YAMAS: the Don’ts of Raja Yoga
Yama is … any self-discipline by which the rajasic egoism and its passions and desires in the human being are conquered and quieted into perfect cessation.
Raja yoga, or Patanjali’s yoga, is also known as ashtanga (ashta, eight; anga, components) yoga because Patanjali organized knowledge about the yoga of mental perfection into eight components, or limbs (Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, 2:29). The first of the eight limbs of the ashtanga is yama. Yama literally means control or restraint. There are five yamas, or things that should not be done. The five yamas are:
Satya (truth), or not telling a lie
Brahmacharya (moving towards Brahman, or the Divine), or not being attached to sensory pleasures, including sex
Aparigraha (not adding to one’s possessions)
Not doing something does not just refer to the act, but also to thought and word. For example, the first yama is ahimsa, or non-violence. It is not enough to not hit somebody; ahimsa also includes not having negative thoughts, such as hatred or jealousy; and not saying words that might hurt, such as abusive language. In the case of some yamas, the thought or word may be more important than the act. For example, if not indulging in the sex act were an absolute necessity, yoga would become incompatible with perpetuation of the species. Most of the married persons would then be disqualified from the practice of yoga. In case of sex, not being obsessed with sex in our thoughts, not having feelings of lust towards anybody, not being attached to sex, and not becoming dependent on sex for our happiness are far more important than never indulging in the sex act. As the Bible has said, “everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28). Food can also be a sensory pleasure. But eating is compatible with brahmacharya, provided we are not obsessed with food, and our happiness is dependent on getting palatable food. In short, yamas should be observed in thought, word and deed (mana, vachana and karma). Cultivating yamas thorough self-discipline is an important part of the mental purification required for making progress on the journey of self-improvement called yoga.