According to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, which are a collection of 196 Indian sutras on the theory and practice of yoga, there are eight limbs of yoga or an “Eight-Limb Path”. The eight limbs are as follows: 1) Yamas – social ethics 2) Niyamas – personal practices 3) Asana – posture 4) Pranayama – mindful breathing 5) Prathyahara – turning inward 6) Dharana – concentration 7) Dhyana – de-concentration 8) Samadhi – pure bliss. I could easily go into detail about all of these, but I feel it’s best to break it down, and no better place to start than the beginning! Read on to learn more about the Yamas…
The Yamas are, as stated above, social ethics. In total, there are five, and I will detail them all here:
1. Ahimsa: Non-violence or non-harming.
I’m sure this concept isn’t new to anyone. However, the word “violence” likely brings up images of brutally attacking someone in a physical sense, but violence or harm go quite beyond just the physical. It’s possible to be violent with our words and our thoughts, not just with overt actions of physical aggression or attack. It’s also possible to be violent toward ourselves, even though it’s quite plausible that initially this thought doesn’t come to mind; at least for me, most of my life, when I would think of violence or doing harm, I wasn’t thinking about what I might have been doing to myself. Ahimsa asks us to do no harm, to any living being, including ourselves. I would even argue that it is of upmost importance that we are not violent toward ourselves, as the relationship we have with ourselves is likely very much like the relationships we have with others.
2. Satya: Truthfulness or non-falsehood.
This one may actually be tricky in some circumstances, especially while also practicing ahimsa. If being truthful will cause harm, which goes against ahimsa, it is better to first consider ahimsa. If you find yourself in this type of circumstance, ask these questions: is the truth something that needs to be said? Or is there a kinder way to approach it or present it? Being truthful with ourselves and others is the only way to live an authentic life and be in the flow of life; dishonesty creates blockages in many ways, and it usually depletes us of more energy and peace in the long run than if we were just to be honest in the first place.
3. Asteya: Non-stealing.
This is fairly straight-forward, but again, it goes beyond just taking a physical or material item that does not belong to you. It’s possible to also steal the time and energy from ourselves and others.
4. Brahmacharya: Moderation
You may also see this one explained as chastity, sexual restraint, or marital fidelity. For different people, this one may have different meanings. However, I believe that moderation is the best all-encompassing term; in my opinion, basing this Yama solely on sexuality is quite limited. As an example, think about eating – it’s possible to eat too much, too little, or just enough; in the case of eating too much or too little, you actually are causing harm to yourself, at least in most cases, most of the time. Eating just enough, or in moderation, is what may also be referred to as the “middle way”; this idea may be applied to almost everything in life. It’s best to create harmony and balance between all things and not live in an extreme.
5. Aparigraha: Non-possessiveness, non-attachment.
Attachment and possessiveness have the potential to cause all sorts of issues and suffering. As an example, attaching to an idea of how you think something should be or how your day should go pretty much automatically sets you up for disappointment, especially as most plans usually do not end up materializing as we hope or expect. Instead, you could relax, not attach, and be present with what is, appreciating the moment, however it presents. Also, material possessiveness has the potential to create blockages and cause suffering. If you are not benefitting from something and keeping it around just because you have an attachment to it, sentimental or otherwise, you may be blocking generosity that you could extend by passing it along to someone else who may be better served by it, or holding on to more than you need or can use could keep you stuck in a situation, potentially keeping you from moving from one home to another home or from one location to another, which may better serve you and/or your family. There are endless ways that grasping, whether at something material, or otherwise, has the potential to wreak havoc in our lives and the lives of others. What is meant to come to you shall come to you, and just as easily as you accept it, you should also let it go when you are meant to do so.
And there you have the Yamas – five social ethics to contemplate and put into practice. One way you may consider working with the Yamas is to select one to focus on each week and bring your full awareness and attention to it in your daily life, and attempt to fully implement it in your thoughts, words, and actions. Even if you struggle at times, the first step to being able to bring a Yama into perfect practice is having the awareness of it; maybe at first you will catch yourself at the beginning of or in the process of being violent or dishonest; but if you catch yourself, then you can turn it around, and it’s likely you will be more mindful the next time you are in a similar situation, and you may hopefully avoid it altogether. Meet yourself where you are and be easy with yourself throughout this process, should you choose to embark on it.
A resource I highly recommend is the book Yamas & Niyamas Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice by Deborah Adele. This was a required reading for me during my yoga teacher training, and it is very insightful. This book is easy and fun to read…Deborah’s insights are incredible, and she offers helpful anecdotes, analogies, and suggestions to put the Yamas and Niyamas into daily practice.
Be sure to check out next week’s blog post where I will get into detail about the Niyamas!
“The Yamas & Niyamas are foundational to all yogic thought. Yoga is a sophisticated system that extends far beyond doing yoga postures: it literally is a way of living. Yoga is designed to bring you more and more awareness of not only your body but also your mind.” -Deborah Adele
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