What are the Yamas? Ethical principles of Yoga

Los Yamas son los principios éticos fundamentales del Yoga.

The “Yamas” are the first of the eight steps of Yoga, as described in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, one of the fundamental scriptures of yoga. They are ethical codes or moral principles that the yoga practitioner should follow in his or her daily life, guidelines for living in harmony with ourselves and others.

Most people take these ethical principles as rules to be followed mechanically, as if they were commandments, which is far from the intention of the Yamas. In this article we will deal in depth with each of the five Yamas, since it is no coincidence that they are the first step on the path of yoga. It is necessary to clarify their meaning and reflect on them, as well as to implement them in our lives in a conscious way.

What are the Five Yamas?

The ethical basis of yoga philosophy is found in the five Yamas. These principles delve into the aspects of external conduct that we must be mindful of in order to lead a more balanced and connected life with the world around us.

Ahimsa (Nonviolence)

One of the fundamental ethical principles of several Indian philosophical and religious traditions, including yoga, Jainism and Buddhism in Ahimsa, nonviolence. But its meaning goes beyond simple abstention from physical violence. Ahimsa implies a deep understanding of the interconnectedness of all things and a profound reverence for life in all its forms.

The concept of nonviolence has been a cornerstone of Indian ethical and moral thought for millennia. Ahimsa urges people to refrain from causing harm or pain to other beings, whether human, animal or any form of life. This abstention extends not only to action, but also to speech and thought. Genuine Ahimsa practice involves avoiding even the desire or intention to harm another.

Ahimsa can manifest itself in various ways in our daily lives, in the way we communicate, in the food choices we make, and in how we treat the world around us. For example, many people who practice the principle of Ahimsa opt for vegetarian or vegan diets as a way of not contributing to the harm or suffering of animals.

But Ahimsa doesn’t stop at physical violence, it goes beyond that. Words can be just as potent and harmful as actions, and often, the psychological or emotional damage that can be inflicted with hurtful words can be more lasting and destructive than physical harm. Practicing Ahimsa in communication means speaking with compassion, understanding and love, avoiding hurtful language, destructive criticism or gossip.

We also need to apply this ethical principle to our treatment of ourselves. It is not uncommon for people to harm themselves, whether through stress, self-criticism, neglect of their health or exhaustion. Practicing Ahimsa also involves caring for ourselves with the same love and respect as we would treat another being.

We can see Ahimsa as a philosophy of peace and a path to harmony in the world. Historical figures such as Mahatma Gandhi have advocated and practiced Ahimsa not only as a form of non-violent resistance, but as a way of life. His application of Ahimsa in the struggle for India’s independence from British rule is a testament to the transformative power of this principle.

It is a reminder that every action, word and thought has an impact and that every choice we make can bring us one step closer to a more compassionate and peaceful world.

It is necessary to qualify that nonviolence is not mere passivity or avoidance of violence. It is an active attitude of understanding, love and respect for all beings. An awareness that we are all interconnected and that by harming another, we are ultimately harming ourselves. In its purest essence, Ahimsa invites us to live with mindfulness, compassion and unconditional love.

Satya (Truthfulness)

“Satya” is often translated as “truthfulness. What does it mean then to live in Satya and how does this principle translate into our lives?

The principle of Satya is an invitation to be authentic, to be true to our essential nature and to act and communicate from that place of inner truth that we all possess. Although it often focuses on the idea of telling the truth, it is much deeper than simply refraining from lying. It is about us living in tune with our essence, acting with integrity and speaking truthfully.

We live in a society that pushes us to present superficial versions of ourselves, whether on social media, at work or even in our personal relationships. This pressure to fit in or be accepted can lead us away from our inner truth. But, each time we choose to act from a place of authenticity, we reaffirm the value of Satya and move closer to a fuller, more meaningful life.

Speaking truthfully does not mean simply telling the truth; it means communicating with compassion and consideration. Satya does not mean that we have to be brutally honest to the point of hurting others with our words. Instead, truth must be expressed in a way that is beneficial and not harmful. In fact, Satya and Ahimsa (nonviolence) are intrinsically related. Speaking the truth without causing harm is the true art of conscious communication.

In addition to communication, Satya is reflected in our daily actions. When we act in accordance with our values and principles, we live in Satya. Conversely, when we betray our own beliefs or compromise for the sake of expediency, we move away from this essential principle. Integrity is, in many ways, the practical manifestation of Satya.

One of the most profound aspects of Satya is the journey of self-knowledge. Knowing our inner truth requires introspection, self-examination and, often, facing aspects of ourselves that we might prefer to ignore or be unaware of. Through practices such as meditation, yoga and self-reflection, we can connect deeply with our essence and discover the truths hidden within.

Living in Satya also means recognizing the universal truths that connect all sentient beings. We all share the desire for love, acceptance and peace. Recognizing and honoring these universal truths can serve as a guide in our daily interactions and decisions.

Asteya (Do Not Steal)

If we focus on its translation Asteya means “do not steal.” But, as with most Yoga concepts, if we stay at this superficial level of interpretation we run the risk of misunderstanding the true meaning of this Yama and missing the profound lessons it can provide.

At first glance, the idea of “not stealing” seems simple, doesn’t it. Most of us understand that taking something that does not belong to us, without permission or the intention to return it, is ethically wrong. But if we look at Asteya from a broader perspective we begin to discover deeper aspects that we may not be fully aware of.

The principle of Asteya applies in several dimensions of our life and one of them is not to appropriate the achievements or ideas of others. Plagiarizing, copying or taking credit for someone else’s work is a violation of Asteya. It is very important to recognize and honor the originality and effort of others, and to give credit where credit is due.

Another aspect of Asteya is with time and energy. How many times have we taken someone’s time without consideration, arriving late for appointments or unnecessarily extending meetings? Or how many times have we let someone monopolize our time, stealing moments we could have devoted to ourselves or our loved ones? Being mindful and respectful of time and energy, both our own and that of others, is an Asteya practice.

It also implies not taking more than we really need. We live in a consumer society, where accumulation and the desire for more and more is often the norm. When we take more than we need, whether it is food, natural resources or material goods, we are, in a sense, robbing those who have less or depriving the planet of its valuable resources. Practicing moderation and being aware of the differences between our needs and our wants is a manifestation of Asteya.

We can also interpret Asteya as not stealing from ourselves. How do we steal from ourselves? From denying ourselves the opportunity to grow and learn, to sabotaging our own efforts or not recognizing our value and potential. Every time we limit ourselves out of fear, insecurity or doubt, we are robbing our most authentic self of the opportunity to shine.

Brahmacharya (Containment)

Brahmacharya is perhaps the most misunderstood Yama, understood in many circles as “celibacy“. If we go to its literal translation it means “to walk towards the divine” or “to behave in the essence of Brahma (the supreme reality)“. It is a call to moderation, to restraint of sensual desires and to live in harmony with our life energy.

It is to consider the direction and purpose of our energies, particularly sexual energy, which is one of the most powerful energies we possess. This energy can be channeled in many ways, not just through sexual activity. It can be the driving force behind our creativity, passion, commitment and spirituality.

Therefore, the practice of Brahmacharya does not mean that we have to deny or repress this energy, but rather manage it and channel it into activities that uplift us and bring us closer to our true essence. It is an invitation to be aware of how we use our energy and to ask ourselves if our actions lead us towards greater understanding and personal development, or if they simply disperse and deplete our vitality.

We are constantly bombarded with stimuli that appeal to our senses and desires. Advertising, entertainment and social media often glorify indulgence and instant gratification. In this situation, Brahmacharya implies that we consider what is truly essential and exercise discernment in our choices.

To many, the concept of Brahmacharya may seem restrictive or even old-fashioned. But if we understand it as a practice of moderation and self-control, it becomes a key tool for self-discovery. When we consciously restrict certain indulgences, we create space for other forms of satisfaction and contentment to emerge. Instead of seeking ephemeral pleasures, Brahmacharya guides us toward more lasting and meaningful sources of joy and fulfillment.

In practice we can apply Brahmacharya in a variety of ways in our daily lives. It may be a conscious choice to limit consumption of media or entertainment, to practice fasting, or to devote time to meditation and introspection. In the realm of relationships, it can translate into seeking deep and meaningful connections rather than superficial or ephemeral encounters.

Ultimately, what is essential is to realize that Brahmacharya does not advocate repression or denial of human nature. Rather, it is about honoring our life energy and learning to use it in ways that are conducive to our spiritual growth and well-being. It is to recognize that within each individual burns a divine spark, and that through restraint and focus, we can fan that spark into a fire of fulfillment and purpose.

Aparigraha (Non-Covetousness)

Let’s move on to the last of the Yamas, Aparigraha, the translation of which is “do not covet” or “do not accumulate.”

The essence of Aparigraha lies in realizing that we cannot find true satisfaction and happiness in the accumulation of material goods or in the insatiable pursuit of more sensual pleasures. It is to look inward and learn to find contentment in what we already have and to free ourselves from the constant desire that often enslaves us.

does this mean that we have to get rid of our material possessions and dedicate ourselves to an ascetic life? No, rather it is about developing a more conscious and deliberate relationship with what we possess and what we seek. By simplifying our lives and freeing ourselves from excess, we create space for what truly matters: authentic connections, enriching experiences and a sense of purpose. Less is more.

The idea of success is often linked to possession and accumulation: more money, a bigger house, a newer car. Aparigraha challenges this notion, suggesting that true success is found in the ability to be content with what one has and the ability to live a life free of unnecessary attachments.

This Yama also relates to the release of desires and expectations in our relationships and experiences. Too often, we carry the burden of expectations about how things should be or how people should behave. Aparigraha encourages us to let go of these desires and accept people and situations as they are, freeing us from the frustration and suffering that arises when reality does not conform to our expectations.

There are many ways to apply Aparigraha in our life: it can be as simple as cleaning out the closet and donating what we no longer need, or as profound as re-evaluating what we really value and desire in our life. It can also be practiced in the way we consume, choosing to purchase only what is essential or sustainable, and recognizing the impact of our choices on the world around us.

By freeing ourselves from the constant need for more and embracing a simpler, more focused life, we often experience a sense of lightness and clarity. This peace, in turn, allows us to tune more deeply into ourselves and the world around us.

The importance of the Yamas

That the Yamas are the first step on the path of yoga, as we mentioned in the introduction, is no accident. Any spiritual or philosophical practice that does not contemplate the benefit to others is useless. What is the use of “growing” as a person if my actions involve the suffering of other people or living beings? Different currents of Eastern thought have always been aware of the importance of following a philosophy of life that not only benefits ourselves as individuals, but also other beings.

Everything begins and ends with establishing a harmonious relationship with the world around us, that is why Yamas are so important, because they are the beginning to establish more beneficial relationships with other people.

But it is important to remember that Yama is not an isolated element. Yamas and Niyamas (personal disciplines) are inseparable complements if we want to live fully. If we only focus on the Yamas, we run the risk of neglecting our inner world. We may act with kindness towards others but harbor resentments or ignore our own needs. And if we only focus on the Niyamas and neglect ethical principles, we may cultivate a rich inner life but be negligent or even harmful in our relationships.

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