The Five Yamas
For those of you wondering what life lessons can be gleaned from practicing yoga (there are many), then you should start by examining yoga’s eightfold path, otherwise known as Ashtanga.
This system of spiritual practices was first proposed by the father of yoga, Patanjali, and recorded in his Yoga Sutras—a foundational, ancient text of classical yoga philosophy.
Ashtanga outlines a path for yogis to follow during their lifelong pursuit of spiritual growth and enlightenment. This eight-limbed philosophy starts with the first limb, Yama, which prescribes the following five moralities:
- Ahimsa (nonviolence)
- Satya (truthfulness)
- Asteya (nonstealing)
- Brahmacharya (moderation)
- Aparigraha (nongreed)
What is yoga, really?
If you were to go outside right now and ask a random person walking down the street to define yoga, they would probably only be able to tell you about the physical practice of yoga, made up of an approximately hour-long sequence of postures (or asanas). This is the common Western understanding of yoga: “It’s a type of workout, right?”
However, asana (like yama) makes up just one of the eight limbs of yoga, and so simply describing the physical practice is not an accurate representation of yoga in its depth and scope. Yoga should be understood less as a physical practice or workout, and more as a way of life—a transformational path toward self-actualization. If we strive to follow the yoga path, then seriously incorporating the yamas is just as important as practicing physical postures and meditation.
Therefore, if we wish to define ourselves as true yoga practitioners, then the work continues when we step off the mat and into the “real world.” By upholding the integrity and ethical conduct of the yamas, by default we also develop a sense of care and respect for mother nature that will eventually manifest in our actions.
“To put these insights into practice is to elevate yourself into a spiritual perspective, one in which thoughts and actions reflect an understanding that all of life is worthy of great love and respect,” wrote yogic scholar Mukunda Stiles in his modern interpretation of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. “From this place, yogis begin to live a lifestyle that elevates the lives of all with whom they come into contact.”
So, how can abiding by the yamas help you reduce your ecological footprint and lead to a more sustainable lifestyle? Let’s dive in.
One practical method of incorporating ahimsa, or nonviolence, into your life is by deeply reexamining your daily consumption habits. Your participation in a now-global consumer culture has a bigger impact than you might think (or care to know) when it comes to cruelty. If you are someone who doesn’t know where your food, clothing, and/or technology came from, how it was produced, and how it ultimately ended up in your hands, then you could be participating in violence without even knowing it.
Certainly, choosing to reduce or even eliminate the amount of animal products you consume in your diet is a surefire way to minimize your participation in violence (under the corporate agriculture paradigm, that is). However, even if you are a vegan who attempts to minimize suffering by following a strict “cruelty-free” diet, you may still be contributing to violence if you fail to consider where and how your beloved non-animal products were grown. If, for example, you frequently purchase tofu made from conventionally grown, pesticide-ridden soybeans, then you too are contributing to violent outcomes, even if that was never your intention.
The point being, if you truly wish to practice nonviolence (which I urge you to do), then you are obliged to do diligent research before purchasing any and all products. Instead of turning a blind eye to the manufacturing process, the nonviolent consumer takes responsibility for their consumption by dollar-voting for companies and businesses that are going above and beyond to do the right thing. Responsible consumers have the power to cultivate a more ethical and transparent consumer culture, one that does not involve child labor, exploitation of workers, animal cruelty, or environmental degradation.
Satya, or truthfulness, is practiced by being honest with yourself and learning to differentiate between wants and needs. By limiting your desires and focusing more attention on what you truly need to survive and thrive, you will be able to reduce your impact and avoid unnecessary consumerism.
If you live in a small town (as I do), for example, and you can travel from point A to point B by bike, then you need not buy a car. You may desire getting from A to B faster and with less effort by driving a car, but owning a car is not an absolute necessity for you. That is the difference between a want and a need.
By being true to yourself and acknowledging that it is better to ride a bike than to drive a car—both for you and for the environment—that is a decision you will take pride in making and be able to uphold.
Asteya, or nonstealing, reminds us not to take what we do not need from others. Although stealing is commonly understood in a human-to-human context, stealing can also be thought of as a negative act humans commit against the natural world.
When a large oil company like BP or Exxon continually extracts natural resources from both land and sea for decades without offering anything in return, they are stealing. But it is not just big corporations that steal from nature; it is individuals, too.
Asteya relies on humans overcoming ignorance and acknowledging the simple fact that everything in our world (and universe) is interconnected, and when we take more resources than we need, those resources become stolen goods. You can choose to live in accordance with asteya by simply taking what you need from nature, nothing more. And when you do take, make sure to always give back.
What does giving back to nature look like in practice? Plant a tree or a garden, donate money to a vetted environmental nonprofit or conservation group, volunteer time to pick up trash in your community, invest in renewable energy, and so on.
Taken literally, Brahmacharya means to follow the path of Brahman (Hinduism’s god of creation). In the context of yoga, however, we can understand Brahmacharya as a metaphor for living a simpler, more virtuous life—a life of moderation.
From a pro-environmental perspective, moderation could mean limiting the amount of coffee you drink per day to the number of miles you fly per year. The difficult thing about moderation, however, is that it demands constant attentiveness to your decisions; it requires you to maintain a mindful attitude.
But isn’t achieving mindfulness what yoga is really all about? The enlightened yogi lives in the eternal present by limiting external distractions and desires. They live in modesty and focus on cultivating peace and happiness from within, not without.
The last of the five yamas is Aparigraha, or nongreed. It seems that many people within modern society have fallen for the biggest lie ever told: that we (humans) are the masters of the earth, and we therefore have dominion over the earth’s many viable resources. For millennia, our species has shaped the biosphere to best suit human life, while blatantly disregarding the needs of almost every other biological species on the planet.
Tragically, the near ubiquitous attitude of greed and possession that persists in modern consumer society has led us to where we are today—amidst the sixth mass extinction event in geologic history, driven almost entirely by human activity. I guess you reap what you sow, as the old adage goes.
However, the point of this statement is not to make you feel bad, but rather to highlight the fact that our species has the unique ability to change the course of geologic history for better or worse, and that’s where aparigraha comes into play. By first acknowledging the fact that we are not the sole proprietors of the earth, we set ourselves up for the possibility of eliminating greed and ultimately leveling the ecological balance.
Walk the Walk
The great thing about being a human is that you can wake up tomorrow morning and strive to be better and do better, for yourself and for the planet. But it is not enough to simply say you want to be a better person; you have to walk the walk. You have to be willing to pivot 180 degrees and take that first step toward self-actualization. That’s where having a well-trodden (eightfold) path sure comes in handy.