Yama means restraint or abstention. The yamas are traditionally the first limb of ashtanga, and there are five practices: ahimsa, satya, asteya, aparigraha and brahmacharya.
Ahimsa // Nonviolence
The practice of ahimsa is absolutely essential to the postpartum period and beyond. The presence of an infant or toddler in your home can be a stressful experience, and sometimes parents feel like they are not in control of their emotions. Practicing ahimsa will help you be aware of your actions, whether verbal, physical or mental.
In those first months, in the depths of sleep deprivation, it is easy to lose your temper. Perhaps your baby isn’t sleeping, won’t stop crying or won’t correctly latch on to your breast. There are many variables that cause stress in a new mother. Practicing ahimsa can help you remember that your child is crying for a reason and not to spite you. Go through your checklist: Does the baby have a wet or dirty diaper? Is the baby hungry or gassy? Is he cold or too hot? Is he frightened or lonely? When in doubt, when you’ve gone through the list, just hold your baby and bear your child’s pain. Bearing pain is a great sadhana, or spiritual practice. It is difficult to do, I know. But no mother has ever looked back and said that she wished she held her children less. You cannot spoil an infant.
Ahimsa is not always easy. There will be days where you may not have a break from caring for your child. Perhaps you are a single mother with no help in sight. There will be days when your infant or toddler will seem to do everything in their power to get on your nerves, and you might begin to lose your cool. When you feel that moment coming on, that is the time to put your child in a safe place and walk out of the room. Once you are away, take a minute or two to calm yourself down. Practice pranayama (deep breathing), take a drink of cold water to cool the mind and the body or take a literary time-out by sitting down and reading to your child. That will cool everyone’s nerves. Yelling at your child only makes the situation worse. We must remember that we are our children’s first role models. They will mimic our behavior, good and bad, as they get older. If we always practice ahimsa, they will too.
The root of all anger is desire. Perhaps in difficult moments with our children, we wish to be elsewhere, to be able to sleep or to be able to complete a task without someone glued to our leg or strapped to your chest (or both!). And that’s when we’re most likely to lose control of our anger.
In his book Conquest of Anger, Swami Sivananda says:
Anger gains strength by repetition. If it is checked then and there, man gains immense strength of will. When anger is controlled, it becomes transmuted into spiritual energy that can move the three worlds…Energy is wasted enormously when one gets angry. The whole nervous system is shattered by an outburst of anger. The eyes become red, the body quivers, the legs and hands tremble. No one can check an angry man.
You know the phrase, that someone can be blind with rage? That’s what Sivananda is talking about. We really lose control of ourselves, and that can be so damaging to our children. As children, they will lose control, because they don’t yet know how to manage the emotions that they feel. But we adults know better, and we can do better.
If only we could handle each difficult moment with our children with grace and compassion. There will be days where it will be easy, other days, not so much. It’s in those trying days where we can learn much from our children. These little creatures have a great gift: an ability to forgive easily. For that, they are blessed, and so are we.
Aparigraha // Non-Greed
Aparigraha can mean abstention from greed or not receiving gifts. Swami Satchidananda explains that accepting gifts makes us lose our neutrality, meaning that if someone gives us something, we usually feel like we owe them something in return. He says, “When the mind becomes this calm and clear by being free of desires and obligations, we gain the capacity to see how our desires caused our present birth. We directly see the cause and effect relationship because we are detached from it; we are no longer bound up with it.” Of course, Satchidananda says we can accept gifts if we feel strong enough to remain free of obligation to the gift-giver. The example he gives is, “I am giving her an opportunity to use her money in the right way, but I am not obligated by this gift.”
One way to look at aparigraha is to determine how much time you truly devote to your child. Are you constantly checking your mobile phone, texting or looking at Facebook updates while your child plays at your feet? How often do you get on the floor and play with them? Do not be greedy with your time. Your child needs your attention, and it is imperative that you give it to them. Be at eye-level with them and engage them, reading them stories or helping them build the biggest tower of blocks yet! Or, if you have an infant, just sit them in your lap and talk to them. Or give your baby a massage. The more time you devote to them, one-on-one, the more intelligent and loving they will become. That constant, loving contact deepens the bond between you and your child. Think of it this way: the more time you devote to you spend with your distractions, the more obligated we feel to feed that need. How would you rather spend your time?
If you are a nursing mother, you are already practicing aparigraha by breastfeeding. Being in that role, you are being so selfless, sharing your body and giving your child the nourishment they need whenever they need it, at least most of the time. This act is the exact opposite of greediness.
We must keep in mind, though, that while we devote our time to our children, there should be no expectation of what will come in return. Our devotion – our gift – should be selfless. If we spend 10 minutes of our time playing with our children, we should not expect that they are going to leave us alone, out of respect to our dedication.
In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna warns his devoted follower, Arjuna, of greedy expectations. Verses 17.11-12 say:
Any devoted action offered up without desire for reward, but with the entire mind focused on the action for its own sake, is in the true spirit of scripture and is a pure sacrifice. However, Arjuna, any offering made with expectation of a reward for doing so, or for show, is motivated by a restless and desirous mental tendency.
In day-to-day practice, mothers can practice aparigraha by not hanging on to loads of baby-related items. It’s OK to have things for your baby – it’s necessary. But perhaps, after your baby has outgrown clothes or toys, pass them along to someone else who needs it. There are lots of great organizations that collect baby and maternity items and give them to young families or single mothers who are in need.
Satya // Truth
Truthfulness (satya) is crucial to this period of time, and it comes with strong communication. It’s easy for communication to break down when you are sleep deprived or when your child is speaking a language completely foreign to you. Partners need to be truthful with one another to keep a steady balance in their relationship with their child.
To live an honest life, you have to be honest with yourself. With parenting, you have to examine what being a mother means to you. For example, maybe you are meant to stay at home – or work outside the home and enroll your child in a daycare. If you do the opposite of what is natural to you, it will only cause heartache for you and your children. Satchidananda says, “The more we lead a life of honesty, the more we will see the results, and that will encourage us to be more honest.”
As our child’s vocabulary begins to grow and mature, sometimes it is difficult to decipher what they are trying to tell us. As parents, we need to tune in to our children’s communication skills and keep the flow of information open. The more we listen to them and decode their beginner’s words, the more willing they are going to be to communicate their joy, fear, excitement or frustration. This allows them to explore their own truth and also foster their verbal and mental development. As they grow older, our children are going to ask more difficult questions, perhaps about their sexuality. We need to be honest with them in age-appropriate ways.
T.K.V. Desikachar, in The Heart of Yoga, says this of satya: “Satya should never come into conflict with our efforts to behave with ahimsa. The Mahabharata, the great Indian epic, says, ‘Speak the truth which is pleasant. Do not speak unpleasant truths. Do not lie, even if the lies are pleasing to the ear. That is the eternal law, the dharma.’” What this means is that we must keep the truth in context with the situation. If it is going to be harmful (like an intentionally hurtful comment) to the recipient, it is best to say nothing at all.
That isn’t to say that you should never speak the truth when it will hurt someone. You have to always protect yourself, the ones you love or even the community from harm. An example of this could be if your teenage son or daughter abuses drugs or alcohol. You have to speak the truth so they do not harm someone else. It will be very painful for them, but hopefully you can get them the help they need.
Satchidananda says this, too, about satya: “So, first follow truth, and then truth will follow you.”
Asteya // Non-Stealing
Non-stealing (asteya) essentially is letting things come and go. Satchidananda has many wonderful words on non-stealing. He says that when we get something, whether it is possessions, property or people, we tend to lock it away and put the keys in a safe place. That is stealing. An example he gives is that of a baby who may come and play in our laps. But when they lose interest and want to move on, we usually want to keep them on our laps because we are enjoying the moment. And then they want to run away. If we let them come and go, they will always come back willingly.
We should receive the love our children (or partners) give to us with open arms, and then reflect that love equally back to them. If we don’t, we are essentially stealing that loving energy. The more love we receive and give, the more reserves we build up within, giving us the strength and compassion to make it through the difficult moments that we inevitably encounter. Satchidananda says, “If we know how to care and share, no poverty or hunger need to exist anywhere.”
Asteya could also be applied to different stages of your child’s development. For example, maybe you are not ready for your child to start crawling, so you avoid giving them opportunities to strengthen their arms and legs. That is stealing. Another example may be that your child is showing signs of weaning from your breast, but you are not quite ready to give it up, so you force the child to nurse. That is stealing away your child’s opportunity to naturally grow. (Although, regarding breastfeeding, you should educate yourself as to whether this is just a temporary nursing strike or a permanent path.)
We should allow our children to cultivate their curiosity in healthy ways. Some examples can be giving them plenty of time to explore (i.e. spill) water; letting them roam and explore the outdoors independently yet safely; allowing them to climb, jump, slide, kick and throw. And, most importantly, letting our children experience sadness, pain and frustration. This can be difficult for a mother because you don’t want to see your child unhappy and crying. But those emotions are healthy and necessary. A sheltered child will grow up to be a sheltered adult, and they will find it difficult to realize his or her own full potential. Allowing a child to be frustrated gives them motivation to achieve on their own.
Brahmacharya // Continence
Brahmacharya is keeping your awareness or attention on Brahman, or God, always. Brahmacharya is also the act of conserving vital energy, in many cases through sex. That doesn’t mean one must abstain from sex completely. It just means to keep moderation in mind.
In traditional Indian society, there are four stages of life: first, a growing child; second, a student striving for understanding of this life and searching for truth; third, a person starting and raising a family; and fourth, an individual, free from child-rearing duties, devoting him- or herself to ultimate truth. As mothers of infants and small children, we’re in the third stage. According to Desikachar, “brahmacharya suggests that we should form relationships that foster our understanding of the highest truths…On the path of serious, constant searching for truth [as in spiritual truth], there are certain ways of controlling the perceptual senses and sexual desires. This control, however, is not identical with total abstinence…Rather, it means responsible behavior with respect to our goal of moving toward the truth.”
Satchidananda once wrote that brahmacharya could be understood at two different levels: awareness of the higher Self and then on the physical level. In commentary on the Bhagavad Gita, he wrote the following:
That higher awareness is impossible without moderation in life. By conserving much prana, or vital energy, in the liquid form, awareness becomes keener; the mental capacity to remember is heightened. Often we get good ideas, but they slip by. They’re not retained because there’s no retention of seminal energy, the liquid form of prana [subtle life energy]. That’s why celibacy is associated with brahmacharya, which may be translated either as celibacy or awareness of the true Self.
There is a beautiful connection between body and mind. Physical and mental are linked, bonded, fused, even welded together with the flux of liquid prana. When you want to fuse one piece of metal to another piece, you preheat them. Still they won’t weld together without that flux. Those who know the welding process understand that. You need flux. It is this powerful, beautiful liquid energy that is the flux that fuses physical and mental, helping you retain the awareness.
You may often reach that higher awareness, but not be able to retain it. It slips away. The mind is weak. It doesn’t have the capacity to hold that higher awareness. To put it plainly, the mind loses its strength by excessive sexual activity. That’s why a spiritual seeker who sincerely wants to develop his awareness should conserve vital energy.
It need not be 100 percent. Of course you don’t expect a householder to live like that. But preserve as much as possible. Have limitation in your physical life. The maximum amount of prana is lost in the physical act of sex. But there are many other ways of losing prana, even by simply overeating or oversleeping; doing anything immoderately, overindulgence; talking too much; laughing too much; running too much. Anything in excess takes away your vital energy. Then both mind and body weaken.”
In addition to controlling your sexual activity, take note of Satchidananda’s suggestions: watch what you eat, make sure you get just enough sleep and take care of yourself. As a parent, you have to be at your best at all times. Without brahmacharya, you let your senses have the reins, and they will be going from one place to another. It is impossible to find peace without control over them.
For example, you may be drinking too much caffeine, making you overly irritable to your child over the littlest thing. Or perhaps you’re trying too hard at getting your body into shape and you end up hurting yourself in the process. You might be carting your child to too many classes or activities around town, wearing yourself out and stressing your child out. The first key to finding balance is to first recognize the problem, and then you have to follow through and find the best solution for yourself and your child.
See the next chapter: “Eight Limbs of Postpartum Yoga: Niyamas”
Series sources can be found here.