Among other things, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are famous for the yamas and nimayas, which are the very basis of the entire path of yoga. Here we’ll briefly explain the 5 yamas.
Watch my video on this topic here.
“The yamas are nonviolence, truthfulness, not stealing, chastity, and non-possessiveness.” – Yoga Sutras, 2.30
Detachment and decent behavior are the bases for advancement in life. There isn’t much point in worrying about postures and breathing exercises, what to speak of meditation and devotion, if we can’t first be decent human beings.
The mother of all codes of conduct is ahimsa: nonviolence. It is the supreme moral law that dictates all other moral observations. Nonviolence means never needlessly harming an innocent creature. This applies to all living beings, from humans to insects.
Ahimsa does not mean never using violence or causing harm. A common question posed by yoga students concerns Krishna, in the Bhagavad-gita, urging Arjuna to fight a bloody battle, made worse by the fact that Arjuna was fighting his own family members. Krishna set this up on purpose. He wanted to teach that in the execution of one’s dharma, it’s sometimes necessary to use violence. In the case of Arjuna, a warrior and general, there was no question. Violence was the expression of his duty. But ahimsa was not broken, because the violence was both needful and ethical. It was needful to reestablish the rightful government usurped by his evil cousin, Duryodhana. And it was ethical because all those present were professional soldiers willing to kill and die as part of their brutal but necessary dharma. The world always needs dharmic men and women willing to use force to combat and restrain those who use violence for selfish and evil ends.
For those of us who are not soldiers or involved in law enforcement, however, there is seldom a need for violence, save for the rare case of self-defense.
In practical terms, the biggest expression of ahimsa for yogis is to adopt a plant-based diet. Both as an expression of higher consciousness and because of it, killing innocent animals for the pleasure of one’s tongue becomes intolerable. This is made worse by the realizations that killing animals for food is the principle cause of the ecological destruction of the planet and that eating meat is a major factor in some of the leading causes of death, such as heart disease and cancer.
Truthfulness is based on the simple principle that to attain truth, one must practice it. Lies and deception are a drain, even if in rare cases they might be necessary to execute one’s dharma. How can you tell the difference? Simple: do the ahimsa test. Will lying and deceiving needlessly hurt an innocent person or animal? Then you must not do it. Will not lying or deceiving bring harm to an innocent person? Then lie and deceive you must.
Not stealing needs no explanation. But again, the ahimsa principle comes into play. Should you steal secrets or equipment from an evil doer in the hopes of defeating him? Yes, of course, if it is your dharma. But should you steal from innocent people for personal profit? Of course not.
Chastity means controlling your sex organs and using them only when appropriate. When is it appropriate? Opinions vary, but a blanket description is to restrict sex to a sacred union. And why is that? Because of ahimsa. Children born outside a sacred union often suffer the absence of their father, in some cases their mother, or both. Mothers left to raise children by themselves suffer more than those with loving partners to provide support. And society, statistics all over the world show, suffers with the anti-social behavior of single-parent children.
Non-possessiveness is a type of detachment. It means being aware that all you possess is on loan and not really yours. Anything you have can be taken away from you at a moment’s notice and is in no way a part of you. If you have it, use it to further your dharmas. If you don’t have it anymore, that’s fine, too. It doesn’t mean not to care or be grateful or to not take steps to safeguard your belongings. It just means not to identify with any possession to the point that you feel it defines who you are or that your happiness depends on having it.
My book, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras REVOLUTION: How Timeless Yoga Wisdom Can Revolutionize Our Lives Today is now available here.