According to the teachings of Patanjali, the first limb of yoga is yama. Translated as abstinence or restraint, Yoga Sutra 2.30 further describes yama:
“Yama consists of nonviolence, truthfulness, nonstealing, continence, and nongreed.”*
Ahimsa (also known as nonviolence) teaches us to keep our intent pure, avoiding hateful or violent desires. It looks to what drives our actions, not simply the nature of the actions themselves. Wishing someone or something harm brings us further away from enlightenment, even if we never act upon those wishes. To practice ahimsa, we must first and foremost purify our intentions.
Satya (also known as truthfulness) teaches us to be truthful in mind, word, and deed. But what if our truth causes someone else to hurt? In such instances, we must examine our truth, and our motivation in expressing our truth. Is the motivation to benefit the other person, or is the motivation to benefit ourselves, venting our own frustrations for our own comfort? By examining the intent, we can discern when expressing our truth is warranted.
Asteya (also known as nonstealing) concerns not just overt theft, but also the smaller indiscretions that face us daily, such as leaving work early or keeping something loaned to us by a friend. Asteya teaches us to avoid coveting what we don’t have, because this wanting can lead us to temptation, and temptation can lead us steal, even in small ways.
Brahmacharya (also known as continence) teaches us to avoid spending our energies on unproductive endeavors. Leading a life that seeks to benefit the world around us or that seeks to find enlightenment takes energy. When energy is wasted, we are pulled further from the goals that we seek.
Aparigraha (also known as nongreed) reminds us of the importance of need versus want. While it is often satisfying to attain what we want, that satisfaction often fades as soon as a new want takes center stage. We end up wasting our energy (and thereby also violate brahmacharya) as we set off to obtain the newest want. When we exercise aparigraha, we exert the energy necessary to attain what we need, reserving energy to work towards enlightenment.
Practicing yama is the beginning of our path to enlightenment. Overtime, its practice should be our natural state, something we no longer have to think about, but that is one with our being.
*You can read more about yama in the book “Inside the Yoga Sutras,” written by Reverend Jaganath Carrera. The insights into yama provided in this post are based upon this book.