Yoga Sutras for Modern Life. First Limb: Yamas

This month I would like to go back to a theme I briefly touched in a blog post in March – the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. This is a monumental text in yoga tradition, so often cited and so often misunderstood. It promises a healthy mind, healthy body, wisdom, and the ability to know what is right for us on our journey, and who does not want all these things?

In this article, I’ll delve into the first of the eight limbs described by Patanjali. Because the Yoga Sutras are more of a guide rather than an answer, they do not have a specific, universal meaning. Instead, they are welcoming to the fact that each person will have their own takeaways from the lessons and teachings. Regardless, one goal remains throughout the spiritual process: reconnection with the Self and liberation from stress caused by the disconnect of the spirit and the universe.

The eight limbs of yoga

Patanjali’s explanation of an eight-limbed (the Sanskrit word is ashtanga, from which the yoga style takes its name) path is the part of the Yoga Sutras that is most prevalent in modern practice. The description of the eight limbs is a very small section, comprising just 31 out of the 195 verses. In ancient times, this portion was considered the least significant part of the work. It is perhaps the very practicality and explication of a route that leads toward liberation from life’s inherent suffering within this otherwise very dense philosophical text that appeals to modern practitioners.

First limb – Yamas

In very simple terms, Yamas are the various self-ethical virtues that need to be practiced on the path of yoga.

According to Patanjali, there are five key yamas that need to be mastered:

  1. Ahimsa: Non violence

Ahimsa means practising non-violence and extending compassion to all beings around you. This includes being loving and caring for yourself. Too many times we run over our feelings or try to prove better than others.  Practising non-violence means respecting our limits and other people’s limits on and off the mat.

Ahimsa is sometimes interpreted also as a directive toward a vegan diet on the basis that ‘all living beings’ are entitled to be treated with kindness and non-violence.

  1. Satya: Truthfulness

Telling the truth is a moral baseline we can probably all get behind and it’s certainly one that’s not outdated.

Satya is truthfulness, but it’s more than just telling the truth. The word ‘sat’ literally translates as ‘true essence’ or ‘unchangeable’. Our thoughts, emotions and moods are interchangeable, yet these are the things that create our own truth. In yoga we work on creating a little space so that we can realise that we are not just our thoughts.

  1. Asteya: Non stealing

This can have a wider meaning than just purely not stealing someone else’s property. People steal time, emotion, love, and attention. The very important lesson here is to not take anything that doesn’t belong to us or that puts an emotional burden onto other people.

  1. Brahmacharya: Moderation of the senses / right use of energy

Brahmacharya is often translated as ‘celibacy’ – and is often considered irrelevant in our modern culture. The word Brahmacharya actually translates as ‘behaviour which leads to Brahman’. Brahman is thought of as ‘the creator’ in Hinduism and yogic terms. So Brahmacharya can be seen as ‘right use of energy’.

Brahmacharya evokes a sense of directing our energy away from external desires – those pleasures which seem great at the time but are ultimately fleeting – and instead, towards finding peace and happiness within ourselves.

  1. Aparigraha: Non greed

This important yama teaches us to take only what we need, keep only what serves us in the moment and to let go when the time is right.

How many shirts does one need? How many gadgets, ornaments, books and shoes do we have that we really just don’t need?

Aparigraha can teach us that we actually probably don’t need the new shirt that looks exactly like that other one we have at home, we probably don’t really need to buy that new cushion just because it goes with the new wallpaper, and we definitely don’t need that new car just because it’s better than our neighbours’….

In conclusion…

The life we live now is so radically different from when the Sutras were written, that it wouldn’t make sense to expect the limbs to fit seamlessly into contemporary world. However, this doesn’t mean that they have no place at all in our practice. There are many lessons about how to treat others and ourselves, as well as the value of deep contemplation that are still relevant and are a profound complement to today’s physical practices, even a millennium and a half after their recording.

Watch this space for more ancient teachings (and Limbs) in the coming months. 😉