The Yamas in Yoga Philosophy

September 12, 2022

Last updated : May 9, 2024

We can learn how to live happier, healthier and better lives using yoga philosophy. Although the guidance in the philosophies was developed long ago, it can easily be applied to modern life.

The Yamas are the first of the Eight Limbs of Yoga. Practicing the Yamas encourages us to be conscious of our thoughts and actions. By strengthening our awareness, we can make healthier choices and avoid negative thought patterns. 

In this blog, we explore the meaning of the Yamas in yoga and how you can incorporate them into your daily routine for a more meaningful and purposeful life. 

What Does Yamas Mean?

Yamas means “restraint” or “reigning in” in Sanskrit. In yoga philosophy, the Yamas are those things we should refrain from doing. When you use the Yamas to improve your self-control (restraint) and purify your intentions, your character is improved. 

The Yamas should not be confused with the Niyamas, which is the second limb in the path to enlightenment. The Niyamas are recommended habits or daily actions for holistic healthy living. Together, the Yamas and Niyamas of yoga can be defined as moral codes or ethical principles that guide us in our journey to spiritual awareness. 

What are the 5 Yamas in Yoga?

Yoga philosophy began as a spoken history. This meant that a great deal of information in ancient texts was either incomplete or recounted differently. Many texts describe five Yamas, while others describe ten. The Yamas listed in the texts are intended as examples, not as a complete list of all Yamas.

I learned the spoken lore of yoga from my teachers in India, who taught me there are twenty-seven Yamas in total. There doesn’t seem to be any texts that list all twenty-seven, so we don’t have a modern record of many of the ancient Yamas.

The five best recognized Yamas of yoga are those listed as examples in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali:

  • Ahimsa (non-violence)
  • Satya (truth)
  • Asteya (non-stealing)
  • Brahmacharya (non-indulgence)
  • Aparigraha (non-possessiveness)

A further five Yamas have been described in various other texts:

  • Ksama (patience, forgiveness)
  • Dhrti (fortitude, perseverance with the aim to reach the goal)
  • Daya (compassion)
  • Arjava (non-hypocrisy, sincerity)
  • Mitahara (measured diet)

How to Perform the 5 Yamas of Yoga

The concepts in the Yamas should be practiced in our thoughts, words and actions. This will help us avoid living in a false or unconscious way. If we reflect on the Yamas and try to apply them in our lives, we can create a more conscious and peaceful existence.

You can approach the Yamas by reading through and contemplating how each of them relate to your life. When it comes to making changes and applying the Yamas, you will have more success if you choose one change to make at a time. Make this change a part of your life, so it feels normal and natural before you begin to make another change. Although it takes time to make changes this way, it will be more effective.

Yama 1: Non-Violence (Ahimsa)

The Sanskrit ‘himsa’ means violence or harm and ‘ahimsa’ means its opposite: non-violence. This is a simple concept with surprising depth. It encourages avoiding violence to ourselves as well as to other beings, whether human or not.

The harm or violence Ahimsa refers to is not limited to physical violence. It also includes mental and emotional harm.

How to practice Non-Violence (Ahimsa)

Violence or harm appears in our lives in many forms. The first step in practicing Ahimsa is to become aware of the harm we might be causing. It may be impossible to completely avoid all harm. The Niyamas teach us to practice good hygiene, but washing will cause harm to the bacteria and other microbes that live on our skin. Housekeeping might destroy the homes of spiders, or the spiders themselves. We have to find a balance so that we can live a productive and healthy life, while causing as little harm as possible.

Strategies for practicing Ahimsa include:

  • Avoid physical violence to yourself and others. This might mean resisting peer pressure to engage in dangerous activities, and managing your ego to reduce your need to prove your bravery.
  • Avoid foods or drinks that will harm your body.
  • Practice kindness, acceptance and forgiveness towards yourself and others.
  • Minimise your harm to tiny creatures that try to share your home - you may be able to relocate them or stop them entering the home instead of killing them.
  • Reduce harm to yourself by learning to control negative thought patterns, and manage negative emotions in a healthy way.

Yama 2: Truth (Satya)

In Satya, we are encouraged to recognise the universal truth in comparison to our personal truth. Once you can start to recognize the universal truth you also start to live it. This is what makes the Yamas of Satya mean more than simply not telling lies. How can you speak the truth if you don’t know the truth?

With Satya you see things as they really are, instead of how you would like to see them or how you expect them to be. Becoming comfortable with this level of honesty will allow you to accept things - including yourself - as they really are. 

How to practice Truth (Satya)

Satya is about understanding and accepting the truth about yourself and the world around you.

Strategies for practicing Satya include:

  • Acknowledge that your perceptions may be influenced by your feelings, emotions or expectations, and the limitations of our senses and the mind.
  • Try to look beyond your initial perceptions to see what is real. For example, “I sent a message to my friend and I haven’t received an answer” is real. The explanations we create in our minds - they’re ignoring me, they don’t like me, I offended them, they’re being rude - are not real.
  • Speak your truth and stand up for what you think as long as it’s safe to do so.
  • Express yourself clearly and accurately.
  • Ask for more information if others don’t express themselves clearly.

Yama 3: Non-Stealing (Asteya)

Defined as non-stealing, Asteya is the practice of not taking something that isn't yours. As with all the five Yamas of yoga, it goes beyond the obvious. It isn’t just about not stealing objects like cars or money. Theft in yoga philosophy refers to taking unfair advantage or unfair exchange - this could mean deliberately making unfair bargains, not doing a job as well as you could have, or pretending someone’s ideas were your own.

How to practice Non-Stealing (Asteya)

Awareness is important because most people think they don’t steal. However, theft creeps into our lives in forms like slacking off at work, or making a spiteful comment that steals someone’s joy. Often the urge to steal arises from an internal unhappiness or jealousy, so we can reduce the urge by becoming more self-aware and finding healthy ways to meet our needs and feel contentment.

To avoid stealing, choose personal aims such as:

  • Doing your best at work or when helping others. 
  • Following through on promises.
  • Acting kindly and supportively.
  • Making fair deals and bargains without seeking a better deal for yourself.

Be generous with the things you can afford to give to others, even if it’s just a smile. Generosity is the opposite of stealing, and creates positivity that counters the urge to steal.

Yama 4: Non-Indulgence (Brahmacharya)

Overindulging in sensory pleasures can cause problems and unhappiness in our lives. Brahmacharya encourages us to control our desires and reduce our use of sensory indulgences. Our senses distract us from more important and effective ways of finding happiness and contentment.

Brahmacharya doesn’t require abstinence, or completely avoiding everything enjoyable. It simply asks you to enjoy what you already have in life, and seek pleasure in moderation.

How to practice Non-Indulgence (Brahmacharya)

Avoiding overindulging in physical pleasures is the basic principle of Brahmacharya. You may consider ideas such as:

  • Avoiding activities or substances that are known to be addictive.
  • Eating for pleasure on occasion, but making most of your food choices for health rather than pleasure.
  • Making wise choices about entertainment (books, movies, games etc) so that your mind is not constantly distracted by thoughts of seeking more entertainment.
  • Observing your wants versus your needs.

When seeking pleasure, consider activities that are good for your health or wellbeing as well as being pleasurable. Walking in nature or getting a restorative massage could fit this description if used in moderation.

Yama 5: Non-Collection (Aparigraha)

We live in a world where materialism is encouraged. We constantly receive suggestions that owning more will make us happier - more clothes or shoes, more gadgets, bigger houses and fancier cars.

Aparigraha encourages us to reject this urge to own more things. It also urges us to feel less possessive about the things and people in our lives. This is closely related to the feeling of jealousy, so Aparigraha suggests that we should not act on our feelings of jealousy, but instead learn to find contentment in a simpler life.

How to practice Non-Collection (Aparigraha)

Begin by contemplating what you possess, why you possess those things, and how you feel about them. Do you cling to possessions out of fear of losing them? If so, you might reduce your openness to receiving other things that might be more important to your wellbeing.

Ideas to consider include:

  • Before acquiring a new item (shoes, a streaming subscription, a car), ask yourself if you really need it. Do you already have enough? Do you need the new thing now or could it wait? 
  • Understand that possessiveness also applies to people. Learning how to manage and reduce possessive feelings will lead to healthier relationships.
  • Make good use of the things in your possession, without becoming emotionally attached to the ownership or outcome. This will likely lead to less need for more possessions.
  • Take care of items equally well regardless of whether they are your possession or belong to someone else.

Living the Yamas

Practicing the Yamas is deeply rooted in contemplating the concepts and assessing how they apply in your life. Much of the benefit depends on altered thought processes more than altered behaviour. If your contemplation reveals areas you wish to make changes in, remember to make changes slowly and gently. Reflect on your progress with kindness and generosity.

Striving to improve our awareness and stimulate inner growth can be very challenging. There may be aspects you think you understand now, that you will understand very differently in a few years. It will be an evolving process, and you will find deeper layers as your inner character strengthens and grows.

About the author

Ram Jain

Born into a Jain family where yoga has been the way of life for five generations, my formal yoga journey began at age of eight at a Vedic school in India. There I received a solid foundation in ancient scriptures, including Vedas, Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, and Yoga Sutras (to name a few).

In 2009, I founded Arhanta Yoga Ashrams. I see yoga as a way to master the five senses, so I named our ashrams 'Arhanta Yoga,' the yoga to master the five senses!

In 2017, I also founded Arhanta Yoga Online Academy so that people who can not visit our ashrams can follow our courses remotely.

At Arhanta, we don't just teach yoga. We teach you how to reach your potential, deepen your knowledge, build your confidence, and take charge of your life.

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