Yama: Yogic Guidelines for “Peaceful” Living (Part 1)


In the Yoga Sutras of Pantanjali, an 8-limbed path to yoga practice is described. I have previously introduced these 8 limbs & provided my argument for why yoga can be a positive component of good mental health.  Today I’d like to start focusing on each of the 8-limbs individually, reviewing each a little more deeply and providing some of my own thoughts about why a specific practice may be a good idea for personal development and recovery from mental illness and/or addiction.

The very first of the 8 limbs is yama, which Yoga Journal defines as “one’s ethical standards and sense of integrity, focusing on our behavior and how we conduct ourselves in life. Yamas are universal practices that relate best to what we know as the Golden Rule, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.'”

Different yoga practitioners, yoga teachers, and yoga schools interpret the yamas in different ways.  Therefore, I think it’s important to note that, while the yamas themselves are basically the same, you will find different interpretations of them based on where you look.  My favorite interpretation of the yamas is a combination of Yoga Journal’s definitions (for their simplicity), and the more complex interpretations given by the Yoga & Life Society.  Combining the two definitions (below), provides a description of each yama that is simple enough to understand but complex enough to provide guidance for people interested in applying these principles:

  • Ahimsa: nonviolence aka Harmlessness (to refrain from causing harm to anyone or anything in thought, word, or deed.)

  • Satya: truthfulness aka Truthfulness (to have our words and actions in accordance with facts and with our beliefs.)

  • Asteya: nonstealing (to never take anything (including credit) for anything we did not earn ourselves.) Some people also like to think of asteya as avoiding stealing time from yourself or others, taking away from another’s experience, or (of course) physically stealing goods.

  • Brahmacharya: continence aka Moderation (Usually associated with celibacy or moderation in sexual activity, it is more correctly understood to mean avoiding spending time and energy on any activity that does not contribute to spiritual growth or the service of others. That energy is instead applied to Yoga study and practice and in selfless service.) Brahmacharya is also sometimes interpreted to mean moderate indulgence – avoiding going overboard on anything (caffeine, chocolate, alcohol, self-indulgence, etc).

  • Aparigraha: noncovetousness aka Nongreed (to turn away from the longing for possessions or acknowledgement. It is based on the clear and deep observation that they do not lead to lasting peace or happiness. They are, by nature, fleeting.)

So now that the Yamas have been reviewed, my argument for why practicing the Yamas can positively impact wellbeing:

  • In an article published in 2013 in American Psychologist, Bryant-Davis & Wong found that religious coping, spirituality, and faith-based approaches to recovery (endorsement in spiritual beliefs, engagement in spiritual behaviors, & support from faith-based communities) have been associated with decreased psychological stress in survivors of childhood abuse, sexual assault, domestic violence, violence within communities, and war.  The Yamas, while not outwardly religious, are ultimately a spiritual practice aimed at behaving ethically toward oneself and one’s community.  Thus, I would argue yoga practice should be included as a spiritual approach to recovery.  In addition, the Yamas can be interpreted as-appropriate to each individual, meaning that one can follow the Yamas while still subscribing to tenants of other religious denominations, or while choosing to reject formalized religion altogether.  I know many practitioners of yoga who would describe themselves as “spiritual, but not religious.”  The wonderful thing about yoga is that it allows us as practitioners to make that distinction (or not)
  • Spirituality (such as in practices like yoga), has been found to be directly related to wellness & healing by a number of studies recognized by the American Psychological Association, including those utilizing MRI & EEG (imaging technologies).  This has been demonstrated to such a degree that the American Psychological Association recently launched a new journal, Spirituality in Clinical Practice, as a forum for helping professionals to “share direct clinical experience and reflections on spirituality in practice; broaden . . . understanding of spiritualityin mental illness, treatment, and wellness; and gain updates on the cutting-edge science on spirituality in clinical practice.”

With that said, practicing the Yamas is called “practice” for a reason.  It’s not always so easy (for one), and sometimes practicing these principles can bring to light some pretty yucky things about ourselves (for two).  However, by practicing them in conjunction with one another (i.e., practicing nonharming along with moderation, practicing truthfulness with nonharming, etc) we can learn to find an ethical balance aimed at finding the middle ground in life while simultanously acknoweldging that life sometimes comes in polar opposites).  This, I believe, can cultivate in us an attitude of acceptance, resilience, and present-moment awareness that leads to long-term positive wellbeing despite occasional moments of distress.

For a great blog addressing the difficulties of practicing the Yamas, check out “Save the Yamas for Yo Mama: How Breaking the Yoga Principles Woke Me Up.”