Welcome back to another Yoga Break, everyone! Last week’s topic was a brief introduction to the Eight Limbs of Yoga, which are going to serve as the framework for our Yoga Break discussions over the next several weeks. We’re starting our exploration off today with a look at the first branch (Yama) so let’s get to it!
As mentioned last week, the tradition of yoga is comprised of eight limbs which together make up a set of “guidelines on how to live a meaningful and purposeful life”, according to Yoga Journal. The first of these eight limbs is called Yama, and it deals with our social interactions, behavior, and self-conduct. Specifically, there are five Yamas (the linguist in me feels the need to explain that I will hereby be pluralizing a Sanskrit word using English rules):
Let’s go through these one by one.
Ahimsa is usually translated as non-violence or non-harming, which at first glance sounds pretty easy…right? Well, yes and no. My guess (or rather, my hope) is that most of us aren’t physically violent, meaning we’re not going around decking our bosses in the face or pushing people into walls. However, if we translate Ahimsa as non-harming, things get a little fuzzier. What does it mean to harm another person? What does it mean to harm yourself? Is that little piece of gossip you’re so excited to share with your best friend going to cause harm to the person it’s about? Is forcing my body to fit into a certain yoga posture when it’s not ready going to be harmful? How about eating a hamburger – are we complicit in harming animals if we eat meat? These are the deeper things to reflect on when learning to abide by Ahimsa.
The second Yama is Satya or truthfulness. While I would love to nerd out on you all about the linguistics of Sanskrit, for the sake of brevity I’ll just note that sat refers more to a state of unchanging purity than it does to our English understanding of “truth”. I’ve heard a lot of different opinions on how to interpret Satya, but the one that has always stuck out to me is that practicing Satya means to look clearly and see how things how they really are. This means that sometimes we have to own up to some hard things; we have to be honest with ourselves and with others. On the flip side, it also means acknowledging the truths about ourselves that we often reject: “I am enough. I am whole.”
Asteya is a little odd on the surface in much the same way that Ahimsa is. Roughly translated, it means “non-stealing”, and again, I highly doubt many of us are sneaking into homes at night to steal valuables or plotting ways to pickpocket people on the street. However, there’s more to Asteya than the physical act of stealing! For example, time is a very valuable commodity, as are energy and emotions. Too often we rob ourselves of the present moment by zipping from one task to the next without stopping to think. Or, maybe there’s someone in your life who just really steals your joy (you know what I’m talking about). Being cognizant of these seemingly small things being “taken” from you and making a shift towards recovering or letting them go if they don’t serve you is one interpretation of what Asteya is all about.
The fourth Yama, Brahmacharya, is a bit difficult, as I’ve seen it translated as “celibacy” and therefore sort of skimmed over as irrelevant in today’s society. True, the ancient yogis did strive to practice celibacy as a way to conserve their energy for the yogic path, but the point was not so much about sexuality as it was about putting our energy to the right use. That being said, I think that in today’s culture we can interpret Brahmacharya as being mindful of where we are directing our energy and also as moderation. I know that a lot of my energy goes towards worrying about things that are out of my control, so remembering to practice Brahmacharya is a great way to redirect my intentions and thoughts. Similarly, practicing restraint and moderation is important in almost all aspects of life, both physically and emotionally.
Last but (most definitely) not least is Aparigraha. I’ll be honest, this is probably the one that I struggle with the most! We can translate Aparigraha a number of ways (I’ve seen non-greed and non-possessiveness), but the one that I think best encapsulates the concept is non-attachment. In fact, this is one of the most central teachings of yoga itself! The basic idea is that everything is always changing, every second, and that attachment to our circumstances or to the outcome of our actions will only serve to hold us back. Sure, this can apply to physical belongings or money, but I’ve found that in my life it usually has to do with goals and relationships. When we learn to let go and trust the flow of life, we are practicing Aparigraha.
If you stuck with me all the way to the end of this post, props to you! That’s a lot of information to take in, especially if you’ve never heard of any of it before. Because the yoga tradition is so profound and deeply rooted, there is a lot more to this branch than I was able to include in one post. If you’re interested in learning more, I recommend starting with this article from Yoga Journal (which will also give you a headstart on next week’s discussion on the Niyamas!) and seeing where it takes you.
Happy reading and a joyous week to you all! I’ll see you back here next Tuesday.