Thousands of years ago, yoga was seen as less of a physical practice and more of a philosophy, or a way of life. The Indian sage Pantajali authored the classical texts known as the Yoga Sutras. Sutras are threads (as sutra translates from Sanskrit) of information that tie together to offer guidelines for living a purposeful life. Known as the eight limbs of yoga, Pantajali’s Sutras aim to unify your body, mind, and spirit. This eightfold path is as follows:
- Yama – moral and ethical practices
- Niyama – moral observance
- Asana – postures
- Pranayama – breathing control and exercises
- Pratyahara – withdrawal of the senses
- Dharana – concentration
- Dhyana – meditation
- Samadhi – integration, enlightenment, bliss
These eight limbs are meant to guide a holistic yoga practice and should be practiced in order: acknowledgment of the yamas is the entry point into your yoga practice. The first two limbs of yoga, yama and niyama, speak to the moral and ethical code of yoga. Pledging to the 5 yamas and the 5 niyamas was once considered mandatory before starting any asanas.
The 5 Yamas
The first limb of yoga, the yamas, focus on social restraints, embracing cleanliness, contentment, and surrendering to something greater than ourselves. The 5 yamas are:
- Ahimsa – nonviolence in thoughts, words, actions, and also represents compassion for all beings
- Satya – truthfulness and honesty to others and oneself
- Asteya – non-stealing
- Brahmacharya – non-excess and moderation in all things
- Aparigraha – non-possessiveness, non-greed
Yoga teachers can help students incorporate the 5 yamas in daily life by bringing the acknowledgment of yamas to the mat.
Ahimsa: Focusing on non-violence, this yama can help yoga teachers show students how to bring compassion to their practice and how to be kind to themselves. Yoga teachers should remind students that finding awareness in the body is critical to a mindful yoga practice. Students often focus on the physical practice of yoga, pushing their bodies to unnecessary limits and fighting restraint in certain poses. When teachers witness students pushing themselves too far, it is a good time to discuss Ahimsa; a lack of compassion towards our bodies shows that we are not listening to what our bodies need.
Satya: A yoga practice that embraces Satya is one that where we are truthful and honest with ourselves. Yoga teachers should encourage students to understand how their whole body reacts to certain asanas and to accept any limitations in that pose.
When teachers see students forcing their bodies into certain poses, this is the student being dishonest, not accepting the limitations of their body and their practice in that moment.
Asteya: This yama focuses on not stealing; according to Aadil Palkhivala of Yoga Journal, it “refers to the stealing that grows from believing we cannot create what we need.” During a yoga practice, teachers may see students hold back in certain postures. This might stem from a fear that they need to conserve energy for other asanas.
Yoga teachers should inform their students that the body will provide the adequate energy needed to get through each asana.
Bramacharya: This yama focuses on the belief that if we use our energy wisely and not in excess, then within ourselves we will find all the resources to living a happy life. Teachers should guide students to mindfulness in each pose, focusing their energy on the large muscle groups that are working. Instructors can show students how to use a minimal amount of energy to get the most out of each asana.
Aparigraha: To avoid greed, this yama asks yogis to discover their own selves and to avoid focusing on what others do or have. This is critical in a yoga practice. Teachers should encourage students to focus solely on their own practice, not worrying about others in the room. Yoga teachers can guide students to bring their gaze and their mindfulness inwards, concentrating on their own bodies and their own breath.
The 5 yamas are our guide to social restraints and teach us what not to do. Yoga teachers can provide a more holistic practice to their students by incorporating the philosophy of the yamas not only into their classes but also into each asana.