The Foundation of Yoga
When we talk about yoga as asana (postures), we are only referring to one of 8 Limbs of Yoga. There are 7 other foundational pillars that make up the 8-fold-path and if we only focus on the postures, we are ignoring 90% of the practice. In The Yoga Sutras, Patanjali states that each of the 8 limbs is equal to the others and necessary.
Yoga philosophy can sometimes feel very daunting and heavy. It’s a lot to digest. With that being said, I want to present this in a way that you’ll be able to absorb and apply this to your life, so we will take this step by step, one limb at a time.
This will be the first in a series of 8. Let’s start with discussing the first of 8 limbs: Yamas.
What are the YAMAS?
The word yama translates to “restraints”. They are what Patanjali calls, The Great Vows, a system of living. “The great vows are universal, not limited by class, place, time, or circumstance.” They are essentially guidelines asking us to be reasonable and decent to others.
They are ethical disciplines that teach us how to show up in the world and not be an asshole.
AHIMSA – Non-violence
II.35 “In the presence of one firmly established in non-violence, all hostilities cease.”
There are obvious forms of violence that can be easily understood like killing or physically harming another person or living being. We are taught from a young age not to harm others, but Ahimsa goes beyond just physical violence. It means “to do no harm”, and that applies to others, ourselves, and the world around us. It applies physically, mentally, and emotionally. Non-violence stands at the very core and foundation of yoga philosophy and practice.
Non-violence shows up in many ways. One of the biggest ways it shows up for me is the way I talk to myself. The negative self-talk that shows up when I look in the mirror and feel bloated, when I don’t like what my hair is doing, when I feel like I’m not good enough. This is when I have to practice Ahimsa. If we want to march through this life with compassion and act from a place of love towards others, it has to start with ourselves. Learning how to move through everyday life, and the challenges we all face, is how we grow our capacity to be non-violent.
When we practice Ahimsa continuously in our thoughts, words, and actions, our entire personality brings out those vibrations and from our core, we can act from a place of love.
SATYA – Truthfulness
II.36 “To one established in truthfulness, actions and their results become subservient.”
What Patanjali says about Satya is basically that, whatever you speak is your truth. This sutra doesn’t necessarily always refer to telling the truth. It’s deeper than that. He says “ If a curse is spoken, it will happen. If a blessing is spoken, it will happen.” It’s an encouragement to lead an open life, to be more honest with ourselves so we can live a life that aligns truthfully to our values.
This means standing in our truth and no longer telling little white lies, even if it it makes us uncomfortable. It doesn’t mean be so truthful that you will hurt another person. We are to speak the truth when true, only if it’s kind and necessary. If it’s not kind or necessary, then just don’t say it. We’re not meant to hide behind our niceness, we are also not meant to harm another with our words (ahimsa).
There’s that quote from the bible “The truth will set you free”, and according to the yoga bible (The Yoga Sutras), John was right! Truth has the power to free us from sorrow and fears. If we know our truth and follow our integrity we can be more confident in decision making, and in our relationships with ourselves and with others.
For me, finding my truth means really digging deep into the pit of my soul and excavating my core values. It’s not an easy task, but when we do this kind of work, it’s extremely rewarding.
Lately I’ve been practicing Satya by being more aware of the lies I tell myself. My lies range from “you’re not good enough” all the way to “you’re better than them”. I also lie to myself about about time and money, creating an inner dialogue that makes me think there’s never enough. This is a lie. When I’m able to distinguish the difference between what are my truths and what are my lies, my life is much more peaceful. I’m a nicer person to myself and to others (again Ahimsa), and overall I feel more grounded. Trusting myself is one of the most valuable tools yoga has taught me.
ASTEYA – Non-stealing
II.37 “To one established in non-stealing, all wealth comes.”
Patanjali says, “the richest person in the world is the one with a cool mind, free from tension and anxiety.” He’s not just simply talking about stealing material possessions from others. We steal in so many ways that might not be obvious. Stealing can come in the form of stealing other people’s ideas, or other people’s time. We steal from the earth, we steal from ourselves, we steal from our own opportunity to grow.
Let’s use the example of stealing someone else’s excitement or sadness. I have a friend who we’ll just call Susan. Any time I’m with Susan and I’m telling her about something exciting that’s going on in my life, or something that I’m sad about, Susan always finds a way to turn the conversation back on herself. This is a big form of stealing. When we compare ourselves to others or pipe in with our own stories when someone is else telling us their story, we are, even if it’s subconscious, boosting our own ego and not being present for them.
For all you yoga teachers out there, the idea of stealing time is a big one. It’s important to honor time so that you’re not stealing it from your students. People have places to be. We must think of it as our practice of Asteya. It’s not fair for you to consistently run 5 or 10 minutes over, that is not your time to take.
If you’re going to borrow ideas from other teachers, give credit where credit is due. Did any of us “make up” yoga? No! Do we get inspired by other teacher’s sequencing? Of course! Even though they didn’t make up the pose, if you learned something from someone else and you’re applying it to your class, honor your teachers and acknowledge them.
This is true for timeliness in general. Practice non-stealing by showing up on time to a coffee date or dinner with the girls. Honor each other’s time and your own, and be aware of when you are taking up too much of someone else’s.
BRAHMACHARYA – Non-excess
II.38 “By one established in continence, vigor is gained.”
All things in moderation. The fourth yama asks us to use moderation in our lifestyle, and with our energy. This means that when our bodies are tired, we rest. And when we’ve been sitting on the couch for 2 days watching Netflix, we move. Essentially, Brahmacharya is about maintaining balance in all senses by practicing moderation and consistency.
Think for a moment about what’s sitting in boxes in your attic or in the basement or a storage unit. Do you really need these things? If you’re being honest, do you even know the contents of those boxes? When we have an excess amount of “stuff”, this is described in The Sutras as overindulgence. It’s the stuff that you want, but you don’t really need. In my experience, this stuff weighs us down and blocks us from reaching our greatest potential.
Getting rid of the unnecessary possessions frees up space in our minds and in our lives. It creates a sense of liberation and vitality.
This also applies to an asana practice. When you do a pose because just because you can or just because you see others around you doing it, but you don’t actually need to do it, this is practicing in excess. Just because you can doesn’t always mean you should.
It’s important that we pay attention to our bodies when we are on our mats so we can listen and pay attention to what we actually need vs. what we want. These things feel similar but if we take a closer look, they are very different. And if we can take care of our basic needs, the wants become less and less valuable.
APARIGRAHA – Non-possessiveness
II.39 “When non-greed is confirmed, a thorough illumination of the how and why of one’s birth comes.”
The 5th and final Yama, Aparigraha, means non-greed, non-possessiveness, or non-hoarding. It can also mean non-clinging, non-grasping, and non-coveting. Another to way to look at this, is being able to “let go”. Whatever we possess, possesses us.
We can let go in many ways, like letting go of our attachments to identities, or to our favorite clothes. Without realizing it, we walk around in life, attaching ourselves to identities or roles (mom, doctor, yogi, vegan, etc) and we allow them to define us. This is where we get in trouble. What happens if we allow our external environments to impact our belief about who we are? For example, let’s say you let your job title define you, or you deeply identify with your romantic relationship, and then you get fired or your significant other dumps you. You then also lose your sense of self. You are then responsible for your own pain and sadness.
This Yama is about releasing attachment to other people, to substances, to the desire to achieve success as form of validation from others. As we cultivate a sense of simplicity in our lives, we begin to honor ourselves on a much deeper level.
Taking It All In
The Yamas are our basic restraints. Read them, and read them again. Soak it up and let it sink in. These points are something to study and live by throughout an entire lifetime. Revisit them however often you need to and start applying these principles to your life, and how you show up in the world. Allow them to take form, and witness the evolution of your own being.