Introduction to the Yamas
(An edited transcript from a private study group on The Eight Limbs of Sufi Yoga. This session on "Yama: The First Limb," which took place in the home of Pir Netanel Miles-Yépez on January 26th, 2014, was transcribed by Leigh Ann Dillinger. What follows below is the introduction to that session.)
Murshid Netanel Mu’in ad-Din Miles-Yépez: This is the first limb of the ashtanga, the ‘eight limbs’ of Hatha Yoga. It is called yama, or ‘abstention.’
Between now and our next meeting, I want us to try and think about the yamas all the time, always asking ourselves: “Am I being harmful in this situation? Is that lying? Is this stealing? Am I practicing restraint? Is this attachment?” Just try to hold yourself to that standard, remembering these five basic ideas as often as possible.
This is exactly what I used to do when I was first learning about the Yoga tradition. I was in college at the time, and had a part-time job as a groundskeeper at an apartment complex. So I would be at work, cleaning an apartment building or picking up the grounds, while at the same time, going over the yamas and niyamas in my mind. I would ask myself: “What is not-stealing? What does it mean in this moment, as I’m doing this work? What does it mean in my life, in general?” I would go over every example I could think of as it pertained to me, and it was really helpful. It gives you a good idea of how much subtlety there is in these ideas. There’s lying in a basic way, and there are much more subtle ways in which we lie.
It’s helpful to look at it from different perspectives. So I thought we’d start by going over the yamas, using my own definitions distilled from the Yoga Sutra, and from the classic commentaries on it translated in Alain Danielou’s Yoga: The Method of Re-integration.
Danielou’s Yoga is a kind of compendium of classic commentaries on different types and aspects of Yoga. Alain Danielou was one of those early Westerners to go to India and study with the gurus and pandits. His Shaiva initiatory name was Shiva Sharan. He was a brilliant young man, studying Sanskrit and learning to play the sitar and vina. He was also a classically trained dancer. He wrote a masterful book on Hindu mythology, Myths and Gods of India, originally titled Hindu Polytheism. His brother, Jean Danielou, was also a brilliant scholar, writing works on Christian mythology and symbols, who eventually became a cardinal in the Catholic Church.
I also have here my version of the Yoga Sutra that goes with this presentation of the yamas . . . just the sutras that are applicable. The sutra referring to yama, ‘abstention,’ basically names the five abstentions: ahimsa, satya, asteya, brahmacharya, aparigraha. But I thought we’d go over them one-by-one, discussing what we feel they’re about, and looking at what the commentaries have to say.
Danielou begins this chapter on the five abstinences, or yama, this way:
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. 
That’s already an interesting definition, because when we deal with Hatha Yoga, it is physical and mental. There’s an idea that if you do these things, your whole being—your body included—will be cleansed. You’ll be cleansed by satya, or not-lying. You’ll certainly be cleansed by brahmacharya, if interpreted as abstaining from certain foods, etc. There is a total cleansing process to get the body ready for spiritual experience. So he makes the point, right up front, what these early stages are really about.
This is what the Yoga Sutra says: Ahimsa, satya, asteya, brahmacharya, aparigraha yama. “Abstention consists of not-harming, truthfulness, not-stealing, restraint, and not-grasping.” [II:29]