The first of Patanjali's 8 Limbs of Yoga are the yamas - observances for living well in the world.
There was a time when spiritual pursuits were solely the domain of the Brahmin class. In Vedic times it was only a member of the Brahmin class who could be a priest, perform religious observances and translate the Vedic texts. But by the time of the Buddha and Patanjali, many of these religious ceremonies had become meaningless ritual; the shallow outward trappings of faith. In response to this lack of genuine religious endeavour came the Upanishads, Buddhism and Patanjali's Yoga Sutras.
Patanjali's system of yoga took away the need for someone to be of a certain class or social standing by birth to follow a spiritual path - then as now, yoga is for everyone. The Yoga Sutras also give responsibility for one's path to the student himself; we may consult teachers or learn from others, but essentially the yoga path is something we must do by and for ourselves. To walk along the path of yoga, you have to practise; you have to experience it for yourself.
The yamas are Patanjali's rules for this new breed of yoga practitioners who were often living normal lives in the world, rather than living cloistered lives as priests or scholars. They describe a set of restraints, which if practised, give yoga students a firm foundation on which to build their yoga practice.
They yamas are as follow:
- Ahimsa - non-harming/non-violence
- Satya - truthfulness/honesty
- Asteya - non-stealing/integrity
- Brahmacarya - chastity/self-restraint
- Aparigraha - non-grasping/freedom from greed/non-attachment
These restraints are consistent with the purpose and method of all yoga practice, for instance we cannot practice yoga successfully if we are being violent or causing harm elsewhere in our lives; we will not have a fruitful practice if we are being dishonest to ourselves or to others.
Patanjali describes the yamas as follows:
jati desa kala samaya anavacchinnah sarvabhaumah mahavratam
Yamas are the great, mighty, universal vows, unconditioned by place, time and class
YS II.31 translation by BKS Iyengar
These are vows for everyone regardless of their place or situation of birth (this had particular meaning for a culture with a caste system like India's) - they are for everyone. They must not be broken for any excuse, be it time, place, or circumstance - it is no good being truthful all week and dishonest on Friday because it was expedient to for you be so.
It is helpful to think of the yamas not as rules, but as freedoms... to be free from causing harm; free from dishonesty; free from the guilt caused by having stolen; free from over-indulgence; free from greed.
The yamas require a commitment to self-reflection: sometimes it is obvious when we have transgressed one of the yamas, other times our actions are more subtle, our motivations more profound. As when we become angry (ahimsa) because we did something we didn't want to do because we were unable to say no (satya).
A dedicated yoga practice requires not the highest levels of moral rectitude, there is no judgement to be taken here, there is no hierarchy of goodness; yoga requires only that we commit daily to the concept of yamas and each day forgive our shortcomings and commit once more to Patanjali's observances for living well in the world.