Yoga Philosophy | The Yamas

June 22nd, 2018




By Renee Schettler, teacher at Urban Yoga


It’s easy to confuse doing yoga poses with doing yoga.


There’s a difference.


In the Yoga Sutras, a collection of short verses on the theory and practice of yoga written centuries ago, the author Patanjali sets forth eight limbs of yoga, only one of which has anything to do with the physical postures. What’s considered far more important than the physical expression of yoga are our thoughts, words and actions and how they align with what’s right. Known collectively as the yamas (pronounced “yah mahz”), these moral standards comprise ahimsa, satya, asteya, aparigraha and brahmacharya, and they basically remind us how to be kind humans. Though these ethical ideals were written centuries ago, they remain as apropos to contemporary life as they were in the days of Sanskrit and gently remind us to be nicer, truer versions of ourselves.


The first yama, ahimsa, is typically translated as non-violence. It refers to refraining from inflicting not just physical harm but psychological and emotional harm as well. Ahimsa means bringing respect and compassion to our interactions with others as well as ourselves. Societal injustices are clearly contrary to ahimsa. So, too, are gossiping and criticizing and even harsh self talk. Though this principle has broad implications off the mat, it also applies to our physical practice. Take note, those of you who tend to berate yourself for wobbling in a balancing pose.


Satya means truthfulness. It encompasses speaking and acting honestly, in relation to others as well as yourself. The objective is to quiet your thoughts and become in touch with your truth, your inner wisdom, and to let your words and actions align with your intentions.


Asteya translates literally to non-stealing, which sounds exceptionally easy until you consider it means more than not engaging in petty larceny. Ever find yourself rushing to do just one more thing and, in so doing, running late to meet with someone? That’s stealing someone else’s time. Asteya also applies to those situations when we want to take something that isn’t ours, including when we struggle to achieve a pose but pushing ourselves to go deeper even when our body simply isn’t ready yet.


Brahmacharya refers to being moderate as we pursue our desires, drawing on some measure of self-restraint rather than indulging in excess. This applies to all manner of tendencies, whether it’s distracting ourselves with social media or endlessly slaving away at work. It reminds us to ask, in all aspects of life, where do I want to place my energy? And then being disciplined in the pursuit of that.


Aparigraha has many translations, among them noncovetousness and nonpossessiveness. It nudges us to let go of attachments and expectations and be grateful for what we have while understanding that life is, by nature, impermanent. What we are graced with in any moment may not last. Aparigraha asks us to be at peace with that.


Learn countless other specific ways you can translate ancient yogic wisdom to contemporary times at our upcoming  Yoga Philosophy Foundations workshop on Saturday, August 4th, with yoga teacher Brendan Lentz. The workshop is part of an occasional series of classes that addresses how to take yoga out of the studio and into everyday life.

Renee Schettler is a writer, editor and yoga teacher whose practice was turned upside down, or rather right side up, when she moved to Phoenix and began taking class with teachers who emphasized the breath more than the pose. She took Yoga Teacher Training at Urban Yoga and currently teaches the Sunrise Flow at 6 am on Fridays and the Candlelight Flow to Zen at 7:30 pm on Fridays.


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