What Are The Yamas?

Last Updated:


Yama (restraint)

Yamas Definition

Translated as “restraints,” “forbearances,” or “reigning in,” the Yamas are the first of the Eight Limbs of Yoga found in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.

It is sometimes said that the Yamas are the “don’ts”, while the second of the eight limbs, the Niyamas, are the “dos.”

The Five Yamas Are:

AhimsaNon-Violence, Non-Harming
BrahmacharyaPure Conduct
A mandala with the 8 limbs of yoga represented as petals: samadhi, yamas, nyamas, asana, pranayama, pratyahare, dharana, and dhyana

Yamas Deep Dive

In the Yoga Sutras, the eightfold path known as ashtanga provides a guide to living a pure and meaningful life.

The Yamas, the first of the eight limbs, are often seen as a summation of yoga’s universal moral principles. They focus on how we relate to others – and to ourselves.

And they are not so much rules or commandments as they are suggestions, or guidelines, that point the way to a life lived with wisdom.

Texts written long before the Yoga Sutras, such as the Rig Veda and Sandilya Upanishad also mention the Yamas.  But for now, let’s focus on the Yoga Sutra’s well-known five.

The First Yama: Ahimsa

“Kill not, cause no pain. Nonviolence is the greatest religion.” – Mahavira

Translated as “non-harming,” or “non-violence,” the first Yama is sometimes said to be the foundation upon which the other Yamas stand.

In this instance, the word “harming” or “violence” is about more than simply physical pain. It’s about mental and emotional pain too, from what we say, to what we think.

It’s about treating others how we want to be treated, and just as importantly, treating ourselves with respect. It’s the acknowledgment that heartache hurts.

It’s sometimes misunderstood as extolling pacifism or neutrality. But depending on the circumstance even these may cause more harm than good. Ahimsa, rather, requires us to be radically honest about the effects of our choices.

a tied up gun sculpture representing non violence

The Second Yama: Satya

“What is so dangerous about the truth that you choose to lie?” – Deborah Adele

Translated as “truth,” or sometimes “doing truth,” satya is mentioned after ahimsa precisely because truth is capable of preventing non-violence from becoming an excuse not to act, while non-violence is capable of preventing truthfulness from being used to do harm.

Satya refers to the kind of truth that implores us to be real rather than nice; to grow into our true selves rather than what others want us to be.

It asks us to adopt a radical honesty that asks, do you want to be right, or do you want to be free?

The Third Yama: Asteya

“Non-stealing” refers not only to tangible things, but includes time, emotional favours, information – anything that is not freely given. This includes stealing from the earth and its creatures, and also stealing from yourself. We steal when we don’t value ourselves and others as we should, and become absorbed in judgment and criticism.

“Comparison is the thief of joy.” – Theodore Roosevelt

Whatever you steal, you ultimately steal from yourself, because we – and everything – are all one.

The Fourth Yama: Brahmacharya

Literally translated as “moving with consciousness,” or “walking with God,” brahmacharya is often referred to simply as celibacy.

But it’s about aiming for sacredness in all our actions. Brahmacharya helps us moderate the senses, channel our energy, and remain faithful and focused on the truth.

Whether it’s sexual energy or anything else, we are tasked with disidentifying ourselves from it, seeing it as impermanent, and remembering our divinity.

two people meditating together holding hands

The Fifth Yama: Aparigraha

“Detachment is not that you should own nothing, but that nothing should own you.” – Ali ibn Abi Talib

Usually translated as “non-greed,” or “non-grasping,” aparigraha means more precisely not taking more than one needs. It asks us to curb hoarding, accumulating, and collecting for the sake of it. It asks us to appreciate what we already have, and let go of what we don’t need.

Live simply, and understand that what you possess possesses you.

Five other Yamas mentioned elsewhere include:

  • Ksama – patience, forgiveness.
  • Dhrti – fortitude, determination.
  • Daya – compassion, sympathy.
  • Arjava – non-hypocrisy, frankness.
  • Mitahara – moderate diet.
two hands clasped in a black and white photo

Yamas In Your Life

These universal moral principles, unrestricted by birth, place, era, or circumstance, are the great vow of yoga. – Yoga Sutras 2:31

The idea of adopting universal moral principles seems daunting to many. But the Yamas are not just about how you treat the world around you. They’re about how you treat yourself and changing your motive from fulfilling desire to achieving liberation.

The demands of desire are endless. Fortunately, the Yamas are a purpose-built tool on your yoga journey for seeing through the patterns and habits that follow you through life.

Once these patterns clear, it’s like the parting of tall grasses. You can see into the distance – and see your inseparability from it all.

yogajala linebreak

To go deep and expand your yogic knowledge, access our free Yoga Terms Encyclopedia, where we host a profound wealth of ancient and timeless yogic wisdom in an accessible modern format.

yogajala linebreak

More On Yogic Theory:

Photo of author
Hailing from the Yukon, Canada, David (B.A, M.A.) is a yoga teacher (200-hour therapeutic YTT) and long-time student and practitioner of various spiritual disciplines including vedanta and Islam.

Leave a Comment

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