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Yamas—Not restraints, but active, positive practices

by Michael Ketterhagen

The yoga tradition usually translates the word, “yama,” as “restraints.” This implies a code of ethics or rules that one must follow. Rules are usually stated in the negative, like “Thou shalt not steal…or covet…or lie, etc. These actions and desires were to be avoided and there didn’t seem to be any way to practice them, except by not doing something. One couldn’t positively practice them.

According to Ishan Tigunait of the Himalayan Institute, however, there is another way to look at the yamas. He says that they are ways to live actively and positively; therefore, allowing the beauty of our core self to emerge from and shine in our daily activities. He gives an explanation of each of the five yamas—“ahimsa (not harming),” “asteya (not stealing),” “aparigraha (non-possessiveness”, “satya (truth/not lying)”, “brahmacharya (celibacy)”.

Instead of defining “ahimsa” as “not-harming or non-violence,” one could practice behaviors that are kind or saying only positive words that flow from thoughts that are only positive and kind. Everyone can do this practice. Mothers and fathers could say only loving and helpful comments and corrections to their children who may need some guidance in a gentle, understanding manner rather than yelling angrily at them for doing something wrong. As you can see, making this yama positive would mean thinking very differently about all of our actions, words and thoughts. It would mean thinking quite differently about others as well.

Instead of focusing on the negative meaning of “asteya (not stealing),” we could focus on reaping only the fruits of OUR actions. For example, we could only receive payment for what we have worked for, what we have earned. That would mean giving back to God all that we don’t need, knowing that we owe God for even having a job or we owe the workers some of the earnings from our 401k retirement funds. It really means being content with what we have and then giving the rest to those who need or those who have worked hard for it.

Brahmacharya is usually translated “celibacy or moderation of our senses.” Positively living that yama would mean “masterful engagement of our senses” or “engaging our senses with purpose.”

Satya would mean “thinking, speaking and acting for a higher purpose.” It would not just refer to “not lying,” but would refer to aligning our thoughts, words and actions in a way that serves a higher good, like telling people our thoughts and feelings that enhance the common good, not just our own individual good. It would mean not just telling people what we feel, but clearly connecting our feelings to the need underneath those feelings. This brings our understanding of feelings back to ourselves and does not subtly imply that others are to blame for our feelings.

And finally, “aparigraha (non-possessiveness)” would not mean “not accumulating our possessions,” but transforming our dependence on our possessions, so that our possessions have the purpose of serving us, not we serving them. We would actively use those possessions to fulfill our purpose in life.

Looking at the yamas in this active, positive way, rather than in a negative, commandment-like way really means transforming our relationship toward all life—towards all the things we think, say and do. Now that is really demanding and that is not passive at all! That is also not just following the rules.

It would mean engaging life (our thoughts, words and actions), for most of us, in a dramatically different way. That would take strength and courage and would help us rally our internal resources of fortitude and prudence.

Wow! What a task!


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