Yamas are social observances—the way that you regulate behavior in relation to others. They are also powerfully transformative for the individual, bringing greater clarity and stability to the mind. Within this first limb of yoga, there are five yamas and each one can be considered a specific sādhana (a practice leading directly to a goal) that moves you closer to the state of yoga. The last yama, aparigraha (non-grasping), is the culmination of perfection of the yamas. Patañjali calls the yamas mahāvrata, which means great vows.

1. Ahimsa is synonymous with non-violence. It literally means not causing injury or pain to any other living being. You should aim to practice ahimsa not only by your actions, but also in your speech and thoughts as well. When you follow ahimsa at all times, you are not shadowed by the potential threats that come back to you as a result of your actions, whether physical, verbal, or mental. Patañjali says that one who practices ahimsa perfectly will influence all around him and they will also become non-violent.

2. Satya means truthfulness or honesty. You should practice it not just in words, but also in your thoughts and deeds. You should not speak the truth if it brings pain to others, but find ways to communicate truthfully without causing pain. A poignant quote from Mark Twain sums up this principle: “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” Hence, when you are always truthful, you do not experience the confusion and stress that results from lying or manipulating the truth, having to try to remember what you have previously fabricated. As you practice satya, you will become more aware of the way that you may manipulate the truth in order to obtain desired outcomes even at a very subtle level. Patañjali states that the actions of one who is perfect in satya will always be productive.

3. Asteya means not stealing and should be practiced in all areas of life. There is a beautiful story about a boy who found a man’s wallet and when he returned it to the distressed owner, he was offered a reward. The boy responded, “Why should I receive a reward for simply doing what is right?” This attitude of asteya inherent in the boy’s mind made it very clear in terms of what is and isn’t his. Patañjali says that when you practice asteya perfectly everything that you need will be available to you and you will be contented with the things that you do have.

4. Brahmacarya is the practice of sexual continence. For a monk or serious spiritual aspirant, absolute celibacy is inferred. In traditional society, brahmacarya is practiced by students during their spiritual training or studentship until their studies are finished and they get married. Once married, they should maintain an appropriate relationship with their partner. Sexual activity has the potential to divert you from the yogic or spiritual path when used inappropriately or excessively and depletes energy that can be channeled into spiritual progress. When that energy is harnessed and directed toward the goal of yoga, it is tremendously potent. Hence, Patañjali says that if you follow strict celibacy, you will gain great physical and spiritual vitality.

5. Aparigraha literally means non-grasping (non-possessiveness.) It infers that you should only take that which is necessary for maintaining yourself in a healthy way. Aparigraha extends to all areas of life and is an attitude toward not only food and physical possessions, but also to relationships with others and the world. By following aparigraha, you aim to cultivate an attitude in which you do not desire anything unnecessary. Practice of aparigraha brings an increased awareness of your underlying tendencies or desires. There is a greater awareness of your deeper motivations. Patañjali says that the result of being firmly established in aparigraha is an understanding of the reason for your janma, which may be interpreted as an understanding of your existence.