Yama is likened to the roots of the tree because it is the foundation from which all the rest will grow.
In classical yoga, there are five Yamas, a Sanskrit term that is commonly translated as the “appropriate codes of behavior” - spontaneously evolutionary behavior of an enlightened being. In working with the Yamas, however, we must be alert to avoiding the tendency to use them to judge ourselves and other people. There is a great potential for getting trapped in ideas of right and wrong, better and worse, good and bad. A kind of heavy moralism can creep in, and with that comes a certain kind of arrogance of judgment that ends up constricting our hearts and minds rather than expanding them.
It is more helpful to see the Yamas as how conscious beings behave in the world, how to treat other people, and how to treat ourselves.
1. Ahimsa - nonviolence
Ahimsa is really about how a person can travel through the world, through the realm of form and phenomena, in a way that does no harm . . . where every thought and every action and every word in some way or another is nourishing to the ecosystem. Ahimsa is that state where we’re naturally flowing through life without creating unnecessary perturbations. In daily life, ahimsa is about choosing actions that create the greatest level of harmony between our personal body and the extended body of the universe.
2. Satya - truthfulness
It is an expression of being in a state of such complete present-moment awareness that judgment doesn’t need to enter in. In this expanded state, we are able to observe without evaluating. We accept the world as it is, recognizing that reality is a selective act of attention and interpretation. Recognizing that truth is different for different people and in different states of consciousness, we commit to life-affirming choices that are aligned with an expanded view of self.
Patanjali described truth as the integrity of thought, word, and action. We speak the sweet truth and are inherently honest because truthfulness is an expression of our commitment to a spiritual life. The short-term benefits of distorting the truth are outweighed by the discomfort that arises from betraying our integrity. Ultimately we recognize that truth, love, and the divine are different expressions of the same undifferentiated reality.
3. Brahmacharya – control of sensual pleasure
Brahmacharya derives from the word brahman, meaning “unity consciousness,” and achara, meaning “pathway.” In Vedic society, people traditionally chose one of two paths to enlightenment – the path of the householder or the path of a renunciate. For those choosing the path of a monk or nun, the path to unity consciousness naturally includes forsaking sexual activity. For the vast majority of people choosing the householder path, brahmacharya means rejoicing in the healthy, balanced, and responsible expression of creative energy.
The essential creative power of the universe is sexual, and we are each a loving manifestation of that energy. Seeing the entire creation as an expression of the divine impulse to generate, we can celebrate the creative forces. Brahmacharya means aligning with the creative energy of the cosmos. It is about using our life energy impeccably, not wasting a single precious drop.
4. Asteya - honesty
It means to be fully established in a state of self-referral, in which we relinquish the idea that things outside ourselves will provide us with security and happiness. Lack of honesty almost always derives from fear of loss – the loss of money, love, position, or power.
The ability to live an honest life is based upon a deep connection to spirit. When inner fullness predominates, we lose the need to manipulate, obscure or deceive. We stop trying to please people, because pleasing is always based on a sense of inadequacy. Honesty is the intrinsic state of a person living a life of integrity. According to yoga, life-supporting, evolutionary behaviors are the natural consequence of expanded awareness.
5. Aparigraha - generosity or a state of ever present abundance
As we shift from identifying with our limited ego self into an expanded awareness of our essential spiritual nature, we spontaneously express generosity in every thought, word, and action. Aparigraha implies the absence of aversion. Established in aparigraha, our attachment to the accumulation of material possessions loses its hold on us. It does not mean that we don’t enjoy the world; we are simply not imprisoned by it. The practice of yoga, which cultivates expanded awareness, awakens generosity because nature is generous.
The observance of Yama disciplines the five organs of action which are the arms, the legs, the mouth, the organs of generation, and the organs of excretion. The organ of action control the organ of perception and the mind.