by Kate Pousont
The First Limb: The Yamas
Those of us who have been practicing yoga for any length of time have likely encountered the familiar postures and breath techniques included in a traditional yoga class. But these elements represent just two limbs of the eight-limbed path of yoga outlined by the yogic scholar Patanjali, who lived sometime around the start of the Common Era. In addition to Asana (postures) and Pranayama (breath control), this eight limbed path includes three states of meditation, control of the senses, and a set of practices known as the Yamas and the Niyamas. These practices are meant to lay the foundation for a complete yoga practice and lead to a deeper experience of self-realization. Through the use of the eight limbs, a student of yoga works toward removing the obstructions that prevent us from experiencing our natural state of wellness and health.
In our Friday morning yoga class we have begun an exploration of the Yamas. Traditionally yoga students began working on this first limb before learning the postures, but, through the ages, students of yoga have come to explore the eight limbs simultaneously. The Yamas include the following five practices:
Ahimsa: avoiding all forms of violence toward self and others- practicing compassion, patience, and a sense of worth.
Aparigraha: non-attachment to possessions and relationships- creating inner fulfillment.
Asteya: non-stealing- respect for the talents and objects of others, and letting go of desires for talents or objects you do not have.
Bramacharya: moderation- management and balancing of sensual cravings and responsible use of energy.
Satya: truth-to refrain from acts of deception or dishonesty. (Kripalu Yoga Teacher’s Manual 2006, 2.8)
Working with the Yamas can be as simple as remaining aware of one of these observances during a class, practice, or over the course of the week. Notice which of these speaks to you and how you respond to a relevant situation that arises in your life or in your yoga practice. It can be helpful to check in with a friend or teacher at the end of the week. You may notice a shift in your perception or behavior.
My teachers at Kripalu likened the study of the Yamas and Niyamas to picking up a pearl on a necklace; when you take hold of one the others naturally follow. The Yamas are a practice not a precept. They offer guidance for navigating one’s life without fear of reproach if practicing the Yamas is not for you. Many students find a satisfying and beneficial yoga practice without the use of the lesser known limbs, but they represent an ancient wisdom that has guided generations of yogis on the path toward wellness and happiness. As my teacher Devarshi Stephen Hartman once invited me, why not try?