Earlier I wrote a brief post about the eight limbs of yoga as described by Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras. Most students of yoga are familiar with three of them: breath (pranayama), posture (asana) and meditation. The remaining five are not often even mentioned in many (asana) classes and if we were to come across them somewhere they can understandably seem a bit hard to grasp.
What is however offered in Patanjali’s writings is still very much relevant to this day. In short, he offers – not dictates – a guide for us to contemplate and follow to help us all on our way to a happier, more peaceful live. The first limb, the yamas, are about restraint, abstinences and self-regulation: a code of self-regulation. As it is January, this seems a very suitable topic so lets break the five yamas down.
Ahimsa is the principle of non-violence, non-harming and non-injury and it is the highest of the yamas. Rather than referring simply to physical aspects of violence (or to say, non consumption of animal products), ahimsa also means letting go of hostile, aggressive or irritating thoughts as they prevents us from being at peace with ourselves. Included in this concept is also how we treat ourselves: do we speak to ourselves with the same kindness and respect than we speak to others? Ahimsa does not however tell us fall victim: we are all allowed to defend or protect ourselves, if this is to prevent larger harm from happening.
Sutra 2.35: “As a Yogi becomes firmly grounded in non-injury (ahimsa), other people who come near will naturally lose any feelings of hostility (ahimsa pratishthayam tat vaira-tyagah.)”
Satya is the concept of truthfulness and honestly. The key to satya is to understand that it does not simply refer to what is our subjective truth. Instead it calls for an understanding for the larger truth takes into account in the big picture: opinions (e.g. gossip) are separate from the truth and it is important we learn to distinguish between the two.
Satya also means that our thoughts, words and actions are in line: that we not only talk the talk, we also walk the walk. However, Satya is measured in relation to ahima, non-violence. It does not give us the permission to go around and say what we please to people in the name of ”but it is true” as this can be hurtful.
Asteya is what we also know as ”thou shalt not steal.” But as this is yoga, asteya does not simply refer to material things. Theft also exists in the form of taking others’ time (for instance, by being excessively late), draining their energy, ruining their happy mood or using their work ideas. Asteya invites us to reflect what and how we consume, well, everything: the idea is that all energy is interconnected and what you take from somebody else excessively always creates an imbalance.
In a practical sense asteya can be seen in the principle of fair trade. Another example would be not paying back something that you should.
Brahmacharya is often translated as continence, but it does not mean celibacy is required to be a ”good yogi.” Widely speaking brahmacharya refers to being aware of the divine, and living in a way that is mindful of the energy we use. We all have experienced situations we have gotten disproportionally angry or agitated over something and ended up exhausted for it – not a good use of our energy. Another good example is how we use our effort during asana practise: are we practising mindfully and relaxed mind or focusing more on how we think our backbend should look? Which type of practise is more pleasurable?
Sutra 2.38: “To one established in continence, vigor is gained.”
Aparigraha refers to non-possessiveness, or non-greed. Simply put it means we should not accumulate stuff excessively or get attached to what we own. We are not the things we possess, nor do they define our personality or value.
On a non-material level aparigraha means we should let go of old beliefs if they do not serve us anymore: For instance, how we behave with our friends or other relationships can change if the circumstances necessity a different attitude. Equally, we do not have to vote for the same party all our lives if a better option emerges. Our identities do not need to be fixed, and with the realisation of that comes freedom.
This was should a quick introduction to yamas but how do they sound to you? Feel free to drop a comment to add, disagree, say you what to want to say – nothing better than a good discussion.