If you have been practicing yoga in a studio, you may not know that there is much more to the practice than simply the shapes we make with our bodies.
According to Patanjali, who wrote the Yoga Sutras, there are 8 limbs of yoga, or 8 things that need to be in place to reach a state of yoga, or “union”.
This post will dive into the first limb, or the first element that we should be aware of – the yamas. These restraints are meant to be practiced in daily life, but I also like to think of them during yoga classes. Here is a list of the 5 yamas, or restraints, and specifically how they can be applied to a physical yoga practice:
- Ahiṃsā (अहिंसा): Nonviolence – in the case of a physical yoga practice, this can be applied as nonviolence towards self. This includes being gentle with yourself and not forcing the body into positions it is not ready for, but it also includes self-talk. How often do we find ourselves drifting into thoughts about not being good at the practice, judging our appearance if there are mirrors present in the studio, etc? Instead, perhaps when we notice these thoughts arising, we could offer ourselves a bit of compassion and understanding.
- Satya (सत्य): truthfulness – this goes hand in hand with the first yama. As much as possible, during a physical asana practice, it is important to tune into the present moments, and the sensations we are feeling. When faced with a feeling of discomfort, or of pain, remain true to yourself and allow yourself to feel that feeling and perhaps find a moment of rest if needed.
- Asteya (अस्तेय): non-stealing – this can be interpreted any number of ways, from the very obvious, making sure that you pay for the classes you are taking, to the more subtle – things like being mindful not to disrupt the practice of another by wearing too much perfume, entering the room late, checking your phone, making a lot of unnecessary noise, etc.
- Brahmacharya (ब्रह्मचर्य): fidelity or sexual restraint – this is a tricky one, because there is such a broad range of understandings of this yama, some going as far as practicing complete celibacy, while others practice being faithful to just one partner, while still others practice being discerning about who they will share a sexual relationship with while not necessarily just choosing one person. In terms of our physical practice on the mat, I like to think about what I believe is the intention of this restraint, which is to protect our bodies and our energies. For me, this means taking an extra child’s pose instead of a downward dog if I feel I am tired. It may mean practicing a vinyasa flow if I notice that I am feeling stuck, that energy is stale. It means really tuning in to our internal state.
- Aparigraha (अपरिग्रहः): non-possessiveness, non-grasping – Know your limits. Try, as much as possible to find contentment with where you are in your physical practice. There may be other people in the room who seem to be able to move much deeper into a pose, or balance a lot longer, but the truth is, every person is in a different place. Each body is different from the body next to it. If you are consistently distracted by how others are doing within the class, you will be limiting your own capacity, and also missing the benefits of tuning inwards.
If you are interested in trying out the application of these yamas, I would suggest picking one each time you practice, and focusing just on that one, and then choosing another the next time. These restraints are so complex and layered that I have just barely scratched the surface, but hopefully I have given you something to contemplate and expand on. I would love to hear from you if you do decide to try this out, so that I can learn about your experience. Stay tuned in the near future for more on the 8 limbs! Namaste.
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