Beyond the physical practice of yoga, there is a deeply spiritual and philosophical foundation. While the Bhagavad Gita describes three major types of yoga (Karma, Bhakti, and Jnana Yoga), Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras created a robust, codified system of yoga when they were first published, around 400 CE. Among his writing was that which described the eight (ashta) rungs/limbs (anga), a system of yoga that defined the art and science to reach enlightenment. These codes and observances are meant to develop one’s attention to discriminative knowledge, and while there are many purposes to practicing yoga, here Patanjali specifically set out to write the map for the road to spiritual liberation. There are certainly benefits found along the way (health, happiness, posture), but ultimately the goal of Ashtanga Yoga is enlightenment – everything else follows.
By no means is this the type of yoga everyone should practice, nor should one attempt to argue that it is the best form of yoga. Quite frankly, Ashtanga Yoga is difficult to follow, but in it, you will find great lessons and sources of inspiration and education.
The first part of Eight Limbed Yoga, or Ashtanga Yoga, is Patanjali’s Five Yamas. They define the restraints and abstinences by which a yogi should follow in the external world and when interacting with other people: these are the things we should not do. Inherent in the concept is the understanding that relationship with the world around us directly impacts our ability to reach self-realization. The Yamas are meant to serve as guidelines for nurturing a healthy relationship with the external world. Importantly, remember that the practice of the Yamas should be carried through across all your planes of beings, which includes actions, speech, and thoughts.
The Five Yamas
1. Ahimsa (Non-Harming)
“Ahimsa pratishthayam tat vaira-tyagah”
As a Yogi becomes grounded in non-injury, others will naturally lose any feelings of hostility.
Meaning “not to injure” in Sanskrit, Ahimsa deals with non-violence, non-harming, and non-injury to others. Core to the philosophy is the understanding that having a non-harming toward others naturally encourages them to remove hostilities directed at you – creating a circle of positivity.
As an example of this, consider the place where one would meditate, and consider what mediation actually means. When meditating, you must close your ears and you eyes to all the world and its distractions, and for a yogi in the wild, this is dangerous as one is completely vulnerable. If you have quarrels or anger with people, you may have fear of letting go of control, and that fear is one of the hardest things to overcome when meditating. Being non-violent serves as protection from this: peacefulness begets peacefulness. In similar examples, when a yogi is truly peaceful in the wild, a snake or tiger may just pass by the meditating yogi. The yogi will not know the threat is there, but the animals will sense the peacefulness and simply continue on their way. Ahimsa tells us that one should let go of hostile, angry, and injurious feelings, and positivity will follow.
(Note: Many yogis look to Ahimsa as the reason behind practicing a vegetarian diet, and this is why Yogi Surprise is a 100% vegetarian, ethically sourced box.)
2. Satya (Truthfulness)
“Satya pratisthayam kriya phala ashrayatvam”
As truthfulness is achieved, the results of the Yogi’s actions naturally result according to the will of the Yogi.
Many of us are familiar with the idiom “Honesty is the best policy.” Satya follows the same line of thought, but in this philosophy, the idiom is extended – not only is honesty a tenet to live by, but by doing so, your actions will naturally encourage ends that are willed by the Yogi.
First, one must realize that every story, whether spoken in the mind or aloud, every statement contains an untruth. For example, when remembering something from years ago – when you begin to truly analyze it – you know that not every detail is available, so while you story may not be completely untrue, it also is inherently riddled with untruth, assumptions, or missing detail.
Here, one begins to realize that truth is not something that is reached through reason or analysis. You will see it rather than think it; you will feet it from the inside. This is the faculty of Budhhi, a faculty that requires you to stop telling stories. By doing so, your actions become pure and you accept them for what they are, whether you’ve succeed or failed, you are able to recognize the truth. This is the true honesty, when you are able to see your naked self.
(Note: A good yogi must also balance Satya with Ahimsa. Painful truth must be balanced with not lying, a central balancing act of yoga.)
3. Asteya (Non-Theft)
“Asteya pratisthayam sarva ratna upasthanam”
When non-stealing is established, all treasures present themselves and become available to the Yogi.
Asteya follows the same line of thought as the previous Yamas – by practicing the opposite of a negative tendencies, related positive outcomes are achieved. Here, when practicing non-stealing, a natural flow of both material and non-material benefits come to the Yogi.
This doesn’t always directly mean theft in the form of objects. When we arrive late, when we purposely park poorly, or when we misrepresent to a customer, you are practicing theft. Here, you must realize that in the material life, when you experience good or bad luck, it is simply an extension of karma. Sometimes things will go very well, and sometimes things will go very poorly – these lucks are simply your karmic actions from your theft or non-theft. You must be honest in these dealings, and step away from the material pursuit. By doing so, says Patanjali, diamonds will roll in front of you. This doesn’t mean that you’ll become particularly wealthy, but rather, whatever you need, it will always be there.
4. Brahmacharya (Mindfulness of Higher Reality)
“Brahmacharya pratisthayam virya labhah”
When walking with the awareness of the highest reality is established, a great strength and vitality is gained.
Central to yoga is the attention paid to the divine, absolute truth. Brahmacharya is the practice of walking in the awareness of this. Some argue that this is the practice of celibacy, but that is really an effect of the belief, not the purpose. Specifically, with the withdrawing of the senses and focusing on the higher reality, the sensual pleasures of life become less important – an evolution of your desires. Here, in the same way that drinking or smoking is no longer needed, sexual practice is no longer needed as well.
More important to the focus of this Yama, though, is that reminding oneself of divinity ultimately allows a natural flow of energy that can be used in incredibly positive ways. Remembrance is the cause, and sobriety is the effect.
5. Aparigraha (Non-Possessiveness)
Aparigraha sthairye janma kathanta sambodhah
When one is steadfast in non-possessiveness with the senses, the knowledge of the why and wherefore of past and future incarnations arises.
Non-possessiveness isn’t always so simple as saying one should have no possessions. While some do indeed operate in the world with nothing but a blanket and water bucket, the rule doesn’t necessarily mean one cannot be a home owner, or that one cannot own a vehicle. Rather, this is about detachment from the things in your life: you can have a car, but not necessarily care about it. Parents may understand that they require possessions for their families, but ultimately remember that the objects are not what they care about possessing.
Non-possessiveness is essential for deep mediation. When you have many projects lying around in your mind (projects beings the actions and work required for your possessions), it becomes difficult to calm the mind and find focus. Here, we see that non-possessiveness allows there to be a natural awareness of the breadth of the mind-field. With an empty mind, in the form of a non-possessive one, we have very much the same mental cleanliness that is similar to having a simple home with only the essentials. It feels organized, manageable, and ultimately enables you to reach inner calmness.
A Way to Think About the Yamas
The Five Yamas are by no means easy to follow, and one should not expect that these are tenets you will automatically be able to adopt or immediately live by. Instead, these Yamas should be remembered when one feels the opposite of what the Yamas describe. That is, when one inevitably feels violent, one must remind themselves of the tenet of Ahimsa. Similarly, when one seeks the possession of a new gadget, one must remind themselves of the tenet of Aparigraha.
Progress is marked not by whether or not a yogi practices all Yamas all the time perfectly, but rather by how easy it becomes to practice the Yamas when confronted with their challenges. What’s more, these restraints, which mark the first limb of Ashtanga Yoga, are also the natural result of succeeding in Ashtanga Yoga: they are the end as well as the beginning of the practice. Slowly work them into your life, quietly reminding yourself of their lessons when you need them most. Over time, you will find that each become more natural and flowing form your own being. It is here that one finds spiritual growth, and another step taken on the road to enlightenment.