Yamas are restraints, behaviors to be avoided, a code of conduct for the Yogi. I go against convention when I characterize the yamas as active processes, rather than as absences of action. Yoga is an active process, and the yamas enumerate specific human patterns that the Yogi seeks to undo.
Imagine a piece of string. You’ve knotted it tightly. If you stop making new knots in the string, that will prevent the problem from getting worse, but the string won’t untie itself. The yamas provide instructions for how to untie the knots in our consciousness, our perceptions.
The yamas are the foundation of Yoga practice. They, along with the Niyamas (Pursuits), provide context for the rest of the practice. To practice Yoga without a spiritual focus and careful consideration of the yamas and niyamas is to invite disaster: many of the “demons” that populate the stories of classical texts are shown to be Yogis who have lost sight of these guidelines. The demons practice Yoga to gain power, and they use this power in ways that create suffering.
The warning: to practice Yoga while disregarding these first two limbs will serve to reinforce and amplify negative characteristics and habits.
The yamas firmly ground the Yogi and direct practice in positive directions.
There are five yamas:
Asteya – Restraint of Stealing
Brahmacharya – Restraint of Losing Vital Energy
Aparigraha – Restraint of Possessiveness/Greed
The yamas are not a moral framework. You are not sinning or guilty if you break them. The yamas ought to be followed not because of any inherent moral truth that they may contain, but because they fuel and deepen Yoga practice and our own self-understanding. They lift the veils that stand between our perceptions and the truth. By implementing the yamas, we come nearer to true understanding of ourselves.