By: Juliana Cole – Living Yogi, Yoga Instructor, Studio Manager at Yoga Heights
Hello Yogis! Thanks for tuning in again as we continue our discovery of the Eight Limb Path of Yoga. In this post, we will look more closely at the first limb: the Yamas. Last month I mentioned that I’d be writing about the Yamas and Niyamas in this post but as I dive into writing these posts and attempt to make them engaging and not overwhelming, I keep pulling back on adding more content. So I have split this post into two: this month you’ll get the Yamas & next month, the Niyamas!
Quick review – the eight limbs or stages of yoga are all about the practical application of yoga. What is the goal? BLISS, self-realization! You know, that glimmer that you have felt when you’re on the mat or out in nature where you get the sensation that you are one with everything. Maybe it appears more as a feeling of peace or a gentle quiet sensation or freedom from the things that otherwise make you feel restrained or conflicted – all of that is yoga and the journey to that oneness is also yoga.
We start here with the Yamas. The Yamas and Niyamas can be considered the ten ethical principles with which we guide our thoughts and actions; how we treat ourselves and the world around us, so to speak. Instead of thinking of these as a list of characteristics that you should emulate, think of these as descriptions of what you already embody that you practice to fine-tune – what is already inside of you and at the core of who you are. Essentially, yoga teaches us that we have it all along, we just have to tap into it.
The first limb of the Eight Limb Path of Yoga are the Yamas. The Yamas describe five moral or ethical disciplines that are considered universal as they transcend all the things that make us seem different – race, creed, ethnicity, age, time, etc. The five Yamas are: Ahimsa, Satya, Asteya, Brahmacharya and Aparigraha. These disciplines are like guidelines of morality that keep us at peace with the world around us and with ourselves. The Yamas are mostly dealing with how we behave or use our energy when relating to others and when internalizing or receiving the world around us; how we relate to ourselves, so to speak.
Ahimsa, in my opinion, lies at the root of all yoga. This translates to nonviolence, or not causing pain; in its affirmative, it means compassion. Patanjali, the guy who codified yoga and wrote the Yoga Sutras, refers to Ahimsa as compassion for all living creatures, and nonviolence is expressed as love in our thoughts, our words and our actions. Patanjali writes that the ahimsa-practicing yogi recognizes that all creatures have a right to exist and that wrongdoing is an expression of evil that is to be opposed, but not to oppose the wrongdoer. Ahimsa encourages us to be empathetic to the world around us. What does it look like when we actively try to understand and share the feelings of others around us? How differently would you react to the world if you always came from a place of compassion, where your actions are geared towards understanding others and understanding the sameness that you have with all living creatures? These are questions for contemplation; questions that I frequently ask myself as I practice life. ***Check out Sadie Leigh’s post on Ahimsa – http://yogaheightsdc.com/ahimsa-compassion-the-golden-rule-of-yoga/
Satya refers to a commitment to truthfulness and honesty. This principle really shows up in our communication – understanding that honesty in our speech and actions is the foundation for a healthy relationship with the world around us. The opposite of truthfulness, untruthfulness, can most often cause harm. It seems pretty simple but it’s interesting to notice how satya shows up, particularly in our speech. Commitment to truthfulness can be challenging. There are times when we are moved to make assumptions about things we are not completely informed of, or we speak up when we want to be helpful or when we don’t want to feel the discomfort of an awkward silence. Although our speech or actions in these instances are not guided by bad intentions, they can lead to misinformation which can start a domino effect of miscommunications. Focusing on saying only what we know to be true and nothing more can mean that we say a lot less!
Asteya means not stealing. In yogic texts, non-stealing is described in various ways: not coveting or wanting to possess what does not belong to you; not misappropriating or misusing things; and not using things beyond the intended purpose or time permitted. Asteya asks us to take and use only that which has been freely given to us and to use it for its intended purpose. This goes beyond material things and extends to how we use time, space and energy. It is, to me, an extension of our ability to be empathetic and to participate in the world from a vantage point where all are valued as equal. Interestingly enough, non-stealing makes us look at how we utilize what we have and asks us to question what it is we think we need. I think we constantly battle with the idea and feeling that we don’t have enough or that we are lacking; that we are poor in resources, time, energy and space. Asteya gives us pause to think about what it is we really need and how we can demand less from outside world in order to be more self-sufficient. Asteya leads to an appreciation of the abundance that exists in our lives and a reduction of the sensation of wanting.
Brahmacharya is one that trips me up and I’ve read as many interpretations of this as I’ve heard cues for Tadasana. Celibacy, continence, self-restraint, religious study, chastity, fidelity…the list can continue and the interpretations continue. This principle, as with each other, is also interpreted slightly differently depending on the tradition. As I continue to study this principle, what most resonates with me is the very direct translation, “going after, or behavior leading to Brahman”. Brahman is considered the universal divine or higher power which is understood as existing in each of us. One description I find really approachable, by Donna Farhi, talks about brahmacharya as merging with one’s spiritual and sublime self. Brahmacharya is thus the ‘right’ use of energy, or behavior that connects us with that higher power. Instead of thinking of this as restricting or suppressing our sexual energy, or any energy for that matter, I think of this as a call to the right and intentional use of one’s energy to connect with one’s spiritual self.
Aparigraha is the last of the five Yamas. Aparigraha translates to non-hoarding or not grasping. The idea here is that letting go or being free of those things that are unnecessary will result in a feeling of weightlessness or freedom. This is challenging mostly because it is hard, in the beginning, to distinguish between what is necessary and unnecessary. How do you look at what you have or want and determine what is really necessary for your happiness and your ability to be at peace with yourself and the world around you? Again, this doesn’t only refer to material things. Aparigraha can be really helpful when thinking of how we hold on to the idea of how things are, how things should be, or what the outcome of things should be. Letting go of these ideas and expectations, or not holding on to an expected outcome or an understanding of how things should be, enables us to better deal with change and gracefully move through life with an awareness of what is. You’ve probably heard the phrase, “the only constant in life is change”. Aparigraha asks us to get comfortable in the not-knowing; to release our desire to feel certain about results and outcomes and to release our need for control over things. If we are able to do that, we create more space and opportunity for personal growth and become more resilient in the process.
It is important to note here that these steps, these principles and practices are not intended to be practiced one at a time or in a specific sequence. Also, they look completely different for each individual and the way you choose to embody the practice (as long as you don’t harm yourself or others) is perfect just as it is. They are intended to be activated all at once, and all the time. That may sound overwhelming, and at the beginning it certainly is as you try to just learn these practices, but eventually you come to see these principles become a part of your everyday doing. Without thinking, you are living yoga! You start to let go of the things that hold you back and you become more open to receiving the gifts that your practice provides.
The practice, although always done with intention, becomes a way of being. I noticed that the pace of my everyday life slowed down significantly as I began to make more room for yoga. I have a lot of questions and I recognize that I have so much to learn still, but I look forward to continuing to take my time through this journey. So until next time, continue to ask questions, talk about your experiences and always continue to practice! Remember, you are a student and a teacher all the time.