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?”

 
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 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, truthfulness 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.

Coming soon……

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

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