After all, the philosophy behind yoga is what separates it from calisthenics, and is ultimately what makes it a truly transformative practice. The first few times you hear your teacher use the word ahimsa or quote Patanjali you may feel bewildered. Never fear. You don’t need an advanced degree in Sanskrit to benefit from yoga philosophy.
One of the most fundamental—and practical—parts of yoga philosophy is the group of practices called the yamas. Described in depth in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the yamas are five guiding ethical principles which can improve your relationship with others and yourself.
I think of them as a sort of compass—a way to orient myself back to the right direction in life when I’ve swerved. Here’s a (very!) quick introduction:
1. Ahimsa: nonharming. This is the foundation on which the whole yoga practice is built. Ahimsa is cultivating an attitude of love and compassion toward others—toward everyone—even ourselves (amazing how easy it is to forget to include ourselves). It’s asking ourselves before doing something—is this harmful or helpful? Am I doing this out of love, or…?
Ahimsa helps us become more in tune with the subtle ways we do harm to ourselves through negative self-talk or even pushing ourselves too hard in a pose, for example. It also helps our relationships by getting us to consider the impact we have on others.
Sometimes when we’re in a difficult situation, it helps to remember ahimsa; we can remind ourselves we’re not really “against” anyone, even yourself. And if it’s difficult to be kind to yourself, try considering how you might feel or act toward someone you love—a child, friend even a pet, and apply that same approach to yourself. With practice, ahimsa can become the basis on which we think, feel and act – out of love.
2. Satya: truthfulness. Being honest with others is essential for good relationships. Being honest with ourselves is equally important. But we humans are pretty good at fooling, if not outright lying to ourselves about things we don’t want to face. Much of the time, underneath the denial there’s an awareness of what’s really going on—but a lack of acceptance. Mind you, acceptance isn’t the same as being resigned to the way things are. On the contrary, acceptance is a necessary condition for change. We have to see where we are on the map if we want to make a path to where we want to be.
Of course, on a more basic level, satya is about telling the truth to others, too. It’s important to remember the underlying foundation of nonharming, though. Sometimes it’s better just to stay quiet!
3. Asteya: nonstealing. This can be taken literally, as in not taking what isn’t given to you. On a more subtle level though, it also has to do with not taking what belongs to others, like their time, attention, control, or dignity. Do you respect people enough to be on time, or do you make them wait for you? Can you let someone enjoy the spotlight, or do you have to grab it for yourself? Do you need to control situations at the expense of others? The ways in which we can take from others (or not!) are endless.
4. Brahmacharya: control of desires. This one is harder to define and if you look into it much, you’ll find lots of different interpretations, but the basic idea is to avoid giving into every desire and misusing your energy.
Some texts interpret this yama to mean sexual restraint, but it can also be applied to all sorts of situations. Paying attention to where we put our energies is a very valuable exercise. Do you squander your energy in unhealthy ways like gossiping, using drugs, spending all your time on Facebook, or…?
5. Aparigraha: greedlessness. This one runs a bit counter to what society expects of us. Aparigraha encourages us to be satisfied with what we’ve got, not constantly accumulating shiny new things we really don’t need. There’s nothing wrong with being comfortable in life, but most of us spend a lot of time thinking about, wanting, and chasing the next best thing.
We’ve heard that stuff doesn’t really make us happy but we haven’t given up hope. Sure, new cars, fancy yoga clothes and expensive stuff can give us some immediate pleasure, but soon the buzz wears off and we’re on to the next thing (or paying off the credit cards). Much of the time, our stuff is just a distraction from our real lives.
Volumes have been written about the yamas—this is just a brief introduction to get you started.
So why is all this important? Because kindness and ethical behavior are necessary if you want true happiness and peace of mind. If you treat yourself badly, you can’t be happy. If you treat others badly, your relationships suffer, but you are also bound to suffer bound to some combination of guilt and anxiety about future consequences.
The yamas help take us away from our usual self-centered mindset and start acting out of love, with consideration for the impact we have on others, and on the world. When we feel good about ourselves and what we do, we can have true peace of mind.
Ultimately, doing better means feeling better. But don’t take my word for it. Try it yourself!
For further reading, check out Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. There are many good translations out there, including: