Foundational Yamas and Their Meaning


The yamas and niyamas are the first two limbs of the eight-limbed path, which is a step-by-step path towards the realization of yoga, as described in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.

They are a map to guide you on your life’s journey. Simply put, the yamas are things not to do, or restraints, while the niyamas are things to do, or observances. Together, they form a moral and ethical code of conduct.

The five yamas, self-regulating behaviors involving our interactions with other people and the world at large, include

  • Ahimsa Non-Violence
  • Satya Truthfulness
  • Asteya Non-Stealing
  • Brahmacharya Moderation
  • Aparigraha Non-Hoarding

The five niyamas, personal practices that relate to our inner world, include

  • Saucha Cleanliness
  • Santosha Contentment
  • Tapas Self Discipline
  • Svadhyaya Self Study
  • Isvara-pranidhana Surrender

The most mentioned, and perhaps the most important of these is Ahimsa as it forms the foundation to all others that follow.


The foundational Yama, “Ahimsa” is non-violence. In Sanskrit it denotes a dynamic peacefulness that is prepared to meet all situations with a loving openness. It is a state of living free from fear. — The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (Alistair Shearer)

Violence by definition is “swift and intense force; and rough or injurious physical force, action, or treatment”. Words such as brutality, roughness, ferocity, cruelty, sadism, inhumanity, destruction and forcefulness are closely associated with it.

Whereby the dictionary definition focuses heavily on the physicality of violence, we overlook that many times the form it takes is non-physical. According to the principle of ahimsa, emotions such as anger, greed and other hostile feelings are also considered violent in their nature, as they are “are damaging to life, whether we act upon them ourselves, or cause or condone them in others.” (Shearer, 2002, Sutras 2.34) Allowing these emotions to invade our spiritual beings, no matter how intense or subtle they appear, only creates more violence and disruption in our environment.

, is not merely the absence of violent, but also the presence of light. As Alistair Shearer notes in his introduction to The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, ahimsa, “In Sanskrit it denotes a dynamic peacefulness that is prepared to meet all situations with a loving openness. It is a state of living free from fear.” (Shearer, 2002: 60) If we take this approach, ahimsa is mindful thinking, and showing loving kindness through our thoughts, words and actions. Thinking, demonstrating and speaking in a manner that does not evoke fear, pain or destruction is the true spirit and definition of ahimsa.



Another yama is stealing. When you look up “to steal” in the dictionary, you’ll see several definitions ranging from outright theft to smaller seemingly innocuous gestures. Some of these include: ‘to take or appropriate without right, and with intent to keep or make use of wrongfully’, ‘to take away by force or unjust means’, ‘to take surreptitiously or without permission’, ‘to appropriate to oneself or beyond one’s proper share’, ‘to move, convey or introduce secretly’, ‘to accomplish in a concealed or unobserved manner’, ‘to seize, gain or win by trickery, skill or daring’, ‘to grab attention from another especially by anticipating an idea plan, or take credit for another’s idea.

If we look at all the versions of stealing above, they are in fact related to integrity, trust, openness and contentment — as stealing is usually caused by a lack of these qualities. The Yama asteya, which means “non-stealing” encourages us to live in balance and in harmony with our true Self. If we are satisfied and living with abundance of spirit, we would not need to possess more or justify the actions of stealing from others to compensate for what we do not have. (Shearer, 2002: 60)

Stealing is commonplace and widespread as it comes in so many forms. Asteya is therefore one of the four foundational yamas as it means “non-stealing”. Asteya is not owning or consuming more than you need, and this can be applied to words, thoughts and actions. For example, an employee working in a large company who takes frequent breaks is ‘stealing’ from the business. In action, asteya would be mindful use of what we possess whether it’s time, skill or ideas and not to take advantage of others.

In words, asteya can be seen in the form of giving credit to where ideas or concepts originate from, and not to pretend or act as if they are your own. Asteya is being humble and obtaining respectful permission to use or share a thought or idea whether it’s giving credit and acknowledging where it came from. Similarly in thought, asteya is keeping an open heart and mind, cultivating satisfaction with what you have and not being possessive or envious of what you don’t.

It is when you are secure in your spirit and fully comfortable and content with your true nature. It is remaining open and compassionate, living with integrity and honesty that allows us to fully practice asteya.

How can you put ahimsa into practice in thought, word and actions? Where can you be more mindful of asteya in your daily life?

Image: Jeppe Hove Jensen