Most people who practice yoga are only focused on the asanas or the postures that make up a yoga class. However, yoga actually consists of eight stages, only one of which is the physical practice we’re accustomed to (stage 3). Ashtanga, which literally means “eight limbs” is part of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, which encompasses guidelines for leading a meaningful and purposeful life. Although the stages are not meant to be practiced or completed in any particular order, I’d like to specifically address the first and second stages (yama and niyama), which offer helpful suggestions for leading a life that is harmonious with yourself and others.
Although we have a natural tendency to reject rules that are imposed on us even if we know that they are for our own good, the yoga behavioral guidelines were designed to support us on our spiritual journey to reach samadhi (stage 8), the stage of realization of the essential Self or enlightenment. Again, they are guidelines to support a positive mental wellbeing and the fulfillment you seek, regardless of your spiritual beliefs. It’s is the student’s choice whether to follow them some of the time, most of the time, all of the time or never. There is no one keeping track except for you. Even so, when we get away with something we know isn’t right, we tend to carry that memory and its consequences with us for as long as a lifetime. It is unimportant whether any person acknowledges our wrongdoing, our spirit acknowledges it and it has the power to impact our peace of mind and ultimately our physical wellbeing in the long-term.
The first limb, yama, is a Sanskrit word that translates to “restraints”. It relates mostly to our behavior towards others, which impacts not only our relationship towards others, but also our relationship towards ourselves. Ironically, by practicing these restraints, we are creating a life of freedom that comes from living within our true nature and reaching our full potential. The 5 yamas are:
Practicing ahimsa is the same as practicing compassion. Violence does not only consist of action, it also includes words and thoughts that harm another living organism or person, including ourselves. Remembering that all of life is interconnected is helpful in addressing our violent tendencies. When we hurt another, we almost always hurt ourselves.
Honesty is not only communicating the truth, but also avoiding the tendency to exaggerate or deceive another with partial truths. Truthfulness can be taken one step further to encompass our ability to lead our life based on our own inner truth, even when that presents challenges within our familiar and societal constructs. It is not always easy to define one’s own truth, but with intention and practices such as hatha yoga, meditation and silence, things will become clearer.
Stealing is taking something without the right or permission to do so. Again, stealing can and does involve taking something material that is not yours, however you can also steal from another by demanding or disrespecting his or her time or energy. Remembering that external circumstances and material possessions will not lead to happiness will help to alleviate the feeling of lack and fear that motivates stealing.
Continence is moderation or self-restraint and is most commonly used in relation to sexual activity. Although some interpret it as such, this does not mean that one needs to abstain from sex, but rather not misuse one’s sexual energy in a harmful way (such as to get something or hurt another). Practiced appropriately, sex can be a wonderful means to reconnect with our spiritual selves through union with another.
Wanting to possess something (whether that be a person or object) can translate to hoarding, grasping, attachment and resistance to change, all of which ultimately lead to suffering. Here it’s important to put energy towards those things that can’t be lost rather than let our possessions control us. Remembering the impermanence of all things in life and that greed will never translate to happiness are both helpful practices for aparigraha.
In part II, I will discuss the second stage, niyamas, which focus on guidelines for attaining balance within ourselves.
 (n.d.) Retrieved from http://www.healthy.net/Health/Article/The_Ten_Living_Principles_Yamas_and_Niyamas/2410/1
 (n.d.) Retrieved from http://www.yogajournal.com/for_teachers/984
 (n.d.) Retrieved from http://www.instantgoodkarma.org/Aparigraha.html
Published On: December 14, 2012