The idea of yoga as an eight-limbed path comes from the practice’s original deep-thinker, a 4th century sage by the name of Patanjali. Patanjali conceived of the eight limb philosophy in his text The Yoga Sutras, a wide-ranging collection of aphorisms concerning the essential nature of yoga. This week we’re launching a series of posts on each of the limbs; while each limb, or branch, can be studied and practiced separately, they are really meant to be understood as a whole, building and playing off of each other.
The limb you’re likely most familiar with is asana, the physical practice of the poses themselves, but that’s really the tip of the iceberg. Here, for reference, is a list of all eight:
- Yamas: How to be with others
- Niyamas: How to be with ourselves
- Asana: The physical practice
- Pranayama: Breathwork
- Pratyahara: Withdrawal of the senses
- Dharana: Concentration
- Dhyana: Meditation
- Samadhi: Transcendence, enlightenment, bliss — the whole enchilada
This week we’ll take a deeper dive into the first limb, the yamas.
Along with the niyamas, the yamas make up yoga’s code of conduct. These are outward practices, guidelines for how to interact with those around us and the world at large. The first three — ahimsa, sayta, and asteya — are a yogic take on the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The last two — brahmacharya and aparigraha — explore our relationship to outside influences:
How can we, as flesh-and-blood yogis in the physical world, stay balanced and aligned?
Patanjali highlights moderation and contentment — through self-control and restrained desire for material goods — as two paths to choose.
Here’s the full list:
- Ahimsa: nonviolence
- Satya: truthfulness
- Asteya: non-stealing
- Brahmacharya: non-excess
- Aparigraha: non-possessiveness
Each of these yamas could merit a post of its own; right practices for right living, they are as open to interpretation and exploration as any posture you try on the mat. If they feel irrelevant to your daily life (i.e. you are not a murderous thief), think about distilling them down.
Ahimsa, for many, means going vegan or vegetarian; it can also mean not making a joke at someone else’s expense. For satya, truthfulness comes through in thoughtfulness — take a moment to consider if you truly believe what you’re about to say. The impulse to steal something comes from a feeling of lack or scarcity; asteya asks us to consider that we already have all we need. For some, brahmacharya may mean abstaining from physical intimacy, for others it may mean less time on Tinder, and for others still it may have nothing to do with sex at all. Aparigraha asks us to examine what we may holding on to too tightly — from beliefs and relationships to material goods — and encourages us to let go what no longer serves us. The yamas are available as guidelines: use them as a compass when things get off-course or as a barometer when you’re starting to feel the pressure.