The Yamas are moral or ethical principles, sometimes referred to as 'abstinences'. They are:
*Ahimsa - a principle of non-harming / non-violence
*Satya - a principle of truthfulness
*Asteya - a principle of non-stealing
*Bramychandra - a principle of continence or self-restraint
*Aparigraha - a principle of non-greed or non-attachment.
So, in practical terms, what do these mean?
Ahimsa, or non-harming, is similar to the universal moral principle "thou shalt not kill". Each person may have a different interpretation of this principle. For some, it simply means do not kill people, whereas others take this to include animals as well, and therefore do not eat the flesh of animals, and for still others, it is a motivation to protect the rainforests, since their destruction would kill many species of life. It is up to each of us to think seriously about non-harming and decide what we think is morally right for us. In addition to this though, Ahimsa can be extended to every action you take by asking yourself the simple question: "will this harm someone?". Chances are, if the answer is "yes", you should do your utmost to avoid that course of action. You can - and should - also apply Ahimsa to your own life and wellness - first and foremost. Avoid things that you know to be harmful, including relationships, harmful substances, self-depreciating thoughts, or addictions. The list goes on. Living a life that is non-harmful to yourself is the first step to finding your potential happiness.
Satya, truthfulness, comes second in the Yamas. Again, this principle doesn't only apply to being truthful with others, but to yourself. We all deceive ourselves or tell ourselves and others "little white lies" - sometimes leading us to be so entangled in a web of delusion that we feel we are completely lost and out of touch with ourselves. Staying in a relationship when we are not in love, saying "I tried" while knowing you didn't really, pretending to enjoy something to impress another person, all of these are examples of delusion. The principle of Satya could be colloquialised as "no bullshit". Deep down, we know that these are pretenses or lies, and they cause us inner suffering, not to mention that they might cause others to suffer as well. Satya starts with "keeping it real". It means not only to tell the truth, but also to accept responsibility for our actions instead of telling little untruths to cover them up. However, Satya comes after Ahimsa for a reason - the first principle of an ethical life is non-harmfulness. Therefore when telling the truth, the Yogi should first use restraint, and only tell that truth which is not harmful to others. Gossip is the perfect example - stories take on a life of their own and people end up being hurt by the rumours being told about them. When being truthful it is also always important to remember that what is true for you may not be for another person. When several people witness an event, they may all tell a different version of what happened. They are not consciously being untruthful, but in view of this, it is best to remember that every story has two sides. The Yogi should strive carefully to draw the line between fact and opinion: "I saw them eating lunch together" may be fact, but it's a long way from "I think they're having an affair." While you may truly think this - this is a harmful way of telling the truth, that is based on your opinion, not on actual fact.
Asteya, or non-stealing, has the obvious meaning of not taking without permission that which is not yours. Every person, again, can define what this means to them - be truthful with yourself. Non-stealing can be extended far beyond simply appropriating an item that belongs to someone else. Perhaps you believe that buying pirated DVDs is stealing because it violates copyright. Perhaps you believe that buying goods produced in sweatshops is stealing because people are not fairly compensated for their labour. Perhaps you do not believe that the formulas for key medicine should be kept a secret if they can save lives. Again, examine the issues, and be truthful with yourself - then stick to your moral precepts. In the February 2009 edition of the Yoga Journal, Hillari Dowdle gave her modern interpretation of these Yoga fundamentals, and reminded the readers that beyond the physical interpretation, when you are late, you 'steal' someone else's time, and when you deceive, you 'steal' a person's trust.
Bramychandra, or continence, is perhaps one of the hardest yamas to put in practical terms. The idea of celibacy is not one that is within the reach of the average Yogi during their sexually active years! Keeping in mind that many Yogi sages had sexual partners and children themselves, why is the concept of 'celibacy' important? The main argument is that the expenditure of sexual fluids, namely semen, depletes spiritual energy. Of course, this theory poses a problem for many yogis of all ages - and women in particular! Let us cut a long discussion short by again expanding on the innovative practical interpretation offered by Dowdle - that bramychandra is about "energy moderation". The article compares the total energy of the body to, say, a paycheck of one hundred dollars. So the question is, are you going to spend the whole paycheck in one night, indulging your senses in food, booze, or shoes, and coming out at zero every time? Or, are you going to spend only $25 on your basic needs, and save the rest, thereby gradually increasing the total you have in the bank? Energy is the same. Bramychandra advises you not to over-indulge in anything: I personally would include in this alcohol, drugs, television, work, and yes, sexual activity. Instead, the Yogi is advised to be moderate and live a balanced life, distributing their energy in a way that gives them more energy - not drains them completely. We all know people who are completely ruled by their over-indulgence in alcohol, or completely drained by being a workaholic, or addicted to stress. But again going back to the principle of non-harmfulness - these behaviours harm not only the individuals in question, but those around them and their loved ones. This is why Bramychandra is important.
Aparigah, or non-greed, is like the Buddhist principle of non-attachment. In striving not to be greedy or to be attached to our posessions, we can all use a healthy dose of truthfulness! Non-grasping can start by asking yourself the question "do I really need this?" Or, when you consider items you no longer use, "could someone else benefit more from this?" One of my favourite expressions is: "it's just stuff". When something breaks, or is lost, I remind myself of that. Even with items of sentimental value, the sentiment comes from within me, not from within the object. I can still feel affection for a person that I have lost touch with, without keeping a trinket that they gave me. In the Western world we are taught to define ourselves by our "stuff" - the little things, like accessories and gadgets, to the big things, like houses and cars. In wanting these things, we go from grasping to greed - always wanting bigger, better, more impressive stuff. But of course, these things do not really make a person happy, and deep down inside we all know that. Only when you can detach yourself from greed can you be happy with what you have - which for most of us, is a lot more than the average human in the world has. Therefore the final implication (for me) of non-greed is generosity: recognising that others can benefit far more from our "stuff", our money, or, most precious of all, our time.
These are just some practical suggestions for how to incorporate the Yamas into everyday life, if you choose to do so. But for this yogini, the emphasis should not be placed on the specifics of which moral codes you choose to follow, and exactly how you interpret them. You are an ever-growing, ever-evolving being, and these things can change over time. For me, the most important thing is to decide what is right for you - and stick with it. Only in this way can you live harmoniously, for your actions will be at peace with your inner beliefs. This is integrity - this is Yoga.