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The Five Abstinences, or Yamas

When starting on the journey of yoga, it is first essential to bring the body and the mind to the highest possible peak of health and efficiency. The first stage of Hatha yoga is, therefore, the practice of the abstinences and observances which eradicate all physical and mental ailments and create perfect physical and mental welfare.

According to Patanjali:

"The abstinences are nonviolence, truth, non-stealing, chastity and non-possession."(1) (Yoga Darshana 2, 30.)

[1] Nonviolence, or ahimsa: "To abstain from causing pain at any time, in any way however small, in mind, word, or body, to any living thing, including oneself, is nonviolence." All other abstinences and observances lead up to it and have to be brought into action before full nonviolence can be attained; it is said that they exist only for the sake of nonviolence, and, further, that without nonviolence, their practice is fruitless.

[2] Truth, or satya: "According to the testimony of the inner faculties and senses, to show things as they are with the aim of doing good, in friendly words and without deceit, is truth."

[3] Non-stealing, or asteya: "Not to steal, take away or appropriate the possessions of another, in any way, by mind, word or body, is non-stealing." But also, according to Vyasa's commentary (Yoga Darshana 2, 30) "non-stealing includes the non-acceptance of any kind of wealth, the acceptance of which is not permitted by the scriptures". The acceptance of money by a sannyasi, for example, who is not supposed to possess any, is considered stealing.

[4] Chastity, or brahmacharya:(2) "The complete absence of erotic perturbation or emotion, in mind, senses or body is chastity." In the Daksha Samhita it is stated that,

"The eight kinds of erotic action are: to think of it, to praise it, to joke about it, to look with desire, to converse in private, to decide to do it, to attempt to do it and actual intercourse."

The Anugita says:

"He who has reached beyond action and austerities and dwells only in the Supreme Principle, the Supreme Brahman, and like the Brahman himself wanders (chari) in the world is called a Brahmachari. The Brahman is his fuel, the Brahman his fire, the Brahman his 'sacrificial' seat, the Brahman his water (for purification), the Brahman his Teacher. He lives absorbed in the Brahman." (Also quoted in Yoga Sara Sangraha, p. 23.)

The practice of chastity also implies regulation of diet, amusements, habits, thoughts, sleep and all other physical need.

[5] Non-possession, or aparigraha: "To abstain from accumulating in any way the means for enjoyment, whether they pertain to the field of word, touch, form, taste or smell, is non-possession."

Concentration is the means of enlightenment; dispersion (vikshipta) of one's interest is stupidity (mudhata); and all effort to accumulate, protect and display one's possessions leads to dispersion. To possess, being a source of attachment, necessarily leads to violence, for one cannot possess without depriving others. The Great Abstinence, or mahavrata: The observance of the above five abstinences "without any restriction of caste, country or time, in all circumstance is the great abstinence." (Yoga Darshana 2, 31.)

(1) The Upanishads, however, speak of ten abstinences. "The ten abstinences are nonviolence, truth, non-stealing, chastity, kindness, rectitude, forgiveness, endurance, temperance in food and purity." (Trishikhi, Brahmana Upanishad. 32-33).

(2) The word "brahmacharya" is also defined as "Wandering in the Eternal Wisdom, the Veda" (Brahma in that case means Veda), that is directing one's power of enjoyment not towards the objects of the senses, but towards the enjoyment of Knowledge.

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