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  • Writer's picturekarynstein

Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: Reflections on the Yamas

Living ethically is one of the first steps of yoga. As outlined in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the yamas include a series of ethical precepts for living.


1. Ahimsa (living without violence)

I believe this is a very important yama. Not only should we practice ahimsa directly through not harming others, but also indirectly in not contributing or supporting that which harms others. This yama is also a Buddhist precept. It’s important to note that non-violence applies to people as well as animals and other living creatures. For a long time I was a strict vegetarian, and believed that you shouldn’t eat anything you can’t kill with your own two hands. Since having a family, I’ve become more lax in my belief system and eating patterns. I’ll eat fish and chicken now, if it is free range, but still don’t eat red meat or pork. This has been something that has been weighing on me lately, that I’m still eating meat (chicken and fish) and doesn’t resonate with my spiritual values of non-violence, as I contemplate going back to a stricter vegetarian diet. I do believe that a general disconnection from our food source and industrial agriculture has contributed to the needless suffering and poor quality of life of countless animals and underlies the importance of the extension of ahimsa to all creatures and Mother Earth herself. In a world that necessitates social and political action, however small or subtle, non-violence lights the way to a more peaceful and productive future.

2. Satya (living without lying)

The yamas remind me of Buddhist precepts, which, since living in Thailand and becoming more exposed to Buddhist culture and philosophy, I strive to practice in my daily life and instill such values into the lives of my family and children. I believe honesty and truth are very important in one’s life and livelihood. According to Gandhi, satya refers to being truthful and not lying in ones words, as well as one’s thoughts and deeds. In Sanskrit ‘sat’ means that which exists or that which is, and according to Petryszak satya involves seeing and perceiving things AS they are and not how we want them to be. Petryszak points to the dilemma of telling white lies in order to not hurt another person’s feelings. In my own life, I follow the precept of truth and honesty, but always remember the yamas of ahimsa (non-violence) and bramacharya (not causing emotional harm to others), and in telling the truth if it brings harm to others I think carefully before speaking.

3. Asteya (living without stealing)

The yama asteya involves not stealing, which is important to living an ethical life. I think it’s also important to note that, as Gandhi stated as part of his 11 vows, this means more than just stealing, that “mankind’s greed and craving for artificial needs are also stealing.” In my own life, I try to live minimally, being mindful of our finite and precious natural resources. We practice the three R’s – reduce, reuse and recycle, and if I didn’t have the little one, I’m sure we’d come close to a no waste lifestyle. In today’s modern world where inequality reigns and capitalism has contributed to the globalisation of materialism, the aspect of non-greed (aparigraha) as a part of the yama asteya cannot be underestimated. I have always been an advocate of the environment and Indigenous Rights, given the more Earth centered approach of Indigenous worldviews. I believe our current lifestyle focused on monetary gain at the behest of Mother Earth, is a form of stealing from other species and future generations. I strive in my own personal life to give back to nature and the environment through reverence and respect. Not stealing a healthy environment through mindless practices of using agrochemicals, but rather composting to feed the soil, worms and microorganisms, and planting flowers for the bees (whose lives and colonies are collapsing due to the use of pesticides and agrochemicals).

Bramacharya involves living without emotional harm to others and is also the yama of celibacy. One should not waste one’s energy through yearning for physical satisfaction or external sensual pleasures. They are many ways I practice this in my daily life. Having been married for the last three years, my husband and I are monogamous and practice celibacy to a certain extent with each other through moderation. When my energy levels are low due to other reasons (a young child and the lack of sleep), I can see how using energy for sexual satisfaction can also be a drain. I believe it’s important to have a healthy level of intimacy in my relationship, going beyond physical gratification. Bramacharya can also refer to self-restraint. I practice restraint of the senses in my everyday life in many ways. I firmly believe in the middle path or way as described by Buddhists – in other words, moderation. I limit my intake of sugary processed foods, and try to eat natural whole foods, how our grandparents would have eaten. I watch TV occasionally (the odd show in the evening), limit my time on the internet and social media, and once a week will completely turn off the internet modem to have a day free from stressors.

5. Aparigraha (living without greed)

Aparigraha, living without greed, is very important in our modern world. All too often people are generous with their family and friends, and think the buck stops there, that they are living a generous life. But I believe it’s important to extend the yama of aparigraha further to those in need, those who are suffering and living in poverty. It’s also important to consider animals and other species that may be in need of our help. Suffering is widespread and the panacea for suffering involves non-greed and looking beyond our own social circle, extending compassion and empathy to those in our neighborhood and world. The environment is often referred to a static entity, but it is living and breathing. The plants and trees are alive, intelligent and communicating in ways we are only now just beginning to understand. Part and parcel of living a life without greed, is also living simply, minimally, and not hoarding material items, being conscious of our impact on the environment and other species. Realizing that others live without modern conveniences, to me this involves living minimally – walking, riding my bike, carpooling or taking public transport instead of driving helps me to reduce my carbon footprint.

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