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Patanjali's Eightfold Path: The 5 Yamas

By Ajita Diamond

Empty Fish Bowl

To attain Samadhi (enlightenment), we need to undergo a certain amount of conditioning, because yoga emphasizes virtuous living, adherence to ethics, and a moral code of conduct. A mind free of internal and external disturbances will enable us to focus our energy on the practice of yoga. 

In my case, the practice of Yamas and Niyamas not only helps in conditioning my mind but also serves to heal my emotional wounds, restore my spirit, aid personal change, and bring about spiritual maturity. In this context, let us explore each of the eight aspects of the Eightfold Path of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras:


1. Ahimsa

Ahimsa or non-violence is the first and foremost Yama. The simple meaning of Ahimsa is not to hurt anybody. As we reflect upon this word, the deeper meaning of Ahimsa gains more clarity. It means not to inflict physical or mental pain to anyone, not to inflict any sort of violence on oneself, and not to cause suffering through our thoughts, words, or deeds. It also means not harming animals, plants, and our environment. Not getting adequate rest, doing asanas until we are tired, beating an animal into submission, etc. are all forms of violence.

If we have lived life vigorously then – along with all our successes and pleasures - we have had our share of disappointments, frustrations, anger, humiliation, sorrow, and bitterness. Sometimes we cling to these emotional hurts for years, because we are waiting for the person who caused them to admit their wrongdoing. At other times, we are just hungry for revenge! Unfortunately, the people who hurt us don’t even remember what they did or don’t care anymore. They have continued to enjoy their lives while we have wasted precious energy and time (sometimes years) waiting for them to apologize or for our revenge. When we are angry and bitter, we lose our peace and can become a giant pain to the few people who actually do love us, such as our spouses, our children, and our caring friends. Being angry with ourselves is also a violence inflicted upon ourselves!


To find peace and joy we have to be ready to change. And change is not easy! It is painful and requires sacrifice. In this context, ‘pain’ is of two types: pain of change and the pain of staying in the same miserable state. When I went to The Yoga Institute, I was dying for change; I was hungry for change; and I was ready to follow whatever I was asked to do. I was taken by surprise when – one the very first day - a teacher began to talk about the different aspects of Patanjali’s Eightfold Path and introduced the concepts of Yamas, Niyamas, and Ahimsa.


For me, Ahimsa was a word I learned in history when King Asoka turned to Buddhism after he defeated the King of Kalinga. It was a weapon Gandhi chose to fight for India’s Independence; it was how Martin Luther King Jr. led the black people in their fight for equal rights in the United States of America; and it was also how Nelson Mandela won against apartheid in South Africa. 

If the concept of non-violence could change the world, how could it not change my life?!


I had to apply it to myself: I had to be kind to myself, love myself, and accept all the things I hated about myself. (I hated my upper lip which has an operation scar. I was born with a hare-lip and the corrective surgery went wrong when a nurse who was dressing the wound pulled a stitch and totally ruined the surgeon’s effort to give me nice lips. I hated my body, because I was so skinny that clothes just hung on me shapelessly.) It was not easy to think good thoughts about myself and take care of myself, to look good, and feel good. As I practiced Ahimsa, I began to feel better, and now I have started to radiate positive energy to the world around me.


Forgiveness is at the heart of most world religions and is very much evident in Ahimsa. It is really, really difficult to say “Sorry” even when it is our fault. It is obviously harder when it is not our fault, but we want to initiate peace. Taking that first step is extremely painful - I know, because I did it. My entire being screamed, “Why should I say sorry, when they are the ones who have hurt me?” The answer was powerfully insightful. I am doing it to free myself and get on with my life. When I “let go,” “surrender,” and “release” the pain, I live a life which is infinitely happier.

Forgiveness is not a saintly deed; it’s a yogic act for purely selfish benefit!


2. Satya

Satya or truth simply means not to indulge in lies and falsehoods. Satya means “reality.” Telling lies compromises our integrity and complicates our lives; but most importantly, it changes reality and introduces a delusion. Not surprisingly, people who lie a lot start believing their own lies with disastrous consequences. Lies also makes us cowardly and weak; it weakens our souls ad deprives us of our self-respect. It may seem that success can only be achieved by lying, cheating, and corrupt means. However, Satya will eventually catch up with such falsehoods and cause a lot of discomfort. It is better to keep things simple by being truthful.


3. Asteya

This means non-stealing: To take something which is not rightfully ours, or claim credit for work which we have not contributed to, or steal someone’s idea and present it as our own – all these are stealing. Whether we are stealing a thing or an idea it leads again to a dilution of character. Simply put to take anything without the permission of the owner is stealing. Asteya is a form of honesty in the material world. By rightfully establishing our ownership over something (or stating our non-ownership over something) means Asteya. Since everything has to begin with me, I have to introspect and admit that some of the things (or maybe a lot of things) that have gone wrong in my life is not someone else’s fault. I have to take ownership for my faults. Even if things did not work out the way I wanted them to, the truth is that the past is over and I have to enjoy the present and not worry about the future.


4. Brahmacharya

Self-control: This Yama pertains to a controlled sex-life by a householder. A full life as a householder is personally rewarding and socially meaningful. A good householder contributes not just to the health and happiness of his family but to the betterment of his community and society as a whole. Self-control is the key to a happy family life. Today, self-control is applicable to all kinds of addictive behaviors from workaholics, to substance abuse, to mobile phone addiction.


5. Aparigraha

Freedom from greed also means "not to accumulate." Accumulation of things and cluttering the house with stuff that can be given away or things that should be thrown away causes an imbalance in the physical environment and mental state. One is always worrying about ones possessions. The amassing of wealth can lead to illness of individuals, a sick economy, and a ruined environment. Unnecessary accumulation applies even to individuals who are unhealthy and diseased because of an unhealthy lifestyle.

Too many people are suffer from diseases such as addiction, diabetes, obesity, and the like. All because of greed!

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