Yamas - The first limb of Yoga
Updated: Apr 22, 2021
Carrying on from last week's blog post, we come to the first of Patanjali's Eight Limbs of Yoga, the Yamas. The Yamas are referred to as "External Ethical Observances" which sounds rather strict! Simply they are guidelines for how to live in the world - the Yogi code of conduct if you like. You could write books and books on each five of them but essentially they are as follows:
Ahimsa: Non-harming / non-violence. This doesn't just refer to physical harm, but mental and emotional harm, to both to ourselves, others and the world around us. Ahimsa is the reason why many Yogis are vegetarian or vegan. For me I try to practice Ahimsa by living in a climate conscious way, so choosing food and other products that are from sustainable sources, reducing waste by recycling and having a compost heap, and choosing plastic free options wherever I can. It's important to remember that Ahimsa isn't passive - its not just an absence of harm. To truly practice Ahimsa involves speaking out when you see harm happening around you. This might be signing petitions, speaking out on social media, writing to your MP or taking part in peaceful protests. Ahimsa is more than just 'being nice' to everyone. It's aiming to ensure that others can live a peaceful, fulfilled existence.
On the mat we can practice Ahimsa by not twisting ourselves into poses that our body isn't ready for (and may never be!) or pushing ourselves to do every vinyasa when really we need to rest. Practicing Ahimsa to ourselves on the mat, cultivating a culture within ourselves of noticing harm and acting on it, helps us practice Ahimsa in the wider world.
Satya: Truthfulness. This doesn't just mean being truthful in what we say, but LIVING our truth. That is living our lives in a way that reflects our true, authentic selves. Not pretending to be something we're not. Pantanjali lives a few thousand years before the invention of social media, but Satya can easily be applied to the carefully curated versions of people you see on Instagram and Facebook. Whenever you see a flawless image of someone, ask yourself What is the Truth behind that picture? Essentially it's about living with integrity. BUT DON'T PANIC! We always balance Satya with the first Yama - Ahimsa. You don't have to be totally truthful if causes harm. So if Auntie Doreen's new dress makes her look like the back end of a bus you can be tactful about it.
On the mat Satya is about being truthful about where we are in our practice. In a similar way to Ahimsa it's about listening to yourself and being honest about whether you're pushing yourself too hard, or trying something you don't feel confident about but everyone else is doing it so you think you should. Leaning to be truthful about how much we can take on during our practice gives us this skill off the mat too.
Asteya: Non-stealing. So like most of the Yamas Asteya works on many many levels. Firstly is the most obvious - don't steal stuff! Other peoples possessions, money, pets; if something belongs to someone else then it aint yours. Easy right? But it's a bit deeper than that. It refers to not taking anything that is not freely given. So on a basic level if you're waiter's forgotten to put a bottle of wine on your bill you should point it out. But it also covers things like not exploiting other peoples good nature or using someone for your own advantage. Sometimes the urge to "steal" comes from a place of unhappiness, incompleteness or envy. One way to counter this is to do the opposite - give. Give money, compliments, help, hugs. Giving fosters a sense of pride and self-worth. "There is no exercise better for the heart than reaching down and lifting people up" - John Holmes.
Brahmacharya: Celibacy. Hold up! It's not celibacy in the traditional sense. Nowadays Brahmacharya is interpreted more as fidelity, energy conservation, and moderation. Not just fidelity within a romantic relationship, but loyalty and faithfulness in all our relationships, including the one with have with ourselves. It's the ultimate Yama for self-care. Learning to moderate our behaviour out of loyalty to ourselves, and rest when we need to rest, have a glass of wine when we need a glass of wine (but maybe not a whole bottle), and roll out our yoga mat when we need to practice.
On the mat it's taking a Child's pose then we need one, or not taking the most extreme variation of a pose. Maybe not practicing every day, or not practicing when we are injured. It's having a mix of restorative and dynamic classes and poses.
Aparigraha: Non-possessiveness. Letting go of everything that we don't need. Not becoming too attached to physical possessions, or so focused on making a certain amount of money that we loose sight of enjoying our jobs and our lives. I'm not saying you have to give everything away and live in a cave, but what do you really NEED? I think if the past year of the pandemic has taught us anything it's that the things we miss the most are the things you can't buy. Conversations, connection, cuddles. Friends, family, freedom.
On the mat it's letting go of what doesn't serve you. Maybe you've been trying Crow pose for a while and you just can't get it - let it go. Come back to it in a month, six months, six years. The pose isn't going anywhere.
Ok so there is A LOT here! Step one of practicing the Yamas is literally just thinking about them. Pick one and do a little reading perhaps. Or next time you step on your mat have one in the back of your mind. Yoga is a journey, you don't have to rush to get there all at once.
"Thoughts become actions, actions become habits, habits become our character, and our character becomes our destiny" - James Hunter.
See you on the mat soon x