The Library


Yama - our moral responsibilities


Throughout the world certain moral values are held to be right, irrespective of country, era, religion, gender or class.  The yama represent the yogic approach to these moral disciplines.  In modern western yoga we tend to focus on the five yama given to us by Patanjali (circa 2nd century CE), described below.  Other teachings include extra yama taking the number to ten, listed in the Tri-shiki-Brahmanana Upanishad as:    non-harming, truthfulness, non-stealing, chastity, sympathy, rectitude, patience, steadfastness, moderate diet and cleanliness.  Other writings include devotion to the teacher, non-attachment etc.  In these there is some overlap with the second group of requirements made by Patanjali, the Niyama. 


AHIMSA - Non-violence.          For many students of yoga this is perhaps the most important of the yamas, the most difficult to live by, and the one which encompasses all the others.  There is the obvious physical restraint of avoiding fighting and vioence towards other people.  In its complete application however this requirement must extend beyond human existence to include all living, and indeed non-living things.  Our violation of the planet through our actions, which thereby affect  directly, or indirectly, everything on the face of the earth, is frightening in its complexity if taken literally.  The other yamas guide us a little more specifically as to how we can adopt this aim in life.


SATYA - Truthfulness.            Being true to ourselves is at the heart of this teaching.  When we look within ourselves and find those basic human truths of love and respect for others, we begin to learn tolerance and forgiveness.  Violent retribution becomes less necessary.


ASTEYA - Non-stealing.          Here we learn not only to avoid obvious theft of material goods, and ideas and creations, but also come to realise that when we ever have more than we need, in a world where people are starving and destitute, we are in effect denying, and stealing from them, the basic necessities of life.


BRAMACARYA - Chastity.      There is an idea that this must mean no sexual activity.  This is incorrect.  In yoga teaching four stages of life are recognised, the second one being that of the householder whose duty is to continue the human race by creating a family.  Although sexual morals differ from one culture to another, and within historical periods, the underlying teaching here is that moderation, and consideration for one`s partner(s) should be paramount.  Excessive sexual activity is also regarded as being psycho-spiritually weakening.


APARIGRAHA - Avoidance of greed.  As with all the other yamas, this teaching reinforces the basic attitude of avoiding wanting more than is necessary for your life.  Beyond the basic human requirements of food, shelter and companionship there is little that we cannot do without.  By avoiding greedy eating and drinking we have both benefits of avoiding others` starvation and violence towards animals and the environment, and our own health improvements.  By not tying another person to us emotionally we give them the freedom to also develop as they need to.


The yamas are seen as a basis for a moral attitude to life.  They should make us question what we do, own and control, and allow us to remove those aspects which are undermining our own progress in our yogic life.


Derek Osborn                                                                    2 2002

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