The first limb of the classical practice of yoga – the Yamas – offers teachings around how to engage with ourselves and with the world around us. There are five different components to this limb. Over the past five weeks, I have been exploring these teachings in my classes. For my continuing students, this post is intended to review the concepts of the first limb before we move forward to explore the second limb – the Niyamas – in the coming weeks.
Before I address each of the five yamas, I want to emphasize the idea that our understanding of these teachings (or practices) is like a mural that slowly takes shape. The first experience learning about these concepts draws the first strokes of colour and the first shapes in the mural. As our yoga practice deepens, our understanding of these concepts expands and shifts. With this depth of understanding, the mural starts to become more colourful, more filled in, and we are able to see things in it that we weren’t able to see before. We understand the yamas on a deeper level and see the role they play throughout all different aspects of our lives. We draw together perspectives shared by different teachers and our individual life experiences to shape our unique understanding of these concepts – which slowly, but consistently, bring more shape and colour to the mural.
Ahimsa: The basics
Ahimsa is most commonly translated as non-harming or non-violence. This practice of non-harming begins with our relationship to ourselves and extends to both the people and animals around us and to the planet we live on. As the first component of the first limb of yoga, ahimsa is considered to be a practice that all other yogic practices are rooted in. For example, in the practice of truthfulness (satya), we consider the practice of non-harming in how we go about sharing the truth. The third limb of yoga, the practice of asana (yoga poses), is also rooted in the intention to not cause harm.
Ahimsa: How we explored it in class
Our asana practice provides a great opportunity to observe our tendency to direct unkind thoughts towards ourselves. For many people, critical thoughts about their body, the shape of their poses, and their perceived lack of mobility and/or strength come up regularly in a yoga asana class. In an effort to refocus any critical thoughts, we emphasized a practice of gratitude in class. For example, rather than obsessing about how close our torsos are to our legs, we chose to express gratitude for the support our legs provide us with. And, rather than bemoaning our tight hamstrings, we chose to feel overwhelmingly grateful for our ability to feel sensation in our bodies.
Satya: The basics
Satya is almost always translated to English as a practice of truthfulness in thought, word and deed. As touched upon earlier, this practice of truthfulness is rooted in a practice of ahimsa, so it does not mean simply saying whatever you want to say whenever you want to say it. The practice of satya begins with the careful observation of our thoughts and habitual responses. As we become more aware of the beliefs and patterns our experiences are filtered through, we develop our ability to exercise discernment and speak and act with more integrity.
Satya: How we explored it in class
Reflective questioning played a significant role in our exploration of satya in class. Over the week, I posed a few different questions for the asana practice. We first looked at the questions: “What am I doing?” and “Why am I doing it?” And, later in the week, asked “What am I assuming?” and “What beliefs are shaping my assumptions?”
In the Restorative classes, we explored the possible absence of truthfulness in the language we use to describe our relationship to time. For example, “I don’t have enough time,” or “there isn’t enough time.” We all have the same amount of time. Perhaps a more truthful statement would be, “I want to do more today than there is time to do it in.”
Asteya: The basics
A simple translation of the practice of asteya is non-stealing. I like to elaborate a bit more and describe asteya as taking only what us offered to you and using only what you need. The practice can be applied to material items and intellectual and environmental resources, as well as time and energy. The primary feeling that challenges the practice of asteya is fear. A fear of deficiency and lack leads to the desire to consume more than we need. A significant part of the practice of asteya for many people is learning to experience the fear of lack without needing to act upon it.
Asteya: How we explored it in class
Jumping into a focus on the fear that can disrupt a practice of asteya, I asked this question: “How would your life change if you decided to believe that there would always be enough?” Moving through the class, we specifically explored the idea of being flexible enough, being strong enough, and having done enough asana practice.
In Restorative classes, we looked at the possibility of practicing asteya with your own energy. We live in a culture where we are often lauded for doing as much as possible, as fast as possible. We might even sacrifice activities important to our health, like sleep and exercise, in the pursuit of accomplishing more. With the significant correlation between stress and disease, I suggested that all of our doing might be taking more energy than our body has to give.
This quote from one of my teachers feels appropriate to close this section with: “If you want to have a happy life, never do as much as you can.” – Judith Lasater
Brahmacharya: The basics
Classically, brahmacharya is the root of the practice of celibacy in the yoga tradition, and to this day, some translations focus on it being a wise use of sexual or creative energy. Another common translation of brahmacharya is moderation, but I push back against the idea that everything should be in moderation. Sometimes it is not only appropriate but wise to give everything you have to something – and other things are best avoided completely. The teachings I have been exposed to at this point in my yoga practice resonate strongly with translating the practice of brahmacharya as a wise use of energy. The focus becomes caring for our energy and using it in ways that sustain us and our planet.
Brahmacharya: How we explored it in class
The main emphasis in practicing brahmacharya in class was the idea that a greater level of effort does not necessarily produce greater results. We explored how softening your effort in a pose might hold the possibility of a deeper practice. Later in the week, we looked at developing awareness around whether you were using your energy towards a process or a goal. I suggested that a wiser use of energy in the asana practice is to focus on the process of the pose and the day-to-day variations in your experience in the pose – as opposed to directing your energy towards accomplishing a particular shape with your body.
With Restorative being a physically passive, but mentally active, practice, the emphasis was placed on the practice of presence. You can bring all the bolsters and blankets you want to a Restorative pose, but if your mind is planning your week, your body will stay active and alert. By consistently committing to bringing your focus back to the present moment, you direct your energy towards the possibility of relaxing deeply in the pose.
Aparigraha: The basics
I have most often seen aparigraha translated as non-grasping, but I have also seen it translated as non-greed and non-attachment. I like the translation of non-grasping because it directs my attention to the sensation of holding onto something really, really tight. I can imagine the way that my body becomes tight and rigid with that effort. In the practice of aparigraha, we work to come to peace with the reality of constant change – and release ourselves from the binding restriction of holding on really tight. While we are learning to let things go with this practice, we are not becoming detached. We will still feel frustrated and upset, we will still care, but our practice helps us accept whatever has happened and focus on moving through the emotions that arise in response.
Aparigraha: How we explored it in class
The first focus was simply to notice what you are attached to in your practice. Often we aren’t actually aware of the things that we are attached to – or we wouldn’t have initially framed it as an attachment. But, once the possibility of it being an attachment is presented to us, it often fits. For example, a common unrecognized attachment for yogis is the sense of needing to feel sensation in their bodies in a pose. Another way we worked with aparigraha was letting go of the need for your yoga practice to be a certain way. With a practice like Restorative yoga, we learn to accept that we might sometimes feel alert and anxious through a whole class. In a more physically demanding class, we might feel weak or tired – or not be as challenged as we wanted to be. From the teacher to the poses to the music and the lighting, in each yoga class we attend there is an opportunity to soften into what is, because, whether we like something about a class or not, whatever it is will eventually pass.
One of the beautiful things about these practices for engaging with ourselves and the world around us is that the teachings are not offered within the framework of “good and bad” or “right or wrong.” The teaching does not say you are wrong if you lie and steal or that you will be punished if you harm. The teaching simply says that you will live a more joyful and easeful life if you follow these practices.
But, like any yogic practice, they are intended to be experimental – meaning that it is something for you to try out in the world and see what you find.
I am passionate about sharing these teachings because, in my experience experimenting with them so far, I have found incredible amounts of joy and ease. And, I hope you do too.