Spend enough time in one of our studio’s and you are likely to hear your teacher reference the Yoga Sutras, written by the ancient sage and revered Yogic scholar Patanjali, but what does Yogic Philosophy really mean and how does it relate to the modern world we live in today?
In the name of Satya (truthfulness) I’ll share a little about my journey into these teachings; I first discovered Yoga when I was a stressed out, chain smoking, corporate non-yogi on the brink of the all too common place ‘London burn-out’ before Yoga quite literally transformed my life and the benefits seemed to expand far beyond the 4 corners of my mat. As my practise deepened so did my curiosity to understand this mysterious world of Sanskrit, Healing & Gurus. The philosophy and ancient teachings behind Yoga can feel intimidating to digest but when I finally arrived at my Teacher Training and started to read the Secret Power of Yoga by Nischala Devi things began to magically align. At the heart of these teachings is the understanding that Yoga is so much more than the physical shapes we make in class and that through dedicated practise Yoga helps create a connection between your body and mind whilst opening the doors to a deeper spiritual understanding of the universe we exist within.
Over the next 8 months we will explore the 8 limbs of Yoga and how these ancient teachings can be applied to life today, so let’s begin with some context; the Yoga Sutras are a collection of 196 sutras or teachings on the theory and practice of yoga written at least 1,700 years ago and can be understood as guidelines for how to live a meaningful life of purpose. According to these teachings there are Eight Limbs (or often called the Eightfold Path ‘Ashtanga Yoga System’, ‘ashta meaning ‘eight’ & ‘anga’ meaning ‘limb’) which ultimately can lead to bliss or enlightenment. The word Yoga (‘Yug’ in Sankrit) means to Unite or to Yoke and represents the connection between body and mind that we bring together through our practise.
The 8 Limbs of Yoga
- YAMA – Restraints, moral disciplines or moral vows.
- NIYAMA – Positive duties or observances.
- ASANA – Posture.
- PRANAYAMA – Breathing techniques.
- PRATYAHARA – Sense withdrawal.
- DHARANA – Focused concentration.
- DHYANA – Meditative absorption.
- SAMADHI – Bliss or enlightenment.
The first of the 8 Limbs of Yoga are the Yamas – the moral disciplines associated with living a Yogic lifestyle. Patanjali teaches that these guidelines for life are to be practised on all levels – through the way we behave, the way we think and the way we speak.
This Yama teaches us not to harm any creature, in thought, in the way we communicate and in action. It’s important that we also apply this moral principle to ourselves and the world around us in how we treat the planet and all living things. Practising non-violence can be as simple as noticing when you are speaking harshly to yourself & changing the way we talk to ourselves by using a compassionate voice. This Yama would also suggest we eat a vegan diet to refrain from harming any living creature and can extend to the clothing we buy and consumer choices we make. If this principle resonates with you perhaps put some time aside to consider the choices you make each day and if there is a way to practise Ahimsa when you make these daily decisions.
This Yama is simple, tell no lies, but that also applies to the things we tell ourselves. Speaking your truth is not easy, when I started teaching Yoga I struggled to find my voice in a room, to explain to my family and friends why I had left a very stable career trajectory to teach, what was then a niche practise in the West, but the lies we tell to others and to ourselves build, they grow into a web that we can become trapped inside. Being honest with yourself and those around you is freedom, it’s opening the door to who you authentically are and shining the unique light you have inside of you. One exercise I often teach in the workshops I run around Holistic Health is to write a list of 10 things you would do if you couldn’t fail and if money were no object. This list will most likely represent the things that honestly matter to you, in your heart & spirit – your personal truths.
Another not-so-simple moral principle to live by, don’t steal material objects – easy, but this Yama also relates to intangibles such as stealing someone’s peace in a Yoga class by turning up late, taking someone’s attention when they are committed to an important task or taking credit for an idea that wasn’t yours. You will find the principle of Asteya in many ancient texts including the Mahabarata (which the Bhagavad Gita is part of), the Upanishads and the Vedas. This principle is not only an ethical way to live but can apply personally by not robbing opportunities from yourself, often through limiting your self-belief or simply by making excuses. Perhaps there’s is a new class or hobby you’ve been putting off trying or a job you don’t think you’re experienced enough to apply for? There’s no better time than the present to practise Asteya…
Brahmacharya: Non-excess or non-lust.
The practise of Brahmacharya reminds us to avoid greed and excess, to be in appreciation for the abundance we have in life rather than over indulge in things we do not need. This Yama extends to the way we treat our bodies – physically, nutritionally and sexually. Traditionally, Brahmacharya also encouraged the conservation of sexual energy so this prana (energy) can instead be used in the practise of Yoga and Meditation. Traditionally brahmacharya is the virtue of celibacy when unmarried and fidelity when married but can also be understood as not being victim to your desires and practising restraint to achieve a more fulfilling life. This applies not only to over excess physically but also mentally; addiction, binge drinking, unhealthy habits & relationships as well as to material things. If this resonates why not explore this Yama and spend a few weeks practising less excess and taking a more disciplined approach to how you use your energy, keep a journal of how this effects your Yoga and Meditation practise, you may be pleasantly surprised.
Aparigraha: Non-possessiveness, non-greed & non-attachment.
The final Yama teaches us to not want more than we need. This principle perhaps applies now, more than ever and in our over saturated, high-speed, consumer driven world it can be hard not to hoard, not to live beyond our means or want a bigger house, a smarter phone or those yoga pants you’ve had your eye on… Ask yourself are these things truly important, do they enhance your wellbeing and does this way of living adhere to the lifestyle you wish to cultivate? Aparihraga also teaches us to practise non-attachment – to let go of the things we cannot control or do not serve us and to appreciate the near & now rather than being motivated by the outcome of our actions. This Yama can help us to live more presently and not to allow possessiveness, greed or attachment dictate our lives.
“Intoxication over material thing is parigraha (acquisitiveness; it takes one away from the Self), not having intoxication for material thing is aparigraha (non-acquisitiveness).”
Param Pujya Dada Bhagwan
Now I can imagine you’re thinking that introducing the Yama’s into your lifestyle sounds great in theory but impossible in practise, especially living a fast paced, demanding London lifestyle when you barely have the time to take a lunch break! Relax. We are all human. I would be breaking at least one of the Yama’s by saying that I live by these principles everyday but what is important to remember is that these are guidelines not commandments. We are in control of the choices we make every day – in how we behave, how we think and how we treat ourselves, others and the world around us.
These ancient teachings are still so relevant to the way we live today and can lead to a more fulfilling existence by taking care of our thoughts, being kind to the planet and the creatures we co-habit with, treating our bodies with respect and living in appreciation for all we have. Practising the teachings of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra’s may even help you to understand yourself on a far deeper, more authentic and honest level than you ever thought possible.
“The moment you understand yourself as the true Self, you find such peace and bliss that the impressions of the petty enjoyments you experienced before become as ordinary specks of light in front of the brilliant sun.”
― Swami Satchidananda, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: Commentary on the Raja Yoga Sutras by Sri Swami Satchidananda
The Secret Power of Yoga: A Woman’s Guide to the Heart and Spirit of the Yoga Sutras
by Nischala Devi
Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: New Edition
by Sri Swami Satchidananda
The Eight Limbs of Yoga: A Handbook for Living Yoga Philosophy
by Stuart Ray Sarbacker & Kevin Kimple
About Liz Joy Oakley
Liz Joy Oakley is Head of Vibes at MoreYoga and teaches Yoga & Meditation specializing in Yoga for Anxiety. Liz came to Yoga after being diagnosed with Malignant Hypertension and Generalized Anxiety and left the Fashion Industry to work in Wellness and help others to lead healthier lives holistically.
Liz is passionate about helping people achieve a healthier, happier lifestyle and aims to cultivate joy through her work. She now works in London facilitating workshops and events based around yoga, meditation, improving mental health, happiness, nutrition and wellbeing.