Yama – Meaning, Classification, Benefits

By Dr Raghuram Y.S. MD (Ay) & Dr Manasa, B.A.M.S

Yama is the first branch of Ashtanga Yoga i.e. eight limbs of Yoga practice.

Meaning of Yama

Yama is a manual of guidelines pertaining to one’s harmony with the society. These are to be followed if one has to keep in sync with the society in which he lives in terms of being a nobility and benchmark personality of the society.

‘Yama constitutes of social ethics mandatory to be followed by each person’ – is the closest meaning we get of yama practices of yoga when we closely look at the members constituting yama, discussed in the upcoming part of the article. They are the practices considered to be outer observances.
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So, Yama can be thought of in the below mentioned meanings –

  • Manual of guidelines which teaches one to keep in harmony with society in which he / she lives by following certain ethics / restrictions in life
  • Self imposed restrictions, beneficial for self and society
  • Disciplines of life to be followed by each and everyone
  • Abstinence from certain activities and conducting certain disciplines
  • Five Restraints (Pathanjali)
  • Don’ts as against dos of Niyama (Pathanjali), According to Hatha Yoga Pradipika – Yama includes both dos and don’ts.
  • Behavioural codes applied to a yogi
  • Yama means bridle or rein, the terms used to define ‘restraining’. In Yama the five yamas are supposed to be restrained.
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Yama is not a single entity. It is formed by a set of ethics which need to be collectively followed.

A. According to Master Patanjali
Yamas comprise of the below mentioned ethics –

  • Ahimsa – non violence
  • Satya – speaking truth
  • Asteya – not stealing
  • Brahmacharya – following celibacy / abstinence from sex
  • Aparigraha – abstinence from greed

Since Pathanjali’s Yama comprises of only 5 restraints, it shall also be called as ‘five restraints’. These explain what one should avoid doing while advancing in the spiritual path.
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Hatha Yoga Pradipika

B. According to Hatha Yoga Pradipika

Hatha Yoga Pradipika has enlisted 10 disciplines which constitute Yama. They include –

  • Ahimsa – non violence
  • Satya – truth
  • Asteya – not stealing
  • Brahmacharya – celibacy
  • Kshama – forgiveness
  • Dhruti – courage
  • Daya – kindness, compassion
  • Aarjavam – honesty
  • Mita ahara – moderation in one’s eating and drinking habits (Hita ahara – consuming good and compatible foods)
  • Shoucha – cleanliness
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Points to be noted –
We can observe that the first four virtues mentioned by Hatha Yoga Pradipika treatise are the same as those mentioned by master Patanjali.

Aarjavam along with Daya mentioned by Hatha Yoga Pradipika can be included into Aparigraha mentioned by Master Patanjali due to proximity of meanings, though not exactly.

Master Patanjali has focused on five abstinences. On the other hand, Hatha Yoga Pradipika has taken the first four abstinences mentioned by Master Patanjali, excluded aparigraha and have enlisted six more disciplines which need to be followed. Therefore, Yama according to Hatha Yoga Pradipika is a combination of 4 abstinences which need to be avoided and six disciplines which need to be followed by everyone.
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Ahimsa means non violence. This includes avoiding violence to others and also self.

It is defined as ‘not causing harm to anyone at all times, at all places and always’.

Non violence also includes – ‘not troubling or impacting harm on anyone, at any time, by thoughts, speech or action’. This is possible only when there is an emotion of sympathy towards others, i.e. regarding all beings as self, loving and respecting others like we love ourselves.
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This shows that non violence is not an option; it is to be followed always. It is not that sometimes we do not harm someone, and sometimes with or without our knowledge we indulge harm on someone. Not harming someone should always be in our conscience. We should also preach and advocate this virtue.

Violence is an effect of hatred, jealousy and enmity. When non violence is adopted, there would be no enmity around us and our society would become crime free. And the world would be a safe and happy place to dwell.
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Satya means speaking truth. This too is unconditional and is applicable to all situations and all times, always. We know how being untruthful will spoil many relations. Being untruthful will reduce the trust value that others have on us and the society doesn’t respect us. Being truthful will elevate us in our own vision, and also will make us principled livings in the eyes of the society, family and friends. It is easy to live without having the guilt of being untruthful, because when we lie, it keeps haunting us from our deep conscious levels.
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One should be truthful unconditionally, not seeking any gains or returns from it. This means to tell that one should be true to oneself and all situations and not expecting the fruits of his truthfulness. One should also believe in being truthful and patient in terms of getting the fruits, which will surely come when they need to and cannot be planned.

Manusmriti quotes ‘being truthfulness’ as –
One should always speak the truth. The truth should be spoken in a way which is pleasant to the others. One should not speak such a truth which makes others unhappy. At the same time, one should not lie to please others.
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Aasteya means not stealing. It pertains to others possessions and materials. Stealing things can be explained to having been done on the backdrop of one being poor, humiliated, rejected, victim of hardships and bad events in the society and helplessness. But no act of stealing can be justified. It is an offence which not only puts the thief into guilt and shame but also would trouble the victim of theft to the level of sufferings and sometimes even to face death. One person’s unethical gain and earning may lead to the other’s agony, pain and death.
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Many face the temptation of stealing things and may not overcome it and others steal for fun and as a habit. It is an obsession for some people. Many people are possessive for things which legally and ethically do not fit to their needs. They know they don’t deserve those things. Many scams result from the thefts taking place at various terrains of the society, which not only puts an individual or group to shame, but also would destroy the name and reputation of a state or country.

Yoga Darshana tells that – ‘Real virtue of not stealing comes and shows itself when various kinds of gems and riches are presented right in front of the person, with every reason and situation available to steal them and yet he doesn’t get the temptation of even touching them’.

The seers and philosophers consider and declare one as ‘non stealing person’ when he does not have desire for other’s things mentally (by thought), verbally or by action.
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Brahmacharya means celibacy, which is one of the most popularly used meanings of the term among many meanings it carries. It is one among the four types of ashramas i.e. stages of life. Brahmacharya is the first stage of life.

The word Brahmacharya actually means – ‘living in accordance to the principles of living laid down by the creator’.
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When we go as per this meaning and lead our life, the life will be more meaningful. Leading according to the principles and rules of life will keep our conduct and reputation in good terms in the society. We would not commit any sins. The life becomes worth living by all means as an individual and also as a social being.

Other meanings of Brahmacharya include –

  • Practising ideal conducts of creation
  • Practising chastity
  • Keeping away from sex i.e. celibacy and marriage (while learning as a student in the school and also for spiritual liberation in the later parts of life)
  • Marital fidelity
  • Sexual restraint

Brahmacharya in terms of sexual abstinence is said to bestow immense physical and mental stamina since it prevents one’s energy from being expended in the sexual act.
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Aparigraha means non-avarice i.e. not being greedy for wealth, material, food, money, status or anything which doesn’t belong to us. It also means being generous and not desiring for things and possessions of other people.

Not being greedy will enable a person to be enlightened and to discriminate between what belongs to him and what not. This prevents him from making any sins. Thus, he is contributing towards self-interior-peace and also to keep self in harmony with the society. Yoga Darshana further tells that aparigraha will enlighten the person who is non-greedy with the knowledge of his past and future birth. This enables a person to know about himself to the core and also about the importance and value of living a loyal and noble life.
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Kshama is forgiveness, the art and heart for forgiving others. This also reflects the level of tolerance and the grounded character of a person. Forgiving someone, someone’s mistakes done against and in opposition to him, forgetting and moving ahead requires a big heart. It is a rare quality with which only few are born. This curbs the intention for vengeance which again leads to non-righteousness, sins and crimes.

‘Kshama is defined as one’s ability, virtue and goodness to forgive his enemy, at the end of torture, after having been physically, mentally and verbally’.
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Dhriti means courage / forbearance. It is one’s understanding and acceptance that pain is the reality and omnipresent but suffering is optional. This bestows one with a confidence to tolerate all the hardships and pains of life and emerge a conqueror. It helps one to develop a ‘hang on, never give-up’ attitude. We never know what quantum of pain and hardships are posed into our way as hurdles and challenges by our life and destiny. Forbearance and standing still against these hardships and pain, showing tolerance towards what destiny brings our way is a sign of maturity.
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Other version of dhriti – The knowledge itself is known as courage i.e. dhriti. Liberation from this world is possible only after studying the Vedas. This knowledge gives courage to lead a fearless life facing all hardships which leads to liberation. The realization of soul is Mati.

Daya means compassion and kindness.

It is said that by cultivating habits of being friendly, compassionate, complacent, and indifference towards happiness, grief, virtue and vice the mind becomes pure.

Being compassionate, friendly and kind is healing, not only to self but also to the others around us. It is a virtue which keeps everyone in the creation connected by a common emotion of love and humanity.
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Aarjava means being honest, simple, straight forward and sincere. Each of these virtues fulfils the definition of aarjava and also all these put together.

‘Aarjava is also defined as an innate quality of considering son, friend, wife and enemy equally, just like he treats himself’

Society just loves a person who is honest and simple. It reflects the persona. These people look and behave exactly like what they are and are transparent personalities. They are not one way out and another way in. They are easily understandable and predictable. They respect and treat everyone alike and contribute towards harmony in the society.

While come to Yoga, simplicity is a requirement for begetting optimum benefits of Yoga practice. Simplicity in terms of dress, food, behaviour and manners helps one to keep the mind steady and balanced. When one is not simple, he develops untoward desires which are nothing short of weirdly running horses in the mind. These desires will disturb the mind ultimately leading to one committing senseless actions. The results of such actions are also harmful and painful. Letting go off the desires and trying to be simple and honest enables one to conquer the egoism.
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Mita Ahara

Mita Ahara means consuming food in moderate quantity.

Ahara or food is one of the three supporting pillars of life, sleep and celibacy being the other two. Food is an important support to our life and is a basic instinct.

One should not eat the food in excess and also in a deficit quantity. These are harmful for the health as they lead to over and under nutrition, these consequentially causing many systemic and nutritional disorders. The food should be taken as per one’s need and the quantity should be kept in balance. The food should be in a moderate quantity as a rule and is applicable to everyone. Food taken in moderation balances the doshas, keeps the digestive fire and quantity of tissues at optimum levels, enables easy excretion of wastes and keeps one healthy.
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The food should be taken in accordance to not only one’s capacity, but also in accordance to one’s digestive capacity i.e. agni. Ayurveda too advocates one to eat food to 1/3 of his capacity.

Yoga Yagyavalkya treatise states that – ‘monks need only 8 mouthful of food, a household renunciates needs only 16 mouthful of food, householders need 32 mouthful of food and youth may consume as much food as they wish’.
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Shoucha / Shuchi

Cleanliness is an important observance and a must for everyone in the creation. Cleanliness is not limited to keeping the body clean by taking timely bath, wearing clean dress and perfumes, the concept also extends to the purity of mind. One who keeps his body and mind pure will be more accepted by the society and is also respected.
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Being in unhygienic places, consuming junks, being in contact with unhygienic places and having sexual experiences with strangers may injure the conduct and health of an individual by polluting the body and mind. These shall be avoided to keep one clean and tidy.

Being clean in terms of body, mind, conduct and speech is also one of the four qualities of a physician according to Ayurvedic treatises. The same rule is applicable for a Yoga teacher. The students of Yoga too should keep themselves clean, physically, mentally and also by conduct. This will help them in engaging in yoga activities with concentration and dedication and also draw optimum benefits of the same. Cleanliness and good conduct will also keep the body and mind pure and contribute to good health.

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