

In this article we’re going to learn:

  • Where Do The 5 Yamas Come From?
  • What Are the 5 Yamas?
    • Ahimsa
    • Satya
    • Asteya
    • Brahmacharya
    • Aparigraha

Read on to find out how you can make your life better with the yamas. 

woman smiling and closing her eyes

Where Do The 5 Yamas Come From?

Yamas is one of the eight limbs of yoga described in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.

This text contains 195 sutras. It was created sometime in the first century CE and is credited to a sage called Patanjali. In the sutras he collected, organized, and combined the knowledge of yoga which came from much older traditions. 

The sutras are best known for the explanation of ashtanga, or the eight elements of yoga practice – often called limbs. 

Exploring all the limbs and incorporating them into our lives, deepens our understanding and leads to fulfillment

The 8 limbs are:

  1. Yama (discliplines, moral codes, abstinences)
  2. Niyama (observances)
  3. Asana (physical poses)
  4. Pranayama (breathing exercises)
  5. Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses)
  6. Dharana (concentration)
  7. Dhyana (meditation)
  8. Samadhi (enlightenment)
peace sign with flowers for ahimsa - the first of the yamas

When we look at these principles, we can see we are not doing a complete yoga practice here in the West.

Usually, we are focused on the asanas, and sometimes just a little bit on breathwork and meditation. But, all of that should be built upon the first two limbs, starting with the first one – the yamas. 

What Are the 5 Yamas?

Since you started practicing yoga, did you notice a change in your life beyond the physical? Are you developing more patience, calmness, and mindfulness? Do you treat others better or maybe you get angry less often? 

These attributes were traditionally seen as “fruit of your practice” and ways a teacher would see your progress. These are values that we naturally develop during our journey of life and yoga.

However, sometimes it is easier to be able to call the things by their name. In this way we can know exactly where we are doing well and where we could still get better.

Yamas are five different moral codes for interacting with others, the world, and to a smaller extent ourselves.

The word literally translates to “restraint. Therefore, the yamas explain five things we should restrain ourselves from doing to have better relationships. 

a family with two children on the sofa

However, note that these are not commandments – they are only here to show us the reasons why and how we are responsible for what happens in our lives.

In this way, we can get out of the victim mentality and gain control over our lives.

The yamas are:

  1. Ahimsa (non-violence)
  2. Satya (truthfulness)
  3. Asteya (non-stealing)
  4. Brahmacharya (good use of energy; also celibacy)
  5. Aparigraha (non-hoarding)

The 5 Yamas 

1. Ahimsa

The first yama is ahimsa which refers to non-violence. The first thing that comes to mind when we mention violence and nonviolence is physical assault. But the idea is much deeper than that. 

The idea is to become compassionate to other people and all living beings. This true compassion can happen only when we become aware of the unity of all of creation.

This is not easy and takes time for us to realize, but putting in effort brings rewards.

We can start by becoming non-violent towards ourselves. For one day, write down or simply take note of every moment when you gave yourself unhelpful and destructive thoughts you have towards yourself, and how often you judge and insult yourself. 

statue of the buddha

We need to learn to be kind to ourselves to really have a good impact on others. 

Of course, you will still feel negative emotions like jealousy or anger, but you can find their root causes and learn healthier ways to release them. 

Then, as you learn to be kind towards yourself – you can think about how your daily actions and thoughts are affecting the rest of the world and other people. 

Learn if you are trying to be controlling towards others or if you are intentionally hurting them with your deeds or words. Think about how you could be more non-violent toward animals and Mother Earth.

To improve, we first need to learn about ourselves. So here are some questions you can ask yourself to work on ahimsa:

How do I express violence physically?”; “How do I express violence with words?”; “How do I express violence in my mind” “In what other ways do I express violence?

2. Satya

The principle of Satya translates to truthfulness. Truth is difficult because it often challenges the first yama or non-violence.

How to be both truthful and non-violent? One of the things we can work on is speech, speaking truthfully and without deception or acting, but also not causing harm with our words.

people cheering together

In general, take some time every now and then to think about the things you are saying, and to realize whether they are true, or are mainly rooted in suppositions, imaginations, quick conclusions, exaggeration, deception, or lack of information.

Often, we feel a need to lie to seem interesting or to protect others. But in reality, truth is what can save us from great suffering. 

Staying committed to the truth is often difficult, not only because it can be hurtful to others but also because we can hurt ourselves. But it also often comes with a sense of relief because it means we can be truly authentic.

Living authentically uses much less of our energy. And honest communication leads to deeper and more loving relationships. 

To see how you can improve satya in your life, ask yourself these questions:

Am I honest with myself?” “Am I honest with others?” “When was the last time I intentionally deceived someone and why?” “What would happen if I spoke only the truth?” “Am I authentic in my speech and actions?

3. Asteya

Asteya is the principle that translates to non-stealing. Similarly to Ahmisa – what first comes to mind is only a part of the picture. We first think about stealing someone’s possessions. And of course, that is something we should never do. 

person running with with balloons

However, we can also steal other things – such as time and energy. These types of stealing are much more common. 

Stealing is not only literally taking something from someone. Just being jealous of the material things others have and getting agitated for not having them, instead of being happy for the person, is also a form of stealing.

As you can see, following this principle is much harder than it seems.

The way to overcome stealing is to think about what we already have, rather than feel like we are lacking. Only if we appreciate the things we own, will we open ourselves to receive more. 

To do that, we must realize our true riches – the ones that are inside us and not outside. A person who has a lot of material possessions but doesn’t have joy, peace, or love, will feel less abundant than one who has little but has those feelings inside.  

Only when we reach this state of content inside will we able to not want to steal from others.

You will instead be open for exchange, which is when abundance really begins to flow.

person with the sun in their hands

Respecting the boundaries others give us is another way we can prevent ourselves from stealing. 

So, here are some questions you can ask yourself to practice asteya in your life:

Do I try to identify and respect the boundaries of others (and myself)?” “How did not noticing or respecting these boundaries hurt me or others?” “Do I respect other people’s energy and time (and my own)?

4. Brahmacharya

Brahmacharya is one of the least understood principles. The reason is many people believe it refers only to celibacy. Many have understood it as a rule to suppress our sexuality.

This dilemma of sex is present in all religions, as sexual energy can be healthy but, like everything, it can also be destructive if used incorrectly.

There are those who decide to live in complete celibacy, not suppressing their energy but learning to express it in other ways.

moving energy with someones hands open

In this way, brahmacharya can actually be practiced by both those in celibacy and those who want to continue having sex. It is not about sex as it is about learning how to conserve our energy.

Therefore, rather than focusing on sex when thinking about brahmacharya, think about how you can better conserve and use your energy to advance spiritually, to feel better, and to be better to others. 

In fact, one of the translations for brahmacharya is “walking with God” or “merging with the One”.

So, rather than thinking about what you shouldn’t do, think about what you could do to get closer to the divine and to further explore the world around you. The practice shouldn’t lead to guilt or repression, but instead to greater self-satisfaction and contentment. 

With that in mind, here are some questions you could ask yourself. 

“In what ways do I use others or allow myself to be used?”; “What drives me? Is it authenticity or desire”; “Do I recognize the divine in everyday life?”; “Am I too focused on physical satisfaction?”; “What could I change to have a higher energy in everyday life?”

5. Aparigraha

This is a difficult principle of non-grasping or non-hoarding. I believe it is often saved for last because we need the support and security of the first four to truly reach it.

Firstly, are you holding onto physical things?  This is where everything starts, and although many of us do hold onto possessions, it is usually not our biggest issue.

a compass for guidance

This principle deals with something much deeper.

We often try to hold onto our identity, like refusing to age, or change our habits and beliefs. This destroys our chance to realize ourselves and be happy. We need to stay in the present, which means being open to constant change.

Also, although love and relationships are necessary for us, not being able to follow aparigraha is often the cause of staying with people who are unhealthy for us.

Codependency is also a result of not following this yama, holding too tight to a partner which prevents us from experiencing true joy.

Grasping always leads to the opposite effect of what we truly want. By holding too tightly to a partner, we are pushing them away. By grasping too tightly to our habits, we are becoming unhealthy. By grasping our memories, we are not making new ones.

It is scary – but necessary to release. 

So here are some questions you could ask yourself:

What am I clinging to?”Am I holding on to any false identifications to feel safer?” “Am I possessive in any of my relationships?” “Am I unable to release traumas?

Learn more about yoga philosophy with the articles below:

Photo of author
Sara lives in Croatia, near the sea, with her dog. She enjoys exploring nature, and making art. She is currently developing a series of children’s/YA stories and comics in her native language, which she feels complements her work and allows her to live her dream life – having yoga, writing, art, and nature in her every day.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.