Yoga is comprised of 8 limbs or parts that when practiced together result in a life filled with harmony, peace and joy. The 8 limbs were first described by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras and while the third limb, asana, or posture is the most commonly known aspect of yoga in Western culture, one could argue that the first two limbs are the most important in terms of living a life of Yoga.
The first limb/part/path of yoga is comprised of the Yamas. The Yamas are the moral and ethical guidelines for the practicing yoga and are thought of as positive codes, imperatives or goals for society and the yogi. Below is my interpretation of the five codes that make up the Yamas.
Ahimsa is the practice of non-violence.
Most people think of Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr and how they approached social injustice via non-violent protests, but I like to think of non-violence as it relates to our mental and emotional health, not just physical violence. Every time that we criticize ourselves or judge others, we create a space of violence towards ourselves and towards others. Lack of compassion, empathy or kindness is a form of emotional violence.
Practicing non-violence on a daily basis in our emotional and mental lives is very tough. It consists of compassion, love and acceptance and not just for people that we like or agree with but towards everyone. It involves limiting gossip, judgement and malevolent criticism of others. It means practicing patience instead of frustration and anger.
Identify one person or place or practice that often brings frustration or criticism and anger into your life. For the next week, try to exert patience or compassion or empathy when dealing with this person, place or practice.
- If it’s a co-worker that irks you, try and be less frustrated when you are around them, or look for positive attributes in their personality.
- If it’s a place (hello DMV!) try and enter that space with acceptance that the line will be long and the staff slow. Use that time to meditate or read or something else positive.
- If it’s a practice (going to yoga and always falling or not keeping up during Crossfit), first of all, applaud yourself for working out and making effort to improve your life and your health. Don’t beat yourself up for not being as flexible as the lifelong ballerina who dominates the front of the yoga class. Accept that you are not as flexible as her, but you are more flexible than when you started.
Satya is the practice of telling the truth.
I know everyone reading this is already shaking their head or rolling their eyes because, come on, who really walks the path of perfect truth. We all know that we should tell the truth and that we should not lie and this form of satya is similar to knowing that we shouldn’t practice physical violence towards ourselves or each other as with ahimsa. So with that in mind, let me offer an alternative view on Satya.
This view tackles how well we know ourselves and how frequent we tell lies to ourselves about who we are, what we want and how well we are “doing” at Life. When we identify and honor who we really are (instead of trying to keep up with the Joneses or fill-in your favorite celebrity or Instagram star) we allows others to do the same. We cannot have a world full of Beyonces or Tom Bradys; everyone has a talent that when maximized can be used to make their life andeveryone else’s life experience so much more enriched.
Every day for a week, keep track of things during the day that made you happy. You can call it a joy journal.
- By recognizing and keeping track of the things that make us happy we can reconnect with our true and authentic self.
- After a week review your joy journal and find a way to incorporate at least one of your joy activities into your daily life. Truth and living truth is bliss.
Asteya is the practice of non-stealing.
The most accessible form of asteya, similar to Ahimsa and Satya is in the physical form; which means not committing theft of goods.
I like to think of asteya as extending into the realm of social injustice and humanity. On a day-to-day level, asteya could be as simple as not taking up two seats on the train, or not stealing the ability of someone else to sit down on the train. I like to think of asteya in terms of time, as well. I am guilty of showing up late quite often. I recognize that every time that I am late, I am stealing time from someone else’s day. On a larger scale, it could look like standing up for marginalized groups in society in order prevent the stealing of their humanity or basic rights or needs.
Pick one day this week where you put someone else’s needs and wants ahead of yours.
- It could be as simple as not fighting for a parking spot at the grocery store, to making space for someone to sit next to you on the train to showing up on time for every appointment that day or not going over your allotted time at the doctor’s office/hair appointment/etc.
Brahmacharya is the practice of continence or abstinence or moderation.
In our society, Brahmacharya is the hardest principle to follow because it deals with having control over our physical impulses, wants and desires. In the strictest interpretation it means celibacy when unmarried and fidelity when married, and represents a lifestyle of chastity and virtue. The idea behind this yama is to use energy that would normally be wasted on physical pleasures to be understand oneself and for self reflection and realization.
Most modern day yogis interpret this yama as self disclipine and control as a way to not allow your life to be ruled by your physical impulses. Also important to highlight the interconnectedness of Asteya, Ahimsa and Satya with Brahmacharya. Indulging in mental, verbal or physical abuse, especially when it comes to intimacy violates truth telling, not stealing and non-violence.
No sex for a week! Just kidding. Identify a physical impulse that you feel like a little out of control in your life.
- Are you always concerned about what the opposite sex (or same sex) thinks about you? Do you make all your decisions based on how well that positions you to attract a mate or partner?
- Let that go and focus this energy instead of improving a different aspect of your life.
Aparigraha is the practice of non-greed or non-attachment.
I really love the idea of Aparigraha and usually associate it with the idea of “letting go” (cue the song from Frozen). Letting go can apply to everything: your attachment to money, looks, having what everyone else has and can even be interpreted as non-coveting.
In other words, do not yearn to desire to have or possess something especially if that something (or someone) belongs to someone else. Aparigraha does not mean that you must get rid of your house, car and cell phone in order to achieve peace and harmony, but it does suggest that if you did not put possessions and materialistic desires first in your life, that you would have a more balanced and harmonious life.
Gratitude journal: Identify 5 things every day that you are grateful for.
- Try this for a week. I did this for a year and in the beginning it was hard to come up with 5 things but by the end of the year, I would have to stop myself after listing 10-15 things.
- It’s amazing how less we want things that others have when we focus on what good and fantastic in our life.
Patanjali considered the Yamas and the Niyamas (we’ll discuss next month) to be mighty and universal vows that should be practiced throughout all aspects of our lives; in our thoughts, words, actions and behavior, not just in the yoga studio, but at all times. I like to think of them as practical guidelines, that if followed by everyone, would make our world a better place to call home. A place without violence, lying, stealing, exploitation and greed. We cannot change others, but we can change ourselves and hopefully, inspire change in others when they see how light, free, and peaceful we have become.
By Melynda Barnes, M.D. - Co-Founder, Facial Plastic Surgeon, and Yogi