In this article I offer practical tools and exercises to practice the first three Yamas: ahiṃsā, satya and asteya, on and off your yoga mat.
What are Yamas?
As we saw in the last article on the eight limbs of Yoga; in the traditional Yoga system the first aspect of practice is called yama or the practice of relationship, which underscores the importance of connection to others as being integral to all expressions of Yoga. Yamas are ethical practices that guide us towards healthy, fulfilled relationship with others and in turn, ourselves.
The five yamas:
Ahiṃsā - non-violence, respect for life, kindness
Satya - truthfulness
Asteya - honesty, integrity
Brahmacharya - non-excess, moderation
Aparigraha - non-possessiveness
The principle of non-violence, kindness is the very foundation of Yoga practice. You will see that ahiṃsā infuses into all the other principles of Yoga. One cannot call themselves a true yogi if they are unkind, if they hold another being (whether human, animal or any living being) outside of their heart.
So how does kindness manifest in our day-to-day lives?
- I see someone struggling to carry their suitcase up the stairs, I decide to offer a hand,
- I see a homeless person on the street, I decide to offer them a meal or money,
- My child hurts themselves, I decide hold them tight and soothe them,
- I have a very long hard-working week, I decide to take some time out to recharge.
Let me offer other (perhaps not as obvious) ways to practice kindness:
- I choose to bless the food I eat before I dig in, thanking everyone and everything that were involved in the process of being able to eat it,
- If someone crosses a boundary and hurts me, I choose to tell them how I feel to make sure they never do it again,
- If I feel heavy and sluggish after a big meal, I can choose to soothe myself with gentle breathing and kind words instead of punishing myself physically or verbally for it.
As you can see with the examples above, ahiṃsā can be as subtle as observing the thoughts that run through our head. I really believe that most people are extremely unkind with themselves, and we mostly never realise it, which means our thoughts end up becoming beliefs, which end up manifesting negatively in our lives.
Kindness does not mean living in fairy-land and practicing spiritual bypassing, what it means is to find the most kind decision in every situation, even if it feels uncomfortable, it is to always have the intention to lead your life with kindness and love, whether it is with yourself or others.
When we avoid conflict or uncomfortable situations to make peace with other people, we start a war within ourselves. There is nothing more unkind than that.
Therefore ahiṃsā can become a practice of self-love, self-respect and actually teach you to stand in your power. That is what the world needs, people who can lead with ahiṃsā, it is the ground of all authentic connection and thriving becomes easy for all.
Truthfullness. The prefix "Sat" in Sanskrit can be interpreted in different ways, it means 'true nature' or 'true essence' but can also be translated as 'unchangeable' or 'that which has no distortion'. Therefore, more than the concept of not telling lies, satya means to stay true to our nature, to what is unchangeable within us.
We are energetic beings, therefore our actions, words and thoughts hold a lot of power. Satya teaches us to be in alignment with our inner world and with the first Yama, ahiṃsā - non-violence, kindness. Truthfulness can become a weapon and quickly transform into self-righteousness if not practiced alongside ahiṃsā.
How does satya manifest in our day-to-day?
- I wrongly accuse someone of having made a mistake, so I decide to apologise to them,
- Someone asks me a question about something I did and I decide to tell the truth,
- A situation makes me feel bad so I decide to listen to what I feel and remove myself from the situation.
Let me offer other ways we can practice satya:
- Through mindfulness, I start to become aware of a recurring thought when I see myself in a mirror: 'I look terrible' or 'I look exhausted', I decide to work on transforming my thought into 'I am an energetic being' or 'I am filled with love',
- I notice someone has very ugly teeth, I decide not to tell them because it will go against my true nature to make someone feel miserable for no real purpose,
- I really want to get into that headstand today but my shoulders feel tight and my body is tired, I decide to listen to my intuition and not practice the pose, even though my ego really wants to.
Again here, you can see that the practice of satya has nothing to do with factual truth but all to do with what feels closest to our true nature.
If practiced diligently, and alongside ahiṃsā, satya can transform our lives from deconstructing harmful beliefs to taking ownership of our feelings and emotions.
Non-stealing. Ghandi expanded beyond the physical act of stealing – importantly – that ‘mankind’s greed and craving for artificial needs are also stealing’. Again in this yama, the word asteya can be interpreted in different ways other than not stealing your friend's candies; non-stealing from the future, non-clinging to things or people, non-stealing from ourselves, others or the Earth.
Asteya roots in the feeling of 'I'm not enough' or 'I don't have enough'. It is the need to fill an emptiness within because we lack the faith in ourselves to be able to create what we need by ourselves, so we start to go out and look for those things. The feeling of being loved, accepted and approved by the outside world is a very strong one, our Yoga practice teaches us that in fact, we are beings of love and all we look for outside can and should be found inside first.
How does asteya manifest in our day-to-day?
- I see a picture I like on someone's Instagram feed, as much as I would love to steal it for my own feed, I decide not to and remember that authenticity is what attracts love (authenticity being rooted in satya, truth),
- I find someone's unlimited travel pass on the floor, I decide to return it to the closest station instead of using it,
- I notice that I am starting to get into the bad habit of looking at my phone too much, I decide to restrict myself on the amount of time I spend on it (non-clinging).
Let me offer other ways we can practice asteya:
- I go to a strong Yoga class and although there are experienced yogis around me getting into all the shapes, I decide to do only what feels good to me because clinging to my need to show off will not serve me,
- Although I am late to a Yoga class, I decide to arrive peacefully not to steal from the peace of the others who have already started, instead of closing the door loudly, taking my shoes off in a hurry and throwing them,
- I decide to work on loving and accepting myself unconditionally (through meditation, therapy, etc) rather than expecting others to fulfill me, making our connection in-authentic and shallow,
- I work on being whole-heartedly dedicated to the present moment and what it brings up, allowing myself to feel the full array of emotions instead of clinging to the positive ones only.
In summary, asteya is the practice of feeling whole and abundant. We can do that by recognising our true nature through sitting and reflection. Not only is this essential for our own well-being and thriving but it is also important for others and the planet.
The more we feel miserable and empty inside the more we will steal from other's time, energy and resources.
At a much larger scale, a powerful example of this is capitalism and the way big corporations steal from our people's and the planet's resources, leaving us with people and a planet that is depleted of all energy.