Yoga is most commonly known in the Western world for its physical poses, asanas, stretching/strengthening exercises to build flexibility, coordination, balance and stamina. But yoga can be much more than physical. Patanjali was an Indian sage living in the 4th or 5th century C.E. and responsible for crafting the Yoga Sutras, a sacred text of yoga philosophy.
The “8 Limbs of Yoga” detailed in the Sutras describe a multi-faceted path to the goal of yoga. The first two limbs, yamas and niyamas, were guidelines on daily living. The third was asana, the physical practice of postures, and the fourth was pranayama, or breath control. These first four limbs were more concrete and pragmatic practices, while the second four were more esoteric like sense withdrawal, focused concentration, meditation and transcendence.
There is still, so many centuries later, debate about whether one should progress through the limbs in linear order or if a multi-pronged approach is more effective. My thought: it depends on the practitioner! But in general, most would agree that the first four concrete limbs are there to build a good foundation for the more esoteric practices of the second four.
In any case, they are called limbs because, though they may appear different and seem more or less reachable, they are all part of the same tree: yoga, the union of body, mind and soul.
Patanjali’s first two limbs, the yamas and the niyamas, are daily living practices. There are 5 yamas, which look outward to how we interact with the inhabitants of the world around us:
- Ahimsa, non-violence, beckons us to be kind and not harm other beings whether by actions or words.
- Satya, truthfulness, beckons us to be honest and authentic and avoid deception or misrepresentation.
- Asteya, non-stealing, beckons us to take only what has been freely given or that we are competent to posses.
- Brahmacharya, right use of energy, beckons us to avoid excess, to rule our desires than be slave to them.
- Aparigraha, non-grasping, beckons us to let go of attachments and not attempt to clutch what cannot be held.
While the yamas are oriented to how we interact with the world around us, they are equally applicable to how we interact with ourselves: think about it, if you’re not truthful with yourself can you be genuinely truthful with another? And there are 5 niyamas, which are inner observances:
- Saucha, purity, counsels us to be clean and healthy both physically and mentally so there is less to cloud our path.
- Santosha, contentment, counsels us to focus on what is rather than what ought to be and to practice gratitude.
- Tapas, self-discipline, counsels us embrace practices that will most effectively engage our development and growth.
- Svadhyaya, self-study, counsels us to nurture a state of reflective self-awareness so that we may come to see our core essence.
- Ishvara Pranidhana, surrender to the divine, counsels us to us to relinquish the illusion of being in charge and yield to our higher purpose.
These can seem idealistic, but in much the same way a yoga pose may be thought of as an intention rather than a precise objective to attain or emulate, the yamas and niyamas might be considered notions which you need to find your own authentic expression of. In doing asana I sometimes say, “honour the pose but at the same time respect your body.” These practices for daily living could be interpreted in the same way. After all, it’s all yoga.
I created a 10 card set of the yamas and niyamas, you can view online or download and print onto card stock or heavyweight paper.