The Yamas: Creating Harmony in Daily Life
Rolf Sovik, PsyD
March 9, 2020
The yoga tradition offers a way to change unproductive habit patterns through a set of 10 powerful guidelines for everyday living: the yamas (restraints) and niyamas (observances), the first two rungs of the ladder of raja yoga (royal yoga, the eight-runged path). The yamas and niyamas show us how to manage our relationships with ourselves, with others, and with the world around us. Through them, we can transform ourselves and bring our spiritual goals into daily life.
The five yamas (the restraints) stop the drain of energy that takes place when we become lost in the four primitive urges—food, sleep, sex, and self-preservation. They alert us when our current actions are out of sync with our spiritual aspirations, and they prompt us to restrain unproductive behaviors and replace them with new and more productive ones. By practicing the yamas we learn to understand the psychological processes behind our actions, and as a result we become more skillful at managing emotional disturbances.
In Sanskrit the prefix a means “not,” while himsa means “harming, injuring, killing, or doing violence.” Ahimsa, the first of the yamas and the highest-ranking among them, is the practice of non-harming or non-violence. This is the key, the sages tell us, to maintaining both harmonious relationships in the world and a tranquil inner life.
Ahimsa arises through awareness, the same skill we have practiced in asanas and meditation. By observing ourselves in terms of ahimsa we can see the almost invariable spiral of fear, anger, and blame that precedes aggressive actions, and we can notice how violence often results from projecting our own pain onto our surroundings. With practice, awareness of these inner cues alerts us when something is wrong, and then we can stop ourselves from reacting with automatic hostility.
At a deeper level, ahimsa is less a conscious process than a natural consequence of yoga practice. As our journey unfolds it leads to awareness of the peaceful and enduring core that is our true nature; the desire to prevent harm is a spontaneous expression of that awareness. We begin to realize that the inner self in others is identical to our own inner self, and we wish no harm to come to any being.
But the practice of ahimsa that often proves most challenging is applying the principle of non-harming to ourselves. Self-criticism, self-doubt, and the inability to forgive our past mistakes take a heavy toll; they undermine our confidence and our will. And once we have lost our equilibrium, then fear, anger, and guilt leave us vulnerable to further negative thoughts.
The principle of non-harming reverses this process. It shows us how to love ourselves and others, and when ahimsa is fully embraced, an inner confidence emerges that is deep-seated and surprisingly powerful. Great teachers of every age have maintained that through practicing non-violence we can transform ourselves and our universe. For example, the first precept attributed to the early Greek physician Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, was “Do no harm.”
It is true that ahimsa admonishes us to maintain inner control, but it does not restrict us from acting assertively when necessary. If anything, once we have committed ourselves to non-violence, we will begin to search more actively for ways to handle conflict, prevent pain, and fulfill our needs. But this is a process that unfolds over time; as the experience of non-harming becomes integrated into daily life, it works its own magic on us and on those around us.
The word sat, in Sanskrit, means “that which exists, that which is.” Satya, in turn, means “truthfulness”— seeing and reporting things as they are rather than the way we would like them to be. When we are truthful, life is uncomplicated and well-anchored, but when we attempt to conceal or modify reality, our motives are suspect and our confidence in ourselves and one another is undermined.
Satya is a challenge to the heart as well as the intellect. Most often when we are tempted to speak or act untruthfully it is because we fear that being truthful will create conflict in our lives or prevent us from obtaining what we desire. So to avoid such pain we usually do not tell out-and-out lies—we simply distort things a bit. We gain what we want through partial truths that seem quite easy to justify, and a pattern of self-deceit develops that is very difficult to reverse. The goal of satya is to prevent us from becoming more and more entangled in this web and losing the ability to observe our thoughts and feelings dispassionately.
As with all the yamas, the task of practicing truthfulness leads us in two directions. Inwardly we learn to recognize the cascade of fears and other negative emotions that prompt us to twist reality. Then, once we have understood and processed these fears, our thoughts, speech, and actions can be realigned with the truth, and we can look more deeply into our needs and desires. Outwardly, in the practice of satya, we refrain from telling lies.
When we are relating to others, however, being truthful is not an excuse to blurt out what we may really be thinking. Truthfulness does not replace tact and discrimination—remember, we are also practicing non-harming. Satya means being aware that speaking the truth can be hurtful, and then speaking with kindness and compassion as well as clarity. It means looking for the positive, and being tactful about the negative. In other words, when it is necessary to speak unpleasant truths, we do it without the intention to hurt, and we speak as skillfully as possible.
In the end, truthfulness preserves inner order. Through it we remain well-grounded in our relationships with others as well as within ourselves. And the stability spawned from this leads naturally to more lofty truths, ones with the power to inspire us in our search for inner peace.
The word steya means “stealing.” When it is combined with the prefix a it is negated, yielding asteya: non-stealing. This is the third yama, the prohibition against taking for ourselves what belongs to another. We are most likely to associate stealing with tangible objects, but intangibles such as information and emotional favors are more likely to be the objects stolen in our world. And even though most of us do not knowingly or habitually steal, it is sometimes not so far from our minds as we would like to imagine.
The urge to steal arises from a sense of unhappiness, incompleteness, and envy. It thrives on the belief that we have been unjustly deprived, and on the fear that we will not get what we want. Anger is often used to justify the impulse to steal, and secrecy is its constant ally. As in many other situations in which we spend our energy unwisely and consequently lose self-esteem, our own sense of emptiness is the ultimate robber here. The psychological process leading to stealing is like pouring milk into a bowl with a hole in the bottom—no matter how much is poured in, the bowl always remains empty. Our emotional needs are not met by possessing what we know is not ours.
The prescription is to plug the hole in the bowl. Whenever the thought of gaining something illicitly arises, set it aside at once. Do not give a second thought to what may come to you outside of legitimate channels. Depend entirely on the resources of your own life for your happiness. You will immediately find your mind freed of guilt and filled with quiet confidence.
But if the practice of asteya is a problem for you, the solution is to give. We rarely recall what we have taken with any satisfaction, but we remember with joy how it feels to have given. So give food, give money, give time. Practice giving any chance you get. Since wealth is ultimately a state of mind, you will feel increasingly wealthy. In fact, so long as you are selfless in your giving, the great yogic texts say that your sense of inner wealth will bring you outer wealth.
Moderating the Senses (Brahmacharya)
The literal translation of brahmacharya is “walking in God-consciousness.” Practically speaking, this means that brahmacharya turns the mind inward, balancing and supervising the senses, and leads to freedom from dependencies and cravings. And yogis tell us that when the mind is freed from domination by the senses, sensual pleasures are replaced by inner joy.
The problem, however, is that the same mind that is accustomed to banqueting on sensual experiences is also being asked to regulate itself. As a consequence, it can easily justify opening the doors to sensual pleasures but struggles to find even a few reasons for closing them again.
Brahmacharya offers a practical strategy for handling this dilemma, one that simply and elegantly addresses one of life’s most difficult problems: when the senses are awake and active, it counsels, watch them—allow them moderate activity, and then stop them. This is not so much constraining the senses as it is giving the mind a chance to shift away from their distractions. It takes diligence to remember this in the midst of an ice cream feast or an encounter with chocolate, yet the principle is surprisingly effective: Enjoy in moderation. When your mind tells you that you are acting immoderately—stop.
But what is moderation? Sometimes the mind is so befuddled by the senses that it has lost all sense of proportion. The trick is to remember that both overindulgence and repression deplete our vital force. Both leave us insecure and anxious, and it becomes difficult to gather our energies again. So when sense pleasures seem to be weakening or mischanneling our energy, they need further attention.
Brahmacharya practices range from the very structured to the highly intuitive. A person who craves candy bars may need to impose a limit of one per day, while a person who rarely eats candy bars can go ahead and have one when the urge arises. Making wise choices about the books and magazines we read, the movies we see, and the company we keep will help us conserve energy and keep our mind focused and dynamic. Being moderate in all sensual activities so that we don’t dwell on them, staying committed and faithful to one partner in a relationship that is mutually supportive—this is the middle path of brahmacharya.
Graha means “to grasp” and pari means “things”: aparigraha means “not grasping things,” or non-possessiveness. It helps us achieve a balanced relationship with the things that we each call “mine.”
Our relationship with an object in the world changes when we become its owner. The transition is subtle, but it is easy to tell if the process has gone haywire. Here are some unmistakable signs: we take better care of an object in our possession than one belonging to someone else; we are unwilling to share what we already have enough of; we acquire more of something than we can use; the sheer number of our possessions encumbers us. In other words, when we overidentify with our possessions—obtaining them, holding on to them, or mourning their loss—then we need aparigraha.
There is a yogic maxim that makes the point clear. “All the things of the world,” it says, “are yours to use, but not to own.” That is the essence of aparigraha. Whenever we become possessive, we are in turn possessed, anxiously holding onto our things and grasping for more. On the other hand, when we make good use of the possessions that come to us and enjoy them without becoming emotionally dependent on them, then they neither wield power over us nor lead to false identities and expectations.
Ultimately, aparigraha extends to interpersonal relationships. When we depend too much on others, give more in a relationship than is healthy for us, replace mutual give-and-take with the need for tightfisted control, or attempt to increase our self-esteem by gaining someone else’s love, then we reveal flaws in our underlying perspectives. The practice of non-possessiveness helps us to examine our assumptions and guides us back to the knowledge that even though we cannot own other people, we can establish healthy and productive relationships with them.
Editor’s note: See the next post for the niyamas.
Source: Yoga: Mastering the Basics by Sandra Anderson and Rolf Sovik, PsyD
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