I don’t know about you, but I learned a lot of things in school I’ve never used. (I’m looking at you, Trigonometry.) Now, hopefully we can all agree on the value of a well-rounded education, but I imagine most of us have managed to navigate adulthood without needing to diagram sentences or describe the different rock formations. I’ve never been asked to list the presidents at a job interview, or explain the circulatory system before checking out at the grocery store. Good thing, too, as much has drained out of my brain colander over the years…

It turns out we actually learned many of our most useful and important lessons in Kindergarten: Be Nice, Tell the Truth, Don’t Steal, Control Yourself, and Share. Yoga philosophy refers to these five tenants as the Yamas, or moral codes. They comprise the first of the eight limbs of yoga, and offer us guidance on how to interact with others. A yoga seeker’s ultimate goal is peace of mind. How can we begin to find the space and silence to quiet our distracting thoughts if we are caught up in unnecessary drama with the people around us? Integrity in our relationships liberates us from needless conflicts and strife, and frees us up for deeper endeavors. As an added bonus, when we live by the code of the yamas, we reduce the toxins of guilt, shame and self-judgment. Let’s review the class rules…

Ahimsa  – BE NICE – Ahimsa means non-violence, and is also referred to as loving kindness. It is a commitment to do no harm to yourself or others. It encourages us to always look for the best in everyone. Ahimsa speaks of tolerance and understanding. It asks us to see ourselves in everyone we meet, and extend the same level of acceptance and kindness we hope to receive from others. It is the Golden Rule. Meanness begets meanness, and kindness is contagious. Life is so much more peaceful without enemies.

Satya– DON’T LIE – Truthfulness is essential for inner harmony. We must be honest with others, and honest with ourselves. We lie for so many reasons: to stay out of trouble, to make ourselves look better, to get something we want, to spare someone’s feelings, to avoid conflict… Lies compound and confuse. We have to remember what we said, and deal with shame and the fear of being exposed. When we lie to ourselves we miss an opportunity to refine our thoughts and behaviors. We become prisoners of our own false narratives. Tell the truth even if it’s hard or scary. A commitment to honesty creates a clear, drama-free life.

Asteya– DON’T STEAL – We don’t take what isn’t ours – whether possessions, positions, or credit. When we take something we have not earned, we rob ourselves of the gratification that comes from working towards, and achieving our goals. If you cheat on a test to get an A, you will always know deep down that you did not earn it. When you feel envious of what someone else has, a great job or beautiful backbend, let it inspire you to redouble your efforts. There is never true pleasure to be found in ill-gotten gains. Commit to the truth and do your work, and all good things will come in time.

Brahmacharya– CONTROL YOURSELF – What kind of energy are you putting out into the world? Traditionally, brahmacharya refers to the preservation of the life force through celibacy, but in a broader sense it is about restraint and taking responsibility for where we expend our energy. Are you a hedonist exhausting yourself chasing pleasure? Do you allow your emotions to rage unchecked, infecting everyone around you? It is madness to follow every impulse and emotion wherever it leads. Brahmacharya encourages moderation in all things in order to reduce the fall-out from excess and preserve our vitality for higher pursuits. Instead of flinging our energy around indiscriminately, this yama asks us to strengthen our self-control and pull inward. 

Aparigraha– SHARE –Literally meaning, “not filling your dwelling”, aparigraha is all about letting go. Change is inevitable…things, people, emotions, and experiences come and go. Only the inner peace we cultivate is ours to keep forever. Fear and anxiety result when we attempt to grasp and hoard…It’s mine. I love it, and I don’t want anyone to take it away! We are only free of our possessions and attachments when we are willing to let them go, creating space for something new. Let what comes arrive with gratitude, and what leaves depart with grace. In this way we maintain a flowing stream of blessings.  

We use the yamas to keep our side of the street clean. When we commit to being kind, honest, trustworthy, self-contained, and generous we reduce outer chaos and inner conflict. Of course, this is an ideal, an aspiration, and a practice. Devoting ourselves to these principles helps our lives become calm and our thoughts become clear. They point us to our highest nature. Our hearts and souls always know the right thing to do. We can come back to the yamas when our minds try to talk us out of it. Imagine if everyone lived by these guidelines. What a peaceful and beautiful world it would be.