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The Eight Limbs of Yoga - The Yamas

I’m delighted this week to begin a discussion of the principle practices of the science of Yoga, more commonly known as the Eight Limbs of Yoga.

Over the next eight weeks, we will take a look at each of these practices, with each blog post acting as a perfect companion piece to the corresponding episode of Season 1 of The Bearded Naked Podcast.

Recognised as the eight fundamental practices within the science of Yoga, the Eight Limbs provide the aspiring Yogi with a set of personal ethical, physical and mental disciplines that are practised consistently on the individual’s journey of self-discovery and self-realisation.

The Eight Limbs originate from a variety of ancient texts, though are probably most well known for their appearance within the ‘Yoga Sutras of Patanjali’ by the Sage (or ‘Rishi’) Patanjali in the early part of the first century CE.

It’s important to note here that the Eight Limbs are not a dogmatic set of rules to follow blindly; there is a responsibility upon the Yogi to understand how these principles and disciplines apply to their own lives and to their individual experience of the world - a Yogi understands that while the path of Yoga is a tried and tested philosophy, and a practice of liberation and self-realisation, the individual journey is as unique as the practitioner themselves.

The Yamas:

The first of the Eight Limbs is known as ‘Yama’ or ‘The Yamas’; a Sanskrit word that can be translated as ‘the attitude(s) towards our environment’.

There are five Yamas that the Yogi examines and adopts as part of their aspirational path; ‘Ahimsa’ meaning ‘non-violence’, ‘Satya’ meaning ‘truthfulness’, ‘Asteya’ meaning ‘not stealing’, ‘Brahmacharya’ meaning ‘moderation’ and ‘Aparigraha’ meaning ‘non-possessiveness’.

When examined collectively, one can see that the Yamas provide a framework for our relationship with ourselves, the people who are part of our lives and with the world in which we live.

‘Ahimsa’ is one of the more widely recognised Yamas and is the principle of non-violence and non-agression, not only towards other beings but also towards ourselves and the natural environment of our world. Practising the principle of non-violence is not only accomplished through the moderation of our physical behaviour, but also through the moderation of words and actions - the aspiring Yogi understands that the words a person speaks can contain just as much violence and aggression as a physical attack.

The principle of ‘Ahimsa’ is also taken as the foundation for what is commonly known as a ‘yogic diet’; a diet that is eaten in moderation and with the understanding of the importance of nourishing the body in a way that promotes full health, energy and vitality.

The second Yama is ‘Satya’, the principle of truthfulness. It is easy to apply this principle in our relationships, acknowledging that it is always better to be honest with another person lest any falsehoods or deceptions sour our friendships or intimate relationships, but it is equally recognised within the science of Yoga that this principle applies to ourselves and our own actions.

Within the teachings of Patanjali, it is understood that while the individual may not ever know the complete or total truth that exists outside of their experience, the individual always knows, consciously or subconsciously, when they are creating, sustaining or expressing any falsehoods within themselves.

The Yogi learns and understands that the expression of truth in one’s thoughts, speech and actions is paramount in maintaining healthy relationships with others and an honest relationship with oneself.

‘Asteya’ is the third of the Eight Limbs and represents the principle of not stealing. Again, it is easy to see how this principle relates to the physical act of not taking anything from another person that does not belong to us, but the principle goes further.

It advises against claiming knowledge or ideas which are not our own; taking the credit for actions for which we were not responsible, and can be applied even further in the recognition that the desire to steal in the first place represents our own lack of confidence in our abilities to achieve for ourselves that very thing we desire from another.

The fourth Yama is ‘Brahmacharya’ which means moderation. This Yama is perhaps the most misunderstood in the study of Yoga, being commonly represented in the West as the principle of celibacy; this is incorrect.

‘Brahmacharya’ within the science of Yoga represents the principle of moderation in all things and, through the application of moderation, control of the body and of our minds, particularly our desires. Moderation is applied to our diet, the amount of sleep we take, our sexual appetites and to how the individual passes their time.

We can understand that eating without moderation causes harm to the body; we can understand that too much sleep makes the body sluggish and the mind slow; we can understand how unrestrained sexual activity can dull our sense of intimacy with others and with ourselves.

The principle of ‘Brahmacharya’ can be understood in two famous quotes of the modern age, the first from the author Mark Twain: ‘Too much of anything is bad’ and the second by the playwright Oscar Wilde: ‘Everything in moderation, including moderation’.

The final Yama is ‘Aparigraha’ or the principle of non-possessiveness.

This Yama is the application of restraint in the acquiring of ‘things’, be they material possessions, relationships or knowledge.

It is the understanding that the acquisition of possessions, material or otherwise, can lead to being bound by them - we feel we have to keep them and maintain them; we develop a fear that we may lose them or they will be taken from us - we become attached to them and surround them in false meaning and use them as a way of defining ourselves.

‘Aparigraha’ is the elimination of greed from our individual experience, and can be understood through a simple question; in your journey along the path of Yoga, how much do you really need?

Through applied practice and study of the Yamas, the Yogi understands the clear interrelationship between each individual Yama; there is a recognition of how the consistent application and practice of these principles transforms the relationship and understanding of the inner and outer world, both on a personal and collective level.

The Yogi exists within the time and space in which they exist - whether this was millennia or centuries ago, or here in our modern age on the bleeding edge of time itself - and the Yogi must discover for themselves how these ancient principles are to be applied to their existence and experience.

Next week, we continue our exploration with an examination of the second of the Eight Limbs - ‘the Niyamas’.

Matt ~ The Bearded Naked Yogi

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