Yoga has eight limbs, the most well known of which is asana, the Sanskrit word for yoga’s physical postures. The yamas and niyamas, represent two other limbs. They offer powerful wisdom for transforming our daily struggles into peace.
Eight Limbs Of Yoga:
- Yamas – How one relates to the world at-large
- Niyamas – How one relates to the self
- Asana – Physical practice
- Pranayama – Breath practice
- Pratyahara – Withdrawal of the senses
- Dharana – Meditation technique
- Dhyana – Meditation (which is a state of being and separate from the techniques that help us achieve the state)
- Samadhi – Absorption with the absolute
What are the yamas?
This yama relates to non-violence toward others and the self. But ahimsa goes further than that, and requires the yogi to develop love for all mankind, including himself, strangers and those who have done mean or horrible things.
Ahimsa does not require us to love wrong actions. To the contrary, ahimsa urges us to oppose wrongdoing — otherwise it may turn into violence against ourselves. Ahimsa says it’s possible to love a person without loving the wrong action.
Because of the emphasis against harming others, many yogis eat a vegetarian diet. However, yoga is very clear in that the desire to avoid meat should arise naturally as an outcropping from the practice. In tuning into our loving nature, we will one day no longer wish to kill for food.
However, eating vegetarian is not a prerequisite to practicing. Changes should come from the heart and not out of a feeling of “I shouldn’t eat meat.”
The most important thing is to maintain a kind state of mind to ourselves and others.
We should accept ourselves fully, recognizing our truth at each moment, because our truth, no matter how painful or erroneous, has much to teach us.
“The yogi believes that to kill or to destroy a thing or being is to insult its creator.” — Light on Yoga
Truth. Always tell the truth. Be real rather than nice. But still always be kind.
“When we habitually silence and distort ourselves, we begin to lose our lust for life and look towards other things to fulfill us.” – The Yamas and Niyamas by Deborah Adele
This truth should be built on a foundation of non-violence and compassion. Speak the truth gently.
Non-stealing, from yourself or others. This means physical items, but also intangible things like time. With physical items, care should be taken not to misappropriate.
My teacher gave the example of a friend she gifted money to for visiting Peru. The friend later decided against visiting Peru and wanted to use the money to travel to Los Angeles to visit family. He called my teacher to ask her permission to use the money for a different purpose. To take the money earmarked for Peru and use it for a different purpose without asking would have been stealing.
To avoid stealing time, we might ask a person if she has enough time to talk before launching into a conversation.
Stealing could also relate to our inner emotional life. Criticizing ourselves steals our joy. Running ourselves ragged through work, chores, and other life events is stealing our energy.
We should also not steal from the Earth, taking care not to use more than we need and to give back what we take.
Stealing could also involve one-upping the accomplishments of another or stealing happiness through not celebrating the joy of another.
Asteya asks us to become excited about the possibilities of our own lives instead of stealing energy through coveting the achievements of another.
We have a responsibility to build ourselves up so that when what we desire does arrive, we are ready to be good stewards of it and not waste or steal the opportunity.
“Asteya, or non-stealing, demands that we become capable of stewarding what we ask for.” – Yamas and Niyamas
Brahmacharya is interpreted in several ways — moderation, non-excess, and self-restraint. It’s closely related to the fifth yama, which advises against hoarding.
Brahmacharya originally related to celibacy, but yogis do not need to be celibate. This yama urges moderation, but with the intention to have plenty of energy left over to devote oneself to the divine.
Brahmacharya urges practitioners to see the divine in everything, to approach life with the mindset of lacking nothing, wanting nothing, and pushing nothing away.
Through Bramacharya, we act without attachment to results. We avoid overindulgence to prevent the dullness and apathy that comes from too much work, too much food, and even too much entertainment. Living in life balance and moderation supplies our spirit with the energy to commune with the divine.
“Brahmacharya is the battery that sparks the torch of wisdom.” – Light on Yoga
Related to brahmacharya, or moderation, aparighraha is the ideal of not hoarding or collecting, non-greediness. Yoga advocates living simply and with just enough.
This is in opposition to American culture, which posits that people can find happiness through collecting things, making money, and achieving success.
But that accumulation comes from a place of lack, from the feeling that we are not enough or that we don’t have enough. And because our accumulation comes from a feeling of lack, we never feel we have enough. No acquired material item fundamentally changes how we feel inside.
Instead consider this: We have enough. We are enough. We do enough.
Living with a self that feels satisfied and full just from experiencing the beauty that surrounds us, we no longer need outside items to make us feel whole. We take what we need and let the rest go.
“What if we could trust life like we trust the breath? What if we could take in all the nourishment of the moment and then let it go fully, trusting that more nourishment will come?” – Yamas and Niyamas
Which yama most resonates with you? Do you have a story about any of these principles?