When Westerners think of yoga, we mostly think of body shapes (asana). Sometimes, we also think about breathing exercises (pranayama) or meditation (dhyana).
Beyond the discipline of breath and body, yoga is a philosophy of personal development that can inform our entire lifestyle. The postures, breathing and meditation we do on the mat is simply training for living a yogic life.
This is the first in a series of posts designed to explore ways to take our yoga practice off the mat. And why not start with the very first of the 8 limbs of yoga, the yamas?
The 8 limbs of yoga are described in one of the oldest and most famous yogic texts: Patanjani’s Yoga Sutras. In the sutras, Patanjali names 5 yamas, or ethical guidelines related to how we interact with the world through our thoughts, words, and actions.
Since they are the first limb, the yamas set a foundation for our yogic life. When we keep the yamas in mind in everything we do, we become more mindful, deliberate, and considerate about how we conduct ourselves in the world so that we can live more meaningfully and authentically.
Let’s explore the 5 yamas and how they apply to our modern lives. I invite you to work through the reflections and challenges for each yama below at your own pace – perhaps focusing on one per day or per week.
Ahimsa: Nonviolence or Compassion
Ahimsa, the first yama, translates to nonviolence, and could also be thought of as compassion or loving kindness.
As the first yama, ahimsa comes before everything else in yoga. It is the foundation from which the rest of the philosophy can flow.
How do we practice ahimsa? Beyond the obvious answer of avoiding physical violence, ahimsa is about how we treat and talk to ourselves and others. It means letting go of our inner critic and extending compassion towards ourselves. It means wishing the people in the world that challenge us well while maintaining our boundaries. It means taking non-violent action to stand up for causes that are important to us.
Ahimsa looks like self care. Eating nourishing foods. Practicing positive self talk. Upholding our own values and at the same time feeling a sense of care for those that think differently. And, especially, becoming consciously aware of how our actions impact our own well being, plus the well being of other humans near and far, animals, and the world.
What is one loving kindness habit you either already practice or would like to develop more in your life? (If you’re feeling bold and daring, share your answer in the comments)
For the rest of the day, see if you can extend the same compassion to yourself that you would a beloved friend. When you notice a critical thought arise, be gentle with yourself and become curious to see if you can reframe the thought in a more loving way. Would you say this to someone you deeply care for? If not, what would you say instead?
Satya, or truthfulness, is the 2nd of 5 yamas, or ethical guidelines, in yoga. Because it comes after ahimsa (nonviolence), in order to speak with truth, we must speak from a place of compassion.
Satya goes beyond non-lying. It means realizing we have biases, and making an effort to view situations more objectively. It means being honest with others…AND ourselves. It means listening to our own inner truths, even when it’s uncomfortable or we don’t like what we see.
Satya sets us free. It liberates us from hiding behind an illusion of what we think we should be, or what we think others expect us to be, so that we can live more fulfilling and authentic lives and experience deeper connections with others.
This is not as easy as it might seem, at least for me. As a recovering people pleaser, I have struggled with knowing the difference between advocating for my own needs and meeting others’ needs. When we finally do advocate for ourselves, it can feel scary and vulnerable. People that are used to us going with the flow might resist this change.
But when we keep satya in mind, this yama can guide us to be more attuned to ourselves so that the people in our lives know the REAL us and can trust us to be honest, compassionate and authentic.
In your opinion, what is the difference between non-lying and true honesty? How can you practice satya on the individual level, as well as on a societal level?
The next time you’re in a conversation, especially if it is emotionally charged, slow down and pause before speaking to consider the intention behind your statement. You could ask yourself the following questions: Is it true? Is it useful? Is it kind? Is it necessary?
Asteya, the 3rd yama or ethical guideline of yoga, is non-stealing or generosity.
Asteya invites us to live with reciprocity. Non stealing might seem obvious – most of us know not to take other people’s things. But there are subtler ways to steal.
We also steal from others when we disrespect their time, one up their stories or successes or turn the attention back onto ourselves. We steal from the Earth and future generations when we consume resources thoughtlessly.
We even steal from ourselves. We do this when we dwell in the past or worry about the future. When we tie our identity and worth to our accomplishments. When we want what others have or overly concern ourselves with what others think. These actions steal our own creativity and uniqueness, plus ability to live our fullest Iives. We even steal from our own future by making choices that feel good in the moment but we know are harmful to our future selves.
Review the examples of how we can steal from ourselves above. Have you done any of these recently? Are there any areas of your life in which you steal from yourself or your future?
This week, become aware of ways you steal from others. Pay attention to how you treat others’ time and attention – do you steal their time by showing up late for meetings? Do you devalue their attention by not being a fully present, active listener? Do you notice a tendency to want to one-up? Notice when these happen and consider how, instead, you can give instead of take by practicing uplifting everyone you come into contact with.
(Pro tip: Uncovering the subtle ways we steal can feel heavy and take us out of our comfort zones. Personally, I notice a gut reaction of disbelief when I ponder the idea that I might be “stealing” from anyone. Notice where you might be pushing back or dismissing these reflections and remember that it’s OK to feel uncomfortable.)
One of the easiest ways to turn pleasure into misery is to overindulge. Anyone that has been addicted to something could speak to that. Even overeating during one meal turns what could have been a pleasant feeling of satisfaction into sluggishness. For me, being in a cycle of eating or drinking alcohol or caffeine too much takes a toll on my mental and physical vigor and feels gross.
The 4th yama, Brahmacharya, means moderation or nonexcess. Traditionally, Brahmacharya was about celibacy. But for us modern humans that haven’t renounced our worldly lives, we can think of Brahmacharya as approaching all of our desires and activities as sacred and not overindulging in them, be it food, sweets, sleep, exercise, work, entertainment, social media, sex, or whatever else.
When we pay attention to what we are doing, we can notice when we reach that perfect limit of “enoughness” in which we don’t need any more. This is how we keep the sacredness, wonder, and pleasure in the activities that bring us joy.
Brahmacharya also entails managing our energy and paying attention to what our bodies and minds truly need in a given moment. (Do you really need another coffee or do you need more rest?) It teaches us to channel and focus our energy towards what gives us purpose and helps us achieve our dreams, rather than what drains and distracts us.
Pause for 30 seconds take a few breaths. Notice your energy level. Are you feeling tired? Energetic? Sluggish? Alert? Ask your body what it needs. If you need rest, take a few minutes to relax or nap. Or if movement is what you’re craving, take a few minutes to stand up and stretch, or do jumping jacks, or go for a quick jog. Make a point to check in with yourself regularly throughout the day to become increasingly aware of your energy levels. Which activities make you feel depleted? Which activities light you up? Armed with this insight, you can learn to channel your energy more skillfully.
Consider one activity or substance in life you have a tendency to overindulge in and commit to spending the rest of the day (or week) approaching this activity in the spirit of Brahmacharya. For example, if you choose eating: when eating, eat slowly, paying close attention to stop when you reach that perfect point of enoughness. Notice when you are reaching for food out of a place of craving but are not actually hungry.
Aparigraha: Non Possessiveness or Letting Go
“The only problem we have is wanting things to be different than the way they are.” -Yogi Amrit Desai
Aparigraha, the 5th yama, is the art of letting go. It means non clinging, non possessiveness, and realizing that we already have everything we need in each moment. I think of it as an abundance mindset.
To live and love to the fullest in this world without attachment is a big ask. When we experience something wonderful, of course we want to hold onto those people or moments. And we often hold onto the negative, too: resentment, disappointment, expectations, heartbreak.
But clinging puts us in a cage. It sets us up for disappointment and hurt.
When we let go of possessiveness and understand that everything in life is impermanent, we become more free: Free to do what we love without worrying about the outcome. Free from needing material things to be happy. And free to be fully in each moment so that we can experience life more authentically.
The opposite of closing ourselves off or not caring, Aparigraha teaches us that by letting go of attachments, we can love even more because we are able to show up more fully for ourselves and those we care about. We can still do what we need to do and feel what we need to feel without clinging to outcomes or expectations.
True freedom is knowing that we can be content and stable within ourselves no matter what we have or don’t have, what is happening around us, or who enters or leaves our lives.
Think about your possessions, habits, patterns, resentments, or expectations of yourself or others. What are you holding onto?
Are there habits or patterns that no longer serve you? Do you believe that your life “should” look a certain way? How are you clinging to people or objects in your life? Are there any thoughts, memories, resentments or self criticisms that have overstayed their welcome?
What is ONE thing that you can let go of that is no longer serving you? Choose something you identified in the reflection & notice throughout the week how you might be clinging to it. Consider what it might look and feel like to let go.
I would love to hear how these reflections and challenges went for you. Did any feel intuitive? Challenging? What were some takeaways? Let me know in the comments.