This is the first post in a series about the “eight limbs of yoga”. It’s a personal view on a popular subject so draws on many sources. Thanks then to the yogis, image and content creators listed at the end and my yoga teachers Jo and Ruth.
Unlike the second limb of yoga, the Niyamas or yogic “Dos”, the Yamas define the “Don’ts”; the rules aimed at curbing our negative tendencies and keeping us “on the straight and narrow”. Another perspective is that the Yamas inform our relationship to what’s outside and the Niyamas are concerned with our internal reality. Between them they constitute yoga’s ethical foundation which is meant to not only facilitate positive karma and Samadhi (unity), but also help manage the energy that comes from awakening the Kundalini Shakti within. Beyond the poses (asanas) yoga has ethical and spiritual dimensions.
1. Ahimsa – Nonviolence
Patanjali lists five abstinences; unfortunately, Ahimsa or non-violence comes first. Why unfortunately?, well testosterone’s “frisky” and I find vegetarianism a challenge; though probably not as much as trying to convince the abattoir’s short staying guests that I’m serious about non-violence. Suffice to say that for me, Ahimsa isn’t an easy place to start.
Leading a fully moral and virtuous life is probably as elusive as perfecting yoga poses (asanas), but that needn’t mean giving up or feeling disheartened. We intuitively know when we make a good move and though it might be a rare event, there’s truth in the saying “practise makes perfect”. With practise, today’s wobbly warrior only becomes steadier.
As well as telling us to find comfort in our posture, my yoga teacher tells us to stretch a little further “if that’s available”, an approach that seems applicable to all the limbs of yoga but especially the Yamas and Niyamas. Whilst vegetarianism may be a struggle for some, three meatless days a week is a good start, and begs the question of a fourth.
2. Satya – Truthfulness (can be addictive)
It can take a lifetime to know oneself, to have the world test the learnings and coping mechanisms we accrue along the way. How then to respond when what we believe or do errs from what is right or helpful? Truthfulness might then extend beyond not telling lies to include accepting and being reconciled to harsh realities. Rather than attempt to rationalise or distort the world to fit our own perspective, there’s a lot to be said for living life just as it is, without any “special sauce”. In the long term it just seems kinder and more reliable.
Laying out the mats for class reminds me that these foam rectangles are perhaps the best judges of our progress. Though we may try to appear composed and on point, they absorb our many imperfections and corrections and always give honest feedback.
‘To thine own self be true’Hamlet Act I Sc III – Shakespeare
Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habits. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.Lao Tzu
3. Asteya – Not stealing
It’s likely no coincidence that stealing is universally condemned across religions and societies. If you’ve ever been burgled you’ll appreciate how miserable and violated it leaves the victim. But what motivates the thief: greed, poverty, insecurity? Taking what isn’t ours can also extend to the feelings of others. If we disturb or disrupt, we’re arguably detracting from something by taking from it. Yoga has given me much, especially over Lockdown when many others also found time to take a break and look within.
It’s easy to confuse what we need with what we think we want, and to overlook the fact that contentment and gratitude cost nothing and can’t be taken. Making do with less, and coming to appreciate what can be bought for a small class fee has been a very positive realisation. Aren’t we already in abundance?
A shroud has no pocketsOld proverb
4. Bramacharya – Not wasting energy
Life doesn’t seem to be getting any easier or quieter, which is strange as the kids are grown and money isn’t so tight, but recently a number of things have piled up: broken computer, mobile phone and boiler, failing bathroom and of course work. First world challenges, which stress nonetheless.
If life feels increasingly relentless when prosperity and technology should be making it easier, then it only seems reasonable to look at what we’re doing, why, and how we’re doing it.
Holding a grudge is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.Anon
Brahmachrya is often associated with celibacy and chastity. However, whilst it can be about denying desires, it can also be taken to imply better use of, or efficiency with one’s energy. Taking a moment to question if this or that is really a worthwhile thing to do, and focusing on what we decide is important only seems sensible, but the yogic path makes it more important. Energy is required to progress the later stages of Ashtanga (eight limbed) Yoga, not least for reading and learning about them.
5. Aparigraha – Abstaining from greed, hoarding and attachment
Some folk manage to tread lightly and amass very few physical possessions, some accrue staggering amounts; and most of us lie somewhere in between. But when you’re on the mat with space to move, it’s hard not to feel content. Of course that’s not to overlook what happens before and after, but at root it’s possible to be satisfied with very little. Material possessions can easily suck up time and clutter up purpose.
Aparigraha and Asteya (not stealing), both seem to reference how we regard our situation and ourselves. How empty or full we feel and how we chose to fill ourselves up. Though that’s maybe too simple an understanding. Hoarding can also be a response to insecurity, anxiety and attachment. It’s easy to overlook the pleasure of letting go; practising Ujjayi breathing in child pose (balasana) is a good reminder.
When the mind loses desire even for objects seen or described in a tradition or in scriptures, it acquires a state of utter (vashikara) desirelessness that is called non-attachment (vairagya).Patanjali’s yoga sutras 1.15
A global survey has been conducted into happiness for the past 10 years. It shows that whilst economic prosperity is an important factor, there’re better correlations between happiness and perceived freedom to make life choices.
Yama refs –
Swami Karunananda (Youtube clip)
YOGA’s YAMAS and NIYAMAS: 10 Principles for Peace & Purpose