Yoga is a philosophy beginning with the five yamas or social ethics and how to protect your mind from negativity. The philosophy of yoga is aimed to bring the mind to stillness and every single aspect of yoga is designed to bring you back to your authentic self.
Yes, when you think of yoga, you may think of asanas (yoga postures). Impossible inversions, backbends and contortions have become the face of yoga. If you dive a little deeper into the science and philosophy of yoga, you will find a wealth of wisdom and knowledge designed to guide you back to your higher self.
Let’s begin with the 8 limbs of yoga. In this article, we will explore the first limb of yoga – yama or social ethics to protect your mind.
What are the Eight Limbs of Yoga?
Restraint, observance, postures, regulation of breath, substitute food for the mind, ability of the mind to focus, meditation and higher states of consciousness are eight limbs of yoga.
The limbs of yoga develop together; similar to how pulling one leg of a chair results in the entire chair coming toward you, when you practice one limb of yoga, the other limbs begin to develop as well.
What are the five Yamas?
Above, yama has been translated as restraint and you’ll soon understand why. The five yamas, in other words, are social ethics or the way that you interact with the world.
You remember being told that certain things weren’t right, “Stealing is wrong. Hitting people is wrong. Promiscuity is wrong. Racism and sexism are wrong.” This may also have come to you as some form of the Golden Rule, “Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you.” Simply put: Treat others the way you’d like to be treated.
The Golden Rule can be split up into five yamas or aspects:
- Ahimsa (non-violence)
- Satya (truth)
- Asteya (non-stealing)
- Brahmacharya (moving in Brahman, celibacy)
- Aparigraha (non-accumulation)
Throughout the ages, you have had a changing relationship with these five yamas.
As a child, it made sense, you were nice to your friends and they were nice to you. If you were mean to them, they were mean right back to you.
Growing older and seeing more of the world, you found that the ones that followed these rules became fewer and further in between. It didn’t seem to matter how you treated people, they always treated you poorly in return.
On top of that, people committed all sorts of atrocities and didn’t always have to suffer proportional consequences. It seemed that people committing petty theft to feed their families were dealt with a lot more harshly than those involved in embezzlement, money laundering, fraud, political scandals and other white collar crimes.
Nothing made sense anymore. Being the straightforward, innocent soul you were born as was only resulting in pain and suffering. So you decided to shield yourself from the ruthlessness of the world. You decided that nobody would hurt you anymore. In fact, if anyone treats you poorly today, you send that noise right back at them with interest.
Why should you follow the rules if no one else does?
The five yamas are not just rules that are thrust upon you needlessly. These rules are observed to save you from your own mind so that you always behave in a manner natural to you and uninfluenced by those around you. The five yamas are to be observed through actions, speech, and thoughts.
Violence exists in nature, otherwise there would be no life on earth. There are predators and there is prey in both the microscopic and the macroscopic worlds. The difference is that in nature, the function of violence is not only to sustain the existence of a species, but also to maintain balance in nature.
Take the example of wolves and deer, the two sustain and maintain each other. If there were no wolves, the deer population would get out of hand and regional vegetation would suffer. If there were no deer, the wolf population would decrease and unwanted vegetation might increase. The careful balance set up by nature would change unpredictably as seen in the incredible transformation of Yellowstone National Park. Like that, the two dynamically balance each other as well as the system around them.
In the human world, violence exists in all of our institutions, from marriage to religion to world politics for no apparent reason. Violence is rarely initiated for survival purposes. Committing to non-violence in action, speech and thought brings us closer to nature and invites peace within and without.
In nature, you will not find animals fretting about survival. They will eat, go about their business until their next meal and then go hunting again. They live knowing that nature will provide all that they need. Nor will animals remain stuck on their last interaction with their mother. If it is in that animal’s nature, he/she will leave his/her partner for another the next season and there will be no screaming, crying and midnight calling involved. Animals are always with what is and that is satya.
Satya is what is this very moment. The past exists only in your memories and the future only in your anxieties and imagination. Truly the only thing that exists right now, is this moment. This moment is the truth. Satya is to let go of your rose or ebony tinted shades and see the present moment for what it is. Accepting it as it is will eliminate the restlessness and the endless what-ifs that the mind throws your way. Commitment to satya is not only truthfulness to others but also truthfulness to yourself.
Yes, you deserve what’s happening to you right now, if you’re able to accept this, the resistance in the mind will melt away and your struggle will also disappear.
Asteya extends beyond the physical realm and is another way of saying Thou shalt not covet. When you experience something beautiful whether it’s hearing a beautiful voice, tasting someone’s mouthwatering cooking, or seeing someone beautiful, and wish that you possessed such gifts, you have already stolen. Committing to asteya and fostering contentment will eliminate jealousy.
Idiomatically keeping up with the Jones’, will keep you in a constant state of lack. When you are able to shift your attention away from the success of your peers, and onto your own successes, you will find contentment and jealousy will become a thing of the past.
Brahmacharya (moving in Brahman, celibacy)
This is an interesting one that many people misunderstand, so I’ll start with the literal definition: Brahman is infinity and acharya is one who moves in, so brahmacharya is one who moves in infinity. The essence of this yama is knowing that you are beyond the body. Understanding that your body is only a small part of you, you are able to distance yourself from cravings for pleasure in the physical realm or the annamaya kosha.
Again let’s look back at our wolf, the wolf is not obsessed with eating; the wolf will eat his/her share and move on. Nor is the wolf attached to mating; it will happen as nature has prescribed and that’s it. You could say that the wolf is a slave of nature, but that frees him from being a slave of a mind full of insatiable cravings and desires.
Brahmacharya brings you enormous strength. Every time you are able to resist a craving and say no to the mind, you are that much closer to infinity.
Accumulation of material wealth weakens you. Let’s approach this one in two ways. First, think about this in the perspective of liability. If you have many assets, you can lose all of those assets. The mind will be constantly engaged in preserving those assets; if you own a house, you can also lose that house. If you have lots of money, you can lose all of that money. Now, if you have sold all your possessions and are living out of a backpack, you can lose nothing but the clothes on your back. The mind is much more at ease while away, it doesn’t have to think about security, insurance, watering the plants, keeping the lawn in shape and all the things that come with owning a house.
The next perspective we’ll take is an energetic perspective. Let’s say the love of your life gave you a watch before disappearing forever. You’ve kept that watch and every time you see it, it brings back old memories. Like that, you’ve kept many such things and your life is full of memories. You have no time for the present moment.
Accumulation of material things creates blockages in your life and prevents the flow of energy. If this is the case, you may find that you are stagnant, life is not moving, you’re dealing with the same situations day in, day out.
Let go of what no longer serves you. It has played its role in your life and that role is over. It may be painful right now, but that’s it. After this, you will be free from this pain forever. Let go and let life flow.
Practice of the Five Yamas to Protect your Mind
Here, social ethics are prescribed to protect you from the negativity lying dormant in your mind. In this perspective, you can say that there is a selfish aspect to the Golden Rule. You treat others well because you want to be treated well.
In my personal experience, I’ve found that observance of these simple principles has brought me much closer to nature and eliminated unnecessary complications that existed only in my mind.
To share a personal example of aparigraha, I used to store many things in my bedroom in my family home that I considered private. I would not have been happy if anyone else had discovered those things. Years later, I finally accepted that I didn’t need those things and they were unnecessarily floating around in my mind keeping me on my toes. I decided to let them go and though it wasn’t the easiest thing to do, I have found that letting go of those things has freed me from that part of me. My mind is much more at ease than it was before.
Like this, every time I get rid of things that no longer serve me, I feel a little lighter. Every time I make a conscious effort to align myself more with the simple principles laid out by the five yamas, my mind becomes lighter and freer.
Observance of the five yamas is a process. Begin with baby steps and little by little your life will transform.