The Five Yamas (Restraints) of Ashtanga Yoga
Summary: Find out the meaning, concept and significance of the five yamas (restraints) in the classical Ashtanga Yoga of Patanjali.
Literally speaking “yama” means the advancing and purifying spiritual force (ya) of Nature with which you can restrain its deluding and regressive power (ma) in the body to escape from delusion, mortality (death) and bondage. Both forces (ya+ma) are aspects of Maha Shakti only and act in Creation as well as in the bodies of the jivas as the moving forces of Maha Kala who manifests in the Bhagavadgita and is frequently referenced in the Upanishads as the Lord of Death (Yama). The regressive forces keep the beings (jivas) deluded and bound, while the advancing forces pull them out of the mire of ignorance and delusion and put them on the forward path towards light, wisdom and liberation.
1. The ultimate purpose of yamas is to restrain Death itself
In the world of Death, we are all Yamas (of Kalas) in the mortal bodies, devouring the world for enjoyment and fulfillment, and letting our bodies gradually decay and dissolve into Death to repeat the whole process again since we have the same appetite for things as the Lord of Death. We allow him to control our lives and actions with the force of attachments (yama pasas) which he induces in us through our desires and gunas and gradually draws us towards himself to devour us and recreate us. Thus, we let him rule our minds and bodies through attachments and keep us bound to samsara, the cycle of births and deaths. Depending upon which way we turn in each birth whether towards light or darkness and how we engage in thoughts and actions, we create our lives and destinies for the better or worse.
2. Yamas are the foundation of the other seven limbs
In Ashtanga Yoga, yama (restraint) is the first of the eight limbs namely yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi. It means it is the foundation for the other seven, and without it progress and perfection in the other limbs are not possible. In the traditional Yoga System (darshana) the journey of a yogi is supposed to begin with the practice of yamas since it helps him overcome his past habitual thoughts and actions and live ethically and righteously on the path of renunciation to practice self-control (atma samyama) and prepare the mind and body for quietude and samadhi (self-absorption).
3. Yamas are meant for self-control (atma samyama)
Thus, the ultimate purpose of yama is to practice self-control or the control of the mind and body. It is to restrain oneself from evil thoughts and actions, desires and desire ridden actions and the inducement of the gunas so that one becomes pure in thoughts and deeds and abides in the self. Given their intelligence and propensity, there is no limit to what human being can do and how much evil they can cause or invite into their own lives.
If they fall into evil ways, they can be even more dangerous than the demons or the rakshasa. Their only hope is balance or moderation and self-control (atma+sam+yama). As the Bhagavadgita says, you surely are your own best friend and your worst enemy. Therefore, you are supposed to uplift yourself by yourself rather than debasing yourself by your thoughts and actions. Thus, in Yoga as well as in any spiritual practice, the concept of yamas is centered around the core principle of self-control and self-purification. Hence, it has greater significance than all the other limbs, methods or practices of yoga.
4. Through yamas we conquer Nature and Death (Kala)
Both yamas and niyamas define our relationship with the world and with ourselves. They help us take control of our minds and bodies to escape from the influence of Prakriti, her tattvas (parts) and gunas (modes) and her deluding power (maya). As in the prayer of “Asatoma Sadgamaya,” through them we conquer delusion (asat), death (mrtyu) and darkness (tamas) caused by the triple impurities (egoism, attachments and delusion) and journey towards the triple doors of enlightenment namely truth (sat), light (jyoti) and immortality (amrit).
Upholding Dharma (righteousness) through desireless actions, safeguarding ourselves from the impurities of the mortal world and restraining our animal nature (pasu prvritti) through yamas, niyamas and the other limbs, we overcome egoism, attachments and delusion to become pure humans (Shivas), realize our natural state of pure consciousness within our mortal bodies and make it our natural state (sahaja yoga or vidya). For the yogis, yamas are the initial steps in the long journey of renunciation and liberation to become the Lords of Death instead of its victims.
5. Yamas are independent of other limbs
Yamas constitute the first limb of the classical yoga because they can be cultivated independently without practicing the other limbs that follow them. The same cannot be said about the others. To achieve perfection in each of them, one has to practice the preceding ones and achieve perfection in them. Thus, perfection in the practice of niyamas (observances) cannot be achieved without achieving perfection in the practice of yamas. Perfection in asanas cannot be attained without perfection in yamas and niyamas. Similarly, perfection in breath control (pranayama) cannot be attained without reaching perfection in the previous three limbs, and so on. Finally, without attaining perfection in all the previous limbs, one cannot enter the state of samadhi. Thus, the Ashtanga Yoga of Patanjali is a complete system. It cannot successfully be practiced in parts, which is the norm nowadays. It demands complete dedication, mastery, purity and perfection to practice samyama (control) and attain the supreme state of oneness or self-absorption.
The Five Yamas
Ashtanga Yoga identifies five yamas or restraints namely nonviolence (ahimsa), truthfulness (satya), refraining from stealing (asteya), celibacy (brahmacharya) and refraining taking things or possessions (aparigraha). While these are important and cover a wide range of human behaviors which are detrimental to liberation, they are all part of atma-samyama (self-control) only, which in turn depends upon restraining of the mind and senses, desires, attachments and desire-ridden actions. Their continued practice results in detachment, dispassion, equanimity, sameness, mental stability, indifference, desireless actions (nishkama karma), renunciation, devotion (atma-paridhana) and other divine virtues, without which the mind cannot be established in the self or experience oneness with it. They also facilitate progress in the other limbs.
Ahisma or nonviolence
The first of the yamas is ahimsa or nonviolence. Since it is the first of the eight limbs and since success in each following limb depends upon success in the preceding one, it is considered the most important of all practices in the whole yoga system. In other words, purification and liberation or success in samyama and samadhi is impossible, without cultivating and perfecting the virtue of nonviolence. Vyasa defines ahimsa as not harming or injuring any living entity. This is a limited definition. In in a broader sense, ahimsa (nonviolence) means not only physical nonviolence but also mental nonviolence. It is the practice of not disturbing others, not being a source of disturbance to others and not being disturbed by anyone or anything. Ahimsa is also the most difficult to practice because it is impossible not to harm any living creature while living upon earth since the world is filled with tiny microscopic organisms which are destroyed by us every day when we drink water, eat food, breathe air or walk upon earth. Hence, yogis are advised to cultivate compassion, avoid hurting and harming to the extent possible and not to harbor any malice or ill will or hatred towards anyone. The state of nonviolence is characterized by peace, equanimity, indifference, renunciation, detachment and sameness. Hence, in the Bhagavadgita (2.48), Lord Krishna equates yoga with sameness only and declares (12.13) that he who is not disturbed by the world and does not disturb it is dearer to him. All the traditional commentators identify ahimsa as the most important of all the yamas, the ground upon which other yamas rest and into which they all culminate.
Satya or truthfulness
In yoga tradition satya or truthfulness means complete correlation between thoughts and words, words and deeds, and thoughts and deeds. It is to be truthful to what you know to be true. A truthful yogi sincerely adheres to and abides in the knowledge he gains through perception, inference and scriptures, which in yoga philosophy are recognized as the standard means (pramanas) to establish truth or knowledge. In thinking, speaking and performing actions, he must abide in that knowledge to exemplify truthfulness. Traditional yoga scholars suggest that yogis should avoid deception in all forms and be truthful while speaking to others, imparting knowledge or acting as a witness. However, the practice of truthfulness should NOT be in conflict with the virtue of nonviolence since it takes precedence over all others. Therefore, the wise ones suggest that one should avoid speaking or revealing any truth or knowledge which may harm others or lead to violence or conflict. Manu also concurs with this opinion, stating that one shall not unkindly or inconsiderately speak truth which may harm others or bring them suffering. In other words, a yogi should not be blunt or harsh in speech. He should carefully think, considering all the facts, and speak only for the welfare of others.
Steyam in Sanskrit means theft, robbery or stealing. Asteya means not-stealing or not taking that which belongs to others or does not belong to oneself. As in other yamas, this one also has to be practiced both mentally and physically. It cannot also be practiced without nonviolence and truthfulness since there is always the possibility of violence and deception when people take things that do not belong to them. The practice of asteya demands that the very desire for things which belongs to others or does not belong to him should truthfully be absent in a yogi’s mind to achieve mastery in it. Hence, prudence suggests that the best way to practice asteya is by overcoming desires and cultivating detachment and contentment. As the Bhagavadgita states, a yogi should overcome desires and attachments to be happy and content within himself and by himself. To be content, peaceful and happy within oneself is a supreme yoga (state) in itself. In Vedanta, asteya acquires even a broader meaning. Since Isvara is the lord of the universe and everything here belongs to him, a yogi shall not covet anything or desire anything or claim ownership of anything. Giving up egoism, desires, attachments, ownership and doership, he should live freely, performing actions without desiring their fruit and offering them to Isvara as a sacrifice or devotional service. Thus, asteya is better practiced for self-mastery with detachment and karma sannyasa yoga (giving up the fruit of actions).
In yoga, brahmacharya means restraining and controlling the sexual organs, conserving and purifying the sexual energy (retas), and abstaining from sexual gratification. It is an important practice of self-control (atma samyama) without which purity (sattva) and self-absorption cannot be achieved. Through Brahmacharya a yogi achieves self-purification and self-control and burns his strongest desires, attachments and samskaras (past life impressions) in the fire of purity, knowledge and austerity. Thereby, he becomes a friend of himself (atma bandhu) and avoids self-destruction. As in other yamas, brahmacharya has to be practiced both physically and mentally. A yogi must overcome the very desire for sexual enjoyment and association or union with the opposite sex. The Hindu law books and traditional yoga commentators suggest various ways in which it can be practiced such as avoiding contact with the opposite sex, not looking at them, not thinking of them, not talking to them, not meeting them alone, avoiding ornaments and perfumes, taking cold showers, eating sattvic and bland food, establishing the mind in devotion to the self, etc. Vachaspati Misra recommended self-restraint (samyama) in eight forms of sexual indulgence as stated in the Daksha Samhita (7.31-32)1. They are “thinking, talking and joking about sex; passionately looking at the opposite sex, talking secretly about sex, determining to engage in it, attempting to do so, and engaging in it.”
Parigraha means taking, grasping, accepting, encircling, claiming or possessing property, honor, gifts, household responsibilities, status, recognition, name and fame, reverence, approval, etc. It also means taking someone in marriage as a spouse or undertaking to protect someone. Aparigraha means the exact opposite. In Hindu renunciatory traditions it is the practice of non-possession of worldly things in which a renunciant restrains himself from accepting or possessing material things or ownership, as he cultivates the wisdom to discerns the problems and mental disturbances which arise them. In yoga, it is an aspect of renunciation or giving up worldly possessions, craving, greed, pride, envy, ownership and doership to cultivate detachment or overcome attachments to material things. Therefore, to become free from attraction and aversion and overcome desires and attachments yogis give up all their worldly possession and keep only those which are necessary for the maintenance of their bodies such as a piece of cloth, a begging bowl, a water jug, a staff, etc. By not accepting worldly things and giving up what they already have, yogis unburden themselves from the weight of ownership and the consequences which arise from them such as worry, anxiety, selfishness, greed, envy, sinful karma, fear of loss, desire for gain, pride of ownership, etc. Since it is difficult to gain worldly possession or enjoy them without hurting and harming others or without taking things that belong to them or without concealing truth or without engaging in worldly pleasures, the practice of aparigraha also leads to the virtues that are associated with the other four yamas. Further, it also strengthens and promotes the practice of renunciation by facilitating the withdrawal, unwinding, unburdening and unbecoming of the ego consciousness and the detachment (vairagya) of yogis and ascetics from sense gratification.
Suggestions for Further Reading
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