The Yamas: What Patanjali Must Have Known About Us


As humans, we are an odd species. We leave trails of discomfort born of our impatience that others must absorb. We choose the “nice” response, chipping away at our integrity and losing the opportunity for intimacy. We say “yes” when we mean “no,” and then scheme how to weasel out of our “yes.” We hurt others with our careless words. We fail to take time to discern the far-reaching consequences of our behavior. Even without meaning to, we leave a wake of disharmony throughout the day.

Perhaps these are the things Patanjali considered when he laid out the eight-limbed path. The way to move from suffering to freedom, he tells us, is to begin with the yamas, or restraints. We don’t begin the path with grandiose attempts to be something we’re not. Instead we begin by stopping ourselves from being who we are: careless participators in the pain and suffering of the world. In the way a court restraining order protects someone from the abuse of another, Patanjali asks us to place a restraining order on ourselves to keep us from causing harm to anyone.

We don’t begin the path with grandiose attempts to be something we’re not.

With the yamas, Patanjali reminds us that everything is relational. And so he asks us: how are you doing with your relationships? Are you creating discord that leaves your mind and your life in turbulence, and others at your mercy? Or are you creating harmony that moves your mind and your life toward tranquility and leaves others uplifted? If you want to be on the yoga path, begin here. Look at all your relationships—with your family, your friends, your community, your planet, and all other sentient beings (including yourself)—and restrain yourself from causing harm in all these relationships.  

Any harm we cause leaves a residue of discord and confusion that follows us to our mats and cushions. I know that if I have carelessly prompted a fight with my spouse, the “me” that goes to my mat or cushion is a “me” that plays the fight over and over in my mind. I re-engage in my anger at him, or in how he could do that to me. There is no chance for tranquility to fill my mind, for awareness to penetrate the quieter spaces of my being, or for the holy to break through and touch my practice.

When we honestly observe our relationship to the five yamas of nonviolence, truthfulness, non-stealing, non-excess, and non-possessiveness, we will probably discover that restraining ourselves does not come easily. Observing ourselves often shows us the depth of fear, selfishness, greed, and anger that provoke these things in the first place. Observing these cuts through any ego illusions we may hold readies us to surrender fully to the grace of our practice.  

To engage fully with the yamas day after day, year after year, is to find ourselves on our knees—humbled by our complicity in the suffering of others, and hungry to be liberated from our ignorance.

About the Teacher

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Deborah A Adele
Deborah Adele, MA, ERYT500, has made the yamas and niyamas household words with her ground-breaking book... Read more