In a recent “Yoga Off the Mat” workshop, I quickly breezed through an explanation of the eight limbs of yoga because of time constraints, and I immediately knew I’d be spending some time here on the blog writing about them. While I was clear that I wanted to squeeze this discussion into the workshop to give a sense of how much more to yoga there is than the movements, it felt almost sacrilegious to give such sparse review to these deep, rich pillars of yoga. I’ll review the first two of the eight limbs here, and the other six elsewhere.
The first limb of yoga–The Yamas:
These are five ethical precepts guiding how we live in the world and how we get along with others. They include:
Ahimsa: Non-violence. This refers to refraining from physical, emotional or mental harm towards ourselves, others, our personal environments and the environment at large. It also extends to the more subtle practices of being kind towards others, cultivating compassion and empathy, and practicing tolerance for those things with which we don’t agree.
Satya: Often translated as “truth,” though I prefer the notion of “being with what is.” This requires the very courageous ability to accept reality and to refrain from all the various ways in which we delude ourselves and others. We are really good at avoiding unpleasant truths, in a million different ways, and for most of us, it feels awkward or dark or downright terrifying to really be with–as actively as if you were having coffee with a friend–our “dark matter.”
Asteya: Non-stealing. This refers to the obvious refrain from theft of physical goods but also extends to not stealing others’ energies or spotlights, others’ ideas without credit or agreement, and so on.
Bramicharia: Often translated as celibacy, many yogis believe it’s more about using our energies mindfully–sexual or otherwise. This is about not burning our candles out at both ends, not digging hundreds of shallow holes at the exclusion of deeper ones, and not wasting our time or energies putting out fires that result from disorganization. It’s a matter of putting out efforts where they matter to us most, and where they’ll have great impact.
Aparigraha: Non-grasping. Holding, loving, appreciating–these are all different from grasping. This one comes to mind when I find myself striving in my physical yoga practice to reach a deeper twist or to stay longer in a head stand even though my neck is starting to hurt. Goals are important and hard work is essential, but there is a slippery slope to grasping at arbitrary goal points and failing to see the process that is unfolding. More beauty and more lessons are held in the journey than in reaching the destination. This is also about taming our egos, since the implicit (and likely unconscious) message to myself is that “I am good” if I can stay in that head stand (or find a partner or have a certain career or be a parent or…). The implicit message is that “I am better” if I can twist more deeply than the girl next to me in class (or if I’m thinner or stronger or make more money or…). The truth is that we are all Divine, regardless of any of the arbitrary comparisons to which we subject ourselves. Yoga tells us that we are different and important expressions of Godly love.
The second limb of yoga–The Niyamas:
These are five observances that are more personal in nature. We work to build these qualities within ourselves–which of course has effects on our relationships and communitites.
Saucha: Cleanliness. This is about keeping our physical bodies clean, our surroundings tidy, our diets pure, and our minds at ease. This is also about knowing where those tax forms are so you don’t spend a day tearing your home apart at the last stressful minute, having your finances in order so you’re not bouncing checks, and so forth.
Santosha: Contentment. Nice and easy, right? Just be content. Ha! We have an incredible habit of focusing on that which isn’t working, that which pisses us off, or hurts, of sucks in some way. While this is helpful in terms of helping engineers improve the design of our appliances, it has all but taken over our minds. Santosha is about spending that kind of time and attention on all that is going well, and dwelling in appreciation.
Tapas: Translated often as “heat,” tapas refers to zeal, effort, work and a certain strictness. But not so fast. This is about a spark of natural desire and initiation–it is not about gritting your teeth as you hold a yoga pose or job or relationship. It’s about very deep commitment to our highest goals, and about getting back up when we’ve fallen.
Svadyaya: Self-study. This is about taking a sincere interest in our habits, tendencies, wounds, strengths, impact on others, and so on. It’s really easy for us to have blinders on to our weaknesses (“Woah, scary–I’m unworthy” or a vague sense of “I’m bad”) as well as our amazing brilliance (“You arrogant fool, who are you to think you’re so awesome?” or “There are others that can do it better than that.”) A true self-study pushes us to transcend these kinds of stories so that we can evolve and change when needed, and likewise celebrate our successes and strengths. This is also to a dedication to putting yogic scriptures and philosophies into active practice in our lives, every day.
Isvarapranidhana: Surrender. This one is about recognizing that we are part of larger systems–our families, our social circles, our communities of all kinds, and the Universe at large. This means that we don’t always control, and won’t always understand. It also refers to finding faith, to actively celebrating the spiritual, and to cultivating humility.
These ten values overlap with each other and support one another: for example, I can only practice svadyaya if I’m willing to see what is, and practice satya. When I curse a friend’s good news in bitter jealousy, I fail to practice both ahimsa and aparigraha. It is also true that, as we go along, there are times where they seem to contradict one another, and we are forced to grapple a bit. Do I tell truths (satya) if I know they’ll likely hurt a friends’ feelings (what about ahimsa)? How do I balance effort (tapas) with non-grasping (aparigraha)? If I fail to reach my goal, was it because I didn’t work hard enough, and need more tapas, or it all “God’s will” and my job is to practice isvarapranidhana?
In my view, what’s important is that we continue to struggle with these questions, to share with our communities, to ask the hard questions, to work more towards understanding and peace in ourselves and in the world. In short, to come back to the study, the work, the process. Which of these ideas do you implement in your life, whether you’d ever heard of them or not? Which do you grapple with? Always love to hear.