The Eight Limbs of Ashtanga Yoga

There is much more to yoga than asanas, or physical postures. Since it is meant to support the cultivation of union with our true nature, yoga delves in our whole being – as if preparing a garden, for which we would need much more than soil – developing our physical, mental, emotional, spiritual and moral well-being.

Patanjali, who is recognized as the father of yoga, wrote the Sutras (a collection of sacred texts) in India around 200 AD. These texts are considered the most important ones concerning classical yoga, and offer us a road map towards the realization of our profound nature.

This road map is named Ashtanga, the eight branches of yoga, and it gives us eight stages to follow – from the external to the internal – which serve as a progressive ladder but must be practiced simultaneously. ⠀⠀

We begin a wonderful journey with this road map, exploring the Yamas and Niyamas!

Introduction to Yamas & Niyamas

Before we can get to the Asanas for a deeper rooting of the physical postures – which may give us a taste of the scent and flavor of the supreme freedom – Pantanjali invites us to prepare our soil with the fundamental preliminaries of the Yamas and Niyamas, the first two Limbs of Yoga; these assist in purifying our behavior and attitudes towards others and ourselves.

Yamas and Niyamas nourish the garden in which blissful human potential blossoms; they act as catalysts for utter liberation. On the one hand, our soil must be free from toxicities, through the Yamas: moral restrictions in regards to behavior (at the level of action, speech and thought/intention). On the other, it must be abundant with nutrients, through the Niyamas: disciplines, attitudes and behaviors that need to be cultivated.⁠

Thus begins the path towards the True Self.

Yamas

Have you noticed how freedom involves letting go? When we say Yes to something, we are saying No to everything else. To harvest Supreme Freedom, we must begin with planting and growing restriction. If our Heart’s deep intention is to say Yes to yoga – blissful stillness and union – it is in our best interest to learn and practice saying No to that which obstructs such natural state.
 
Yama, from the Sanskrit word yam, means “restraint”, or “constraint”. Yamas are the controls/restrictions suggested by Patanjali in regards to behavior and moral conduct; not to be followed blindly as dogma, but to be understood and then acted upon. What are the implications of wholeheartedly remembering and applying these freedom catalysts in our actions of body, speech and mind? Archetype and myth will best answer this question, and illustrate the purpose of Yamas.
 
Yama (Restrainer) is also the name of the Hindu deity of death, and is most often seen as a catalyst for spiritual transformation. This “restriction” of the personal – such as the body and the personality – allows us eventually to go beyond any restrictions, to be in contact with our essential Self, eternal and unrestricted.
 
In the Katha-Upanishad, Yama is the initiator of the young spiritual aspirant Naciketas. This parable teaches us that the path to immortality flows through death (restriction). In this journey, we cannot ignore or run away from death. Rather, we must first face the fear of death and our own mortality. The death of the ego brings immortality. Therefore each of the Yamas can be seen as ways to deconstruct the citadel of the ego, in order to feel real freedom.
 
Even though compost is made out of seemingly filthy and rotten elements, even manure, it really needs some restrictions and control; and when they are met, only then will death give birth to life – sweet and abundant yoga fruits, ripened by constraint.
 
We can say that Yamas are simply temporary restrictions that are needed to reveal what we really are: eternal, unrestricted freedom.

The word ahimsa comes from “himsa”, violence, and the prefix “a”, which means the negation thereof.  Thus ahimsa translates as non-violence. It is the first of the five Yamas as outlined by Patanjali.

In the beautiful words of our dear teacher Gesine, “non-violence is the embodied recognition that the same Self dwells in all living beings; and when we come to the intimate understanding of that Reality, Ahimsa transforms into a natural celebration of Love and Unity.”

While we are not inflicting physical harm upon others, maybe we are violent at the level of speech, or mind -towards ourselves, or to others. Maybe we inflict physical harm upon ourselves, by eating or sleeping poorly. In order to practice Ahimsa, we can begin by bringing compassionate awareness to the habitual ways in which we judge and cause harm,  with thoughts, words, feelings, or actions.

As Patanjali recommends, we must seek to purify these patterns through the cultivation of positive mental tendencies, such as loving-kindness, sincere compassion, courage (as the cure against the aggressive fear behind violence) and understanding.

Let’s be kind and honest. Let’s ask ourselves the question: “In which ways have I caused any harm, lately?” And furthermore “Do I feel the aspiration to love and forgive, myself and others, no matter what?” “Which thoughts, words, emotions and actions express that love and forgiveness? How can I remember and nourish this genuine aspiration to grow in awareness and celebration of Unity and Love?”

Feel free to share your answer to one of these questions in the comment below.

May we open our Heart, and care for all.

The word Satya means truthfulness. Yoga can be understood as both a practice and the result of practice, wherein the aspirant strives to achieve a state of union with his true nature, God, the Self. Therefore, truthfulness is an elemental; how could it be possible for us to discover our true nature, without cultivating truth in our actions, speech and mind?
 
Telling or speaking the truth is an important aspect of Satya– not lying to or deceiving others, not exaggerating, not giving misleading information, not speaking half-truths, not claiming to know something when we don’t.
 
Indeed, truthfullness is so much more than what we express through words; although our speech is perhaps the most evident way to practice Satya. If we are making an effort to speak the truth, that means we are making an effort to know that which is true. And if we keep in touch, in loving and close contact with truthfulness beyond words, we are able to express Satya with the whole of our being; thus we practice, in action, speech and mind, by always aspiring to act from a place of love, and from an intention to benefit others; while always maintaining harmony with the truthfulness of our Heart.
 
Attention should be brought to the truthfulness of intention, from which all action and speech emerges. At the end of the day we can ask ourselves, “Were all of my actions and words today honest and truthful?” “Were my intentions rooted in love and care for others?” “Was I centered constantly in the Heart?” In this way, we gradually purify the dishonest tendencies of the mind and become pure in intention, word and behavior.
 
For our dear teacher Xavier, “it does not mean just saying the truth, but living the truth. Realizing and embodying my true nature in every breath. Also being humble and honest with myself, and keeping the beginner’s mind, this wonderment for the mysteries that I am…”
 
May we be kind and courageous; may we be loving enough to acknowledge and cultivate truth.

Asteya is the Sanskrit verb “to steal”, and a is the negation, therefore asteya means “non stealing” or “non-theft.” The will to steal another’s belongings, property or attributes has its root in jealousy, competition, the desire to posses, a sense of insecurity, of not having enough, or of being poor.  As with each and every Yama, the meaning and effect goes far deeper than the mere translation. Asteya bears its fruit as contentment, cooperation, a sense of security, abundance and generosity.

Stealing is taking something that does not belong to you, or was not freely given. The true aspirant on the path of yoga will never take anything without the expressed permission of its owner. Moreover, he or she will continually grow a sense of union and contentment; a natural desire not only to respect other people’s resources, but to give and to share —without a sense of “me” giving to “you”, rather a Spiritual Heart nourishing itself.

In cultivating Asteya, we purify the actions and emotions that are born from jealousy, thus purifying the mental tendencies associated with this emotion as well. While many may not be interested in stealing another’s physical belongings, there may be the stealing of their time, or energy, or a quiet desire to posses another person’s beautiful looks,  partner, or social status. All of which arise from a tendency which all people possess – judgment. These kinds of thoughts only breed competition and jealousy, from which can arise the act of theft.

For our dear teacher Deborah, Asteya is the “attitude of equanimity and serenity in which we do not crave unwholesomely after things and other people’s possessions. We are contented with what we are, deeply grateful every day for what we have.” Since many of us have everything we need, and much more, we can sometimes continue to crave, with greed, so she recommends we “practice humbleness, simplicity, maybe even austerity, for a while, to realize what the opposite feels like, and make us understand more swiftly the depth of this practice.”

Following her recommendation, “Everytime you feel the temptation to break Asteya, even for something minor, pause and reflect: “What lack do I believe I have, that I need to take this from someone else? What impulse is prompting me to do this? What belief do I have about this object, and about what it will give me?” This is a perfect moment to return to yourself, and shine light on that true nature of ours.”

Brahman is the Supreme Absolute, the Pure Ocean of Consciousness. Charya means “external acts of worship.” Thus Brahmacharya is to worship the Supreme, sometimes translated as “to live a life of holiness and worship.”
 
It is also understood as self-restraint, celibacy and “chastity in thought, word and deed.” Brahmacharya is a general directive to cultivate an excellent level of restraint and control in regards to one’s life, encouraging you not to indulge in over-eating, over-sleeping, over-stimulation, and most importantly, learning how to control the powerful sexual energy.
 
Overall, it is a reminder to value our energy and life force: to direct it away from sensual desires and into the Pure Ocean of Consciousness, acquiring a source of endless energy. To practice Brahmacharya is to regard our energy as holy and sacred, to treasure, honor and guard it as the most valuable asset, or quality; to take care of our life force, to nourish it, instead of depleting it, or seizing it poorly.
 
Since a big amount of our life force manifests as sexual energy, learning how to preserve it is of utmost relevance; by that means, the aspirant may gain physical vitality and strength, mental focus, a balanced state of mind and an increased resistance to sickness and aging. More importantly, through an intimate and wholesomely controlled relationship to desire, we are able to unlock our full and divine creativity; the real and ultimate pleasure lies in the freedom given by harmony.
 
As our dear teacher Arnaud has seen, “These topics can create a lot of confusion to the seeker, but can also become a powerful tool of self transformation. Like many beginners on the path, I was splitted internally; on one side the “angel” in me was looking for a “purity”, detached from the confusion of “lower desires”, on the other side, the “demon” in me fantasized about them. Brahmacharya taught me how to unify those apparent oppositions, and merge them in Love, until the apparent “poisons” became “medicines”.
 
And he goes on to say, “The challenge is to stay in full integrity. The path of Tantra is sometimes described as “riding the tiger”, meaning you need to harness your desires, and not let them take over. It’s a fine art that needs humility and purity of intention. Guidance from an experienced teacher is also needed.”
 
If we are set to tread on this often mysterious path, filled with beauty and wonder, and yes, maybe a fair bit of hardship or terror; if we advance with kindness and non-violence, generosity and respect for other’s resources, truthfulness and restraint; if we continue to open and purify our Heart, we will find such guidance, and ride such tiger.

In Sanskrit GRAHA means “to snatch” or “to grab”, PARI means “all around”, and A is the negation. Thus Aparigraha means “not to snatch all around.”
 
It indicates the directive of Patanjali for the aspirant on the yogic path to live a life of simplicity, taking only that which he needs in each moment. Aparigraha does not mean to completely renounce one’s belongings and take up a begging bowl. It means to take a look at what you have in your possession, what you actually need and use, and what is a distraction, or complication, for yoga.
 
On the level of body, speech, and mind, it means to grab it simple, and not snatch all around. To practice Aparigraha the aspirant must learn how to remain easily as the background of stillness, able to curiosity and enquiry, about the self and the so-called Reality: a beginner’s mind, free, fresh, anew, empty of unnecessary or fixed graspings.
 
Our dear teacher Paulina lovingly shares, “For me the application of Aparigraha is a constant and continuous practice in daily life. For example, in meditation as in daily things, simply remembering to let go (Aparigraha-non grasping), to witness, helps me to trust more and more in the Divine mystery of the Heart.”
 
Aparigraha cultivates an attitude of modesty and honesty, and in fact simplifies your life immensely. One who owns little and needs little, materially and spiritually, has little worries. The practice of Aparigraha also brings a new level of faith to the aspirant. The aspirant will develop faith in God, the Spiritual Heart or the Universe, that all his needs will be provided for as they arise. Thus he does not need to covet many objects, or experiences, out of fear for not enough or greed. The aspirant may continue and also leave freely points of view, and the need or desire to impose unwholesome expectations and control, preconceived ideas about ourselves and others, about happiness, pleasure, yoga or success.
 
“I have been having to let go of several plans”, our dear teacher recalls, “and trust in the infinite possibilities of existence. Doubts may come up still, but seeing them from the Heart with love, awareness and detachment, makes me again and again realize that I am not my doubts. I am in the core pure awareness, untouched by any event. Looking from this pure awareness towards myself with all the doubts, insecurities etc. gives me the guidance, courage and support to overcome any obstacle and trust deeper and deeper in the Spiritual Heart.”
 
How to remain open and free, trusting and knowing; capable of engaging, interacting, doing and achieving so much, and at the same time, pure and enough in our Surrender to the Heart?
 
Rest in the Heart, and gently ask Who Am I?

Niyamas

Yamas and Niyamas sum up ten ethical guidelines to develop awareness and integrity, different from dogma or rigid disciplines; they are a means for the gardening of awareness, virtue, love and transparency, to meet Heaven and Earth unite. Approached with the proper attitude, they represent a spiritual path in and of themselves.

Yamas and Niyamas constitute the foundation for the organism of Ashtanga Yoga, as instructed by Patanjali; the cultivation of a moral compass towards moral consciousness.
 
With body, speech and mind, Yama as external attitudes for guiding conduct within the world, Niyama as internal attitudes for personal discipline; Yama as peace with the world, Niyama as peace with yourself. Patanjali suggests Yamas as ‘controls’ in regards to behavior and moral conduct, and Niyamas as ‘amplifying’ or developments, in that same regard.
 
As explained on a previous post, Yama can be translated as “constraint”, or “control”. The meaning of Niyamas is generally translated based on the prefix “ni” as “away-from”, therefore Niyama means “without-constraint.” They encourage us to develop and amplify the beneficial qualities and attitudes towards oneself. In the words of our dear teacher Gesine, “Niyamas are an inspiring invitation to embody and express in our lives the insights from our spiritual practice.”
 
It is not a control or emphasis based on restriction, constrictions, grabbing, gaining but as a result of an awakening consciousness. Dear Gesine expresses, “Through cultivating the Niyamas we find a way of bridging the gap between divine reality and human life on Earth”. These principles are the expression of our freedom to choose another, more authentic way of living, “a tangible understanding that every moment is that very divine and graceful expression of love”; they should be recognized as fundamental inner values, radiating from the Spiritual Heart, flourishing its pure love and wisdom.

Saucha is the Sanskrit word for Purity. We can look at Purity in many different ways, most obviously, perhaps, is the purity of the physical body. The yogis see the body as the vehicle or temple of the soul, and thus it is very important to have a healthy, clean vehicle for the soul’s purpose to be fulfilled.

We can also look, of course, at the purity of the soul, mind and Heart; we can try and look at consciousness, and have it nurtured, in its purest form: unadulterated by vices, or fixed points of view, free from obsessive attitudes, clean from illusions. After all, we aspire to a clean, healthy vehicle, and a clean, healthy driver.

Toxic elements exist at the level of speech and mind, not only at the level of the body; as aspirants, we wish and practice for the fluctuations which obscure the Heart’s natural spark of joy and grace to diminish and cease; the yogi aims to sustain Life in its naturally free and pure being.

For our dear teacher Juergen, “Saucha means the purity of the present moment, of simply Beingness. From this place Saucha radiates.”

The physical body can be purified through the regular practice of asanas and pranayama, the maintaining of a healthy balanced diet, bathing regularly, physical exercise and by the practice of various cleanses, or dhautis, for the internal organs and systems of the body. We have already started some kind of purification process through Yamas; along with Niyamas, and the rest of the Ashtanga Yoga limbs, we serve this purpose, the clean, healthy and optimal performance of our whole organism.

“Through practicing Yoga and Meditation”, Juergen continues, “I am going through constant purification processes, that help me to enter into Stillness, and just be. Becoming aware of what is beneficial for myself, helps me on my path. It can be how I deal with food and sleep, or what I read or watch, or how often I practice.”

An aspirant on the yogic path should also cultivate a purity of mind, relinquishing any negative mental tendencies such as pride, anger, jealousy, dishonesty, judgment and so on. This can be done by cultivating a pure intention, to act for the benefit of all beings, and by cultivating love, compassion and kindness towards others and yourself.

“Saucha is a beautiful practice for letting go of our conditionings”, our dear teacher concludes. Is there inspiration in you for embodying Life in an authentic, healthy and coherent manner? In daily life, which actions and intentions are the ones that allow your pure being to rest and manifest gracefully?

Santosha means contentment, or unconditional joy. It’s the second Niyama (out of five) and seventh of ten ethical guidelines, Yamas and Niyamas, fundamental limbs for the rest of the organism of Yoga, according to Patanjali. Maybe you’ll notice correlations between a particular Yama and a specific Niyama, between the “controls” and the “disciplines”. Do you?

To be firmly rooted in Santosha is to feel genuine happiness no matter what arises in the sphere of one’s being. It springs up from a trusting and accepting attitude, to receive any given situation and drop labels, with deep joy and absolute trust in our own Self, and in reality, capable of union or coherence beyond “good” or “bad”, moment to moment.

Santosha naturally grows into supreme happiness; imagine a streaming sense of satisfaction, in whichever situation, for you are concentrated and certain about the Spiritual Heart. Dear teacher Estelle recalls, “Swami Rama said that “contentment is falling in Love with your Life”, and that summarises it all.”

To practice contentment is to practice a constant awareness of the present moment, where the mind is able to be free from desires or fears for the future, and free from pain or regrets of the past. We establish Santosha whenever we continue to drop the little self’s fantasies and obsessions, whenever we trust and leap, and let ourselves fall into contentment.

“Santosha is finding a deep Trust”, Estelle continues, “an intimacy with Life and with ourselves that allows you to keep smiling and to welcome all of Life’s gifts, even the most challenging ones.”

Only a mind free of desiring -free of thought about past and future-, can concentrate. Thus in practicing Santosha, you improve naturally in the practice of Hatha Yoga and Meditation.

A state of equanimity arises, and labels given to experiences, such as “good” or “bad”, are not so definitive anymore, we have turned flexible. You may also find an increase in physical health and vitality, as the body becomes free of stress, worry, anxiety and sadness.

“Santosha associated with Self-Inquiry brings you to a continuous wonderment”, concludes Estelle. “When I hear Sahajananda saying: “Me, here, what a Miracle!”, that’s what I hear. This cultivation of Santosha: the happiness, the simplicity of being alive, the joy of embracing Life.”

Tapas comes from the root word tap, meaning to burn, to blaze, or to consume in heat. In the context of the Ashtanga, Patanjali uses the term to represent the heat of determination, the inner fire, or austerity, that is necessary to cultivate on the spiritual path. It is usually translated as “austerity”, and guides us to refrain from the senses and maintain self discipline in the practice, perhaps even leading into developing “psychic powers”.
 
Tapas indicates that one should burn all desires and obstacles that stand in the way of realization.
 
As the Bhagavad Gita states, “Yoga is difficult to attain by one who is undisciplined.” (VI.36) Tapas can be both an attitude and a practice. You may “take a Tapas,” which is similar to a promise, to work on an area of your life that requires attention. You may take on a diet or a fast for a certain number of days, or be silent for a period of time, or promise yourself to practice meditation thirty minutes every day for one month.
 
Dear teacher Xavier shares, “Tapas, for me it is the celebration of the fire element! This fire that can remove all the obstacles! I don’t see Tapas as a practice of austerities, but more as an offering, and a way to go beyond my personal desires.“
To take a Tapas is to make a beautiful promise to the Higher Self, or Spiritual Heart; a promise that must be kept no matter what. When one practices austerity in that sense, the ability to trust in our own will power grows, self esteem is purified, and an unshakable confidence radiates. These phenomenas can be deeply influenced by one’s mind.
 
Nevertheless, it is essential to keep devotion and humbleness. The spiritual understanding that these universal powers bring should never be used in the service of the ego, but only in the service of the Spiritual Heart, atman. “Tapas is an essential tool to go deeper, surrender and strengthen this commitment to the spiritual path”, advises Xavier. “Practicing Tapas brings courage, determination and joy, and purifies body and mind; which helps us, so we don’t get lost or trapped in old patterns and confusion…“
 
It involves the perseverance in unconditional service of spiritual purposes. Swami Sivananda used to say that military discipline is in a way a very good yogic discipline. To swallow your ego, your pride, your own desire and fancy allow the transformation to come easier. That’s why Swami Sivananda said the trained soldier was better fitted for Yoga than others, who had not undergone such self-effacing discipline.
 
Another interesting idea, Swami Vivekananda said that a dacoit might be able to realize God, better than a coward, or a timid person. A dacoit is daring, fearless. And such fearlessness, such daring, is necessary, in order to walk the spiritual path, and live the spiritual life. Yoga is not meant for the timid, or fearful.
 
“May the fire of Tapas enlighten our Hearts!”
In Sanskrit sva indicates the self, and dhyaya means study; thus svadhyaya means self study, and bears its fruit as wisdom. The idea of self study can be essentially understood in two ways. Firstly, it’s a reminder to study both the classical texts of yoga and the writings of the masters of yoga, in order to fully comprehend the theory behind the practice; this brings inspiration, and you increase in aspiration to go forward with austerity.
 
Self study also indicates the practice of contemplating the Self, the essence of one’s being, which is done through constant awareness, remembrance, discipline, meditation in general, and especially Self Inquiry.
 
For dear teacher Paulina, “the application of Svadhyaya is a constant and continuous practice in daily life. The self-study, the sustained practice of yoga, meditation, reading inspiring books and Self-enquiry everlastingly ignites my fire to keep going, to keep practicing every day.” This will eventually lead to the revelation of the Self as the very background of existence, on which all of manifestation is unfolding. Through the constant repetition of this principle, the beauty and the bliss of the Self will shine forth from within.
 
Dear Paulina goes on and shares about the tricky moments, in embodying Yamas/Niyamas, for example, the “judgement when it is not followed.” The Chinese proverb, “The glory is not in never falling, but in getting up after every time you fall.” This is a reminder that we are all doing our best, and instead of spending energy to criticize our failures, we can get up, practice again. It’s never too late to start, or start again, and again, and again, and again…..and so on.”

In Sanskrit terminology Ishvara means “God”, in the sense of a personal or named God, and Pranidhana means “uninterrupted devotion” or “surrender”. Thus Ishvarapranidhana, the final Niyama indicated by Patanjali, means surrender and devotion to God; and involves putting yourself at the feet of something greater than you.

The practice of Ishvarapranidhana purifies the remaining desires in the mind, orienting it towards the Divine, until there is no desire for anything but God in your life. The desire for union, for Yoga, is all that remains in a mind purified by constant devotion. Ishvara can also be translated as “the Highest”; you may also practice constant devotion to “the highest ideal,” for example Truth, Reality, Beauty, or Unconditional Love.

Arnaud, Hridaya Yoga teacher recalls “The contemplation on Ishvarapranidhana has allowed me to realize that beside every action and every desire lies a stronger longing for Oneness and wholeness.” and invites us to “listen to those deep calls from the inside. It’s the key to success on the Yoga path. We never have enough aspiration!”

This practice may begin with formal prayers and consecration of actions, and will eventually develop into a natural orientation of the mind, heart, and breath towards “the Highest,” towards the Spiritual Heart in every moment of the day. The “tricky side of Ishvarapranidhana”, relates Arnaud, is that “we never have enough purity of intention and longing for Oneness. That is why, it can happen that a strong spiritual aspiration manifests as a form of “dogmatism” or “fanatism”, specially to beginners”


All the Yamas and Nimayas are discussed in more depth in separate lectures in our Hridaya Yoga Retreat: Module 1 Intensive.

Feel free to share these teachings on social media