The Eight Limbs of Yoga by Kristen Keaney

The 8 Limbs of Yoga: The Yamas, Part 1

Yoga is believed to be over 5,000 years old yet has only recently gained popularity within Western cultures. Usually when we hear the word “yoga” we think in terms of Asana, or simply put: yoga poses.  Yoga is an 8-limbed path for life that was designed to help strip us of our egos and lead us to self-realization.

The “8 Limbs of Yoga” was created so we could all live from a place of authenticity, looking inward for most answers.  This system was first documented by Patanjali in the 2nd century B.C. 

Human beings are emotional creatures, and how we choose to react to these emotions says a lot about who we are as a person. I grew up in an Irish-Catholic family, so most of the time emotions were things you simply replaced with sarcasm.  Yoga teaches us not only to acknowledge our emotions, but also to own up to them, meaning not looking for outside reasons or people to blame for the things we might be feeling. It also teaches us to slow things down a bit, so we can truly feel these emotions, good or bad.

To look inward we must do so with a very honest and open mind, which brings us to the first limb of yoga: Yamas, or restraints. Yamas encourage us to get to know ourselves better, not based on our possessions, accomplishments or our stature in life but based on what we feel at a very deep and personal level.  

The best part of these “restraints” is that they don’t require us to be perfect. They’re meant to be guidelines that help us better connect to the things we do, say, and believe. They encourage us to explore our behaviors and choices at a deeper level so we can realize how our actions affect not only ourselves but those around us. Simply put, the

Yamas are meant to awaken us to the fact that we are all part of something that is greater than ourselves, and that our actions are our contributions to the world.

The 5 Yamas are not commandments or strict rules requiring mastery to achieve enlightenment. They are guidelines to help us live our lives with more satisfaction with ourselves and those that we are lucky enough to have around us. Understanding that Yamas are an integral part of your yoga practice and gradually introducing them is a great first step in your personal journey towards finding and expressing the truest form of yourself.

The first Yama is Ahimsa, or nonviolence.  Ahimsa applies to all sentient beings.  I believe that diet is a very personal matter, therefore I will choose to focus on the element of Ahimsa as it applies to our emotions and social actions.  Ahimsa is a fundamental tool that allows you to see your thoughts and actions from a place of non-judgment. Here are some helpful ways to introduce ahimsa into your daily life:  

  • Before you speak make sure your words are truthful and have good intentions (no gossiping);

  • If you feel “hatred” or “dislike” towards someone or something allow yourself the space to genuinely understand the root of the situation and think of positive ways to address it;

  • Slow down and notice your thought patterns, and try to shift to more positivity. Ahimsa applies to the way we think and speak about ourselves as well;

  • Let go of expectations of the way a pose should look in your Asana practice like and give yourself the positive space to truly feel the posture. Forcing your body into a position it's not ready for is a prime example of overlooking Ahimsa.